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By Karen Davis-Brown Originally published in the Winter 2011 issue of Biodynamics.
December 22, 2016
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Long story short: Biodynamic is the new organic, and you need to get behind it, like,

Why Do Cows Have Horns?

If cows are born with horns, doesn't that mean they need them?

Should cows keep their horns? Swiss citizens think so and are supported by independent research which shows the importance played by cows horns in aiding digesting and regulating temperature. This is something known since the birth of Biodynamic agriculture created by Austrian spiritual scientist Rudolf Steiner and this report demonstrates why cows need to keep their horns.

Biodynamic agriculture is holistic agriculture that respects the individual species' needs in keeping and feeding animals. This is important, not only for animal welfare, but also for the natural balance of the whole farm, and soil fertility. This is exemplified in the case of cow horns.

One doesn’t actually see cows with horns all that often anymore. In fact, it seems almost normal that cows don’t have them. Cows on biodynamic or Demeter farms, however, are whole cows. They are allowed to keep their horns.

Delicate at first, then majestic

The newly born calf shakes its head. The ears, still soaking wet, are already active, listening. The whole body with all the sense organs is completely developed, nothing is missing. The eyelids are open, revealing big eyes, looking around in amazement. One or two hours later, the calf is already up on its four legs looking for the mother’s udder to suck the first milk. Everything is already there and everything works. Only the horns will appear later.

The horns grow gradually. They start out delicately when the calf is three months old and already eating grass and hay. The horns are often beautifully formed, curved more strongly as the cow grows older, and eventually turning into a majestic headdress. During the cow’s whole life this extremely hard organ keeps growing in size and perfection.

Shaping the social space

Every herd of cows have their individual hierarchy; they constitute a social structure. As the horns slowly continue to grow, the animal also becomes a part of this social environment. It is no longer the small calf, looking for protection, but is turning into the sovereign queen of the herd. The cow proudly bears its beautifully shaped horns, and a simple movement of its head can interfere with the hierarchy of the herd. Thus the horns are essential for the animals in creating their social space. A cow with horns is an image of pride and beauty. As social organs, the horns allow cows to find, and keep, a tentative balance between being an individual animal, and being a part of the herd.

Letting nature unfold itself instead of removing the horns

It is essential to biodynamic farming that animals can live a good life, growing and developing according to their species’ need, including bearing their horns. Stables, pens and technical equipment are designed to serve those needs. If horn-bearing animals do not have the necessary space, the herd's social balance may be disturbed.

Cows without horns become nervous and even aggressive. Without horns, Cows need less space, therefore stables will cost less. Cows usually have their horns removed for financial or space-related reasons. This is normally done through burning away the onset of the horns when calves are still young.

Recently, new breeds of cows without horns have also been introduced. Either way, people take something away from the animal that is a natural part of the cow. Experience shows that there are no problems with horn-bearing cows, provided they have enough space in their stables.

The 20th Century practice of de-horning animals is is based more on economics than ethical or natural.

Rational for: Dehorning

  • Horns may cause injuries to handlers or other cattle.
  • Horned livestock take up more space.
  • Horned livestock may require specialist equipment, such as feeders and cattle crushes.
  • In some breeds and in some individuals, horns may grow towards the head, eventually causing injury.
  • Horns may become broken, causing blood-loss and potential for infection.
  • Horned livestock may become trapped in fences or vegetation.


Rational for: Remaining Horned

  • Horns are needed by the animal for thermo-regulation and cooling.  They are also a contributing factor in the animals natural biology and immunity.  
  • Horned livestock are better able to defend themselves and their young from predators such as wolves and dogs.
  • Horns provide a secure point for roping or holding the animal's head.
  • Horns are traditional in some breeds, and breed standards may require their presence (for example, Texas Longhorn, Scottish Highland and White Park cattle).
  • In some areas horns are of cultural significance, often being decorated or even trained into strange shapes.  Horns are a huge part of the cows sacredness.
  • Some types of yokes used by oxen require the presence of horns.
  • Dehorning takes time and costs money.