Beginning Farmer: What Makes a Horned Cow?

Recently five cattle got out from small hobby farmer, in a nearby town. The reporting on it was funny to me, as no one seemed to know what to call them. Our local “newspaper” had a headline that read, “5 Texas Longhorn bulls escape from owner, roam around Johnsburg and Spring Grove”. I read that and told my husband, “I can almost guarantee that they weren’t all bulls”. He pointed out that seeing the horns, I’m sure many think they are bulls. So let’s provide some clarification if you didn’t know that either!


Penny, our Jersey milk cow, has horns. When cattle have no horns but their breed is normally horned, they are called a "polled" beef. Polled can also mean that through selective breeding the cattle will naturally not grow horns, such as an Angus.  With Penny, for her breed, both the boy and girls have horns. There is no distinguishing them based on their horn characteristics. Holsteins (the dominant commercial milk cow) are another breed that has horns, but is typically polled (or disbudded). When a calf who will have horns is born, they have two little nubs at the top of their head. At the larger dairy operations, the farmer will put a paste on the calves’ horns to stop the growth. It works similar to acid and eats away at the horn. After six weeks of age the horn attaches to the skull and the paste can do significant damage to the calf.

When we got Penny the former owner wasn’t exact on her date of birth but said about 4-6 months of age. The former owner did not put the paste on her. She would definitely be too old to put the paste on. Some farmers will put weights on horns to help them grow down, so they aren’t as dangerous to the rest of the herd. Since horns are like fingernails we could also file them down if we wanted to. Since Penny is a jersey her horns will not get too long. A Texas Longhorn is another story.


I studied abroad in Scotland. There’s a popular cattle breed called a “Highland Coo” (pronounced in the Scottish dialect) but here in America we call them Highlanders. These fuzzy cattle often have longer horns as well. When I studied abroad in Edinburgh there was (supposed to be) two Highlanders in a pasture that the public would go and visit. Prior to my trip one of the Highlanders accidentally stuck their friend in the eye. The eye got infected and they had to put the friend down. This is a risk of having horns on the cattle.

When Penny had her calf I asked a question on a cow Facebook group. With some helpful advice and a lot of people telling me I was doing it wrong, one person commented and said, “Remove that calf from her and make it a bottle baby. Or else you are going to wake up with a gored calf’. Obviously unhelpful advice. But there are some people out there, and maybe they have learned this the hard way, who would rather us traumatize Penny and stunt the calf’s growth, on the off chance Penny might hurt her calf with her horn. David and I were obviously not comfortable with this. But this is a risk we take by allowing Penny to have her horns.


So I’m sure those 5 loose cattle were not all bulls, they were just Texas Longhorn, and they have large horns for show. They might have been too old, like Penny, to have their horns removed, or their owners could like the way they look. Having horned cattle carries with it some risks, but with certain breeds like Texas Longhorns and Highlanders, the horns give those cattle a pretty distinct look!