Most cows do have horns, though they are often removed to prevent injury to farmers in a process called disbudding, and some breeds have been selectively bred not to grow horns at all.
We categorize cows into three categories based on whether or not they have horns:
- Horned – This includes all cows with horns, no matter the size.
- Naturally Polled – This includes cows that are naturally born without horns.
- Genetically Polled – This includes cows that have been selectively bred so they don’t have horns.
For a general idea of which cows do and do not have horns, refer to this chart:
|Angus||No Horns. Naturally Polled.|
|Gelbvieh||Naturally Horned. Some are now Genetically Polled.|
|Hereford||Short Horns. One strain is Genetically Polled in the United States.|
|Limousin||Small Horns, usually dehorned as Calves.|
|Simmental||Horned or Polled depending on strain.|
In this article, we’ll take a look at cow horns in detail and learn what types of cows have horns and what types don’t, what they use them for in the wild, and how farmers can remove cow horns before they start growing.
Do Female Cows have Horns or only Bulls?
The stereotypical image of a raging bull with vicious horns is a well known trope. Most people are perfectly aware that bulls have horns, but what about female cows?
In horned cattle breeds, both the male and female cows will grow horns if they are not removed by the farmer while the cow is young.
Do Dairy Cows have Horns?
With some exceptions, most breeds of dairy cows are born with horns, however, for safety reasons and for the comfort of the cows, their horns are typically removed when the calves are born, before they have a chance to fully form.
Do Baby Cows have Horns?
Baby cows are not born with horns, but they quickly start to grow within a few days of birth. After a couple of weeks, small bumps will be visible on the calf’s head where the horns will soon grow.
After around two months, the new horns will be completely fused with the skull, making it extremely difficult to remove them.
For this reason, if a farmer wants to remove the horns from a calf, it’s essential to carry out the operation within the first few weeks, before the horn has a chance to fuse. The exception to this is in veal calves, who are typically slaughtered before the horns have a chance to become dangerous.
Why do some Cows not have Horns?
Although there are some rare species of cow which don’t grow horns at all, the most common reason that a cow doesn’t have horns is human intervention.
In the wild, cows use their horns to defend themselves, and to regulate their temperature. Without this defensive ability, cows’ udders and underbellies would be vulnerable to predators.
On the farm, cows are well cared for and typically have their horns removed to make them easier to transport and to protect other cattle and farm workers.
Below are the two most common forms of human intervention that leads to ‘polled’ (non-horned) cows.
1. Selective Breeding
In horned cattle herds, some cows are born with a genetic mutation which means they don’t grow horns at all.
In the wild, this would be a disaster for the cow as it would have no way to defend itself, but sometimes this is a desirable mutation in farmed livestock.
Cows without horns in a typically horned breed are called polled cows, and some breeds have been specifically bred to encourage this mutation.
Other breeds like Aberdeen Angus are descended from naturally polled cows and thus have no horns.
2. Disbudding (Removing the Horns)
Disbudding is the name given to the process of removing the horns from a newborn calf, while their horns are still in development and haven’t yet permanently fused with the skull.
This is typically a painful process which needs to be managed with anesthetics and painkillers, but it greatly improves safety for farm workers and comfort for the cows.
Cows are disbudded to ensure that they don’t pose a danger to the farmer or to other cattle, and so that they can more easily fit in farm machinery like milking parlors and cattle transport.
If a cow is not disbudded before it’s around two months old, the horn will fuse with the skull and the process to remove the horns becomes very difficult and dangerous for the cow. This process is called dehorning and is banned in many parts of the world for animal welfare reasons.
Why do Cows have Horns?
Cows horns have a number of uses, and are more important than you might think just by looking at them.
1. Self Defense
Modern cows owe their horns to their ancient buffalo ancestors.
While modern cattle don’t have to deal with lions or crocodiles, their horns are still a vital tool for defending themselves against predators.
In a 2019 report, the Queensland Dept of Agriculture and Fisheries lists Wild Dogs, Foxes, and even wild Pigs as possible dangers to livestock.
Cows are large and lumbering, so without horns to defend themselves they would be an easy target.
2. Social Interaction
Cows are highly emotional, and use their horns to establish a social pecking order within the herd.
Males butt horns to fight for access to the best females and foraging grounds.
Though it seems counter-intuitive, without horns bulls often butt heads, which can lead to more serious injuries for them than clashing horns would.
3. Thermal Regulation
Cows’ horns are connected to their sinuses and are full of soft tissue. Cows horns provide thermal regulation, similar to ear lobes in human beings.
When cows overheat, more blood is pumped into the soft tissue in their horns to be cooled faster.
Most cows are born with horns, including female cows and dairy cows, with some exceptions for naturally and genetically polled breeds.
Though cows are a horned species, in agricultural settings many cows have their horns removed when they are very young to reduce the risk of injury to the farmer and to other livestock.
There is a rare genetic mutation which prevents some cows from growing horns, even if they are from a breed which typically does have horns. This mutation is called polledness and has been exploited by farmers to create some hornless cattle which are easier to farm.
The best known example of a hornless cow is the Aberdeen Angus, which is highly prized for its meat.