Is it true that all bulls have horns, and cows never do?
Or is this a myth that has been perpetuated by those who have mistakenly assumed this is the case by what they've only been able to see in the media?
With a significant number of people who have never set foot on a farm before, and with most don't have direct contact with a farmer, it should come to no surprise that the only information these people may get about cows and cattle is from media sources like books, television, and website articles and videos.
From that it's pretty easy to explain why this is quite a common myth. When most people see cows in the media, they are very commonly seeing the black-and-white Holstein dairy cows. And 99% of the time, those cows that get to appear on TV have no horns.
As far as bulls are concerned, the only bulls folks are most likely to see are those Spanish Fighting bulls running the streets on TV, as a traditional occurrence prior to those animals entering the bull fighting ring whether they are often brutally killed. These cattle are always guaranteed to have horns.
Thus, based on those observations, you can see how it's easy to assume that only bulls have horns, and cows do not.
But that is simply not true.
The truth behind the myth is that not all bulls have horns. As a matter of fact, all cattle have the capability of having horns! That means cows, steers, heifers, and bulls may (or may not) have horns.
Newborn calves are the only ones that do not have horns because it would be at a distinct disadvantage to the cow at calving. Horns are sharp, and if a calf started growing horns while still in the womb, it would cause extensive tearing to the uterine and vaginal walls, resulting in the cow dying of internal bleeding. A newborn calf has tiny horn buds instead when born, which begin growing out as actual horns when they are older (usually around 5 to 6 months of age).
There are two major factors that determine whether or not a bovine will have horns:
2. Manual dehorning
Genetics plays probably the most significant role in determining whether a bovine is "naturally" predisposed to being horned, or being polled. To be more scientific, the horn gene for cattle is not, what's called "sex-linked." In other words, the horn gene is never only found on the Y (male) chromosome. Instead, the genetics of horns is determined by what genes the dam (mother) and the sire (father) will pass on to their offspring. This is irregardless of what sex--male or female--the bovine is.
In European cattle (it gets more complicated for Zebu-type cattle, which I won't get into here), horns can only occur in offspring of both the sire and dam are horned. This is because the polled gene is dominant to the horned gene. If both sire and dam are polled, there may be a chance that the offspring will come out horned; that's only if both parents also carry the recessive horned gene along with the dominant polled gene. But if both sire and dam carry all-polled genes, or even if just one parent is "homozygous" polled, then all offspring will come out polled. Things, of course, get a little more complicated than that, so I would recommend you to check out this link from North Carolina State University on Inheritance of Polledness, Horns, and Scurs of Beef Cattle.
One thing you should note in that link above, is that the only instance of cows not having horns, and bulls having horns instead (in some instances), is actually (and only) with Zebu-type cattle. This genetic capacity, though, is not found in European cattle.
Most breeds of cattle in the world have horns. By comparison, there are only a few breeds that are naturally polled, such as Angus, Galloway, American White Park, and Red Poll. The horned breeds are largely horned--or kept horned--for a variety of reasons. These range from aesthetics--to keep with the characteristic "look" of that particular breed, like with Texas Longhorns--to a means to protect themselves and their young from predators.
As a matter of fact, horned cows are better adapted in remote areas where humans are not around to protect them regularly, because they have the means to fend off predators when the need arises. I'm not sure on what the science is for calf losses or death losses from horned cattle versus polled cattle, but anecdotal evidence would suggest that the odds are definitely more in the favour of those cows with horns than those that are polled.
Some science has suggested that horns are also important to help regulating body temperature, particularly for those animals in hot and humid climates.
Many cattle are also kept horned because people feel it unnecessary or even cruel to dehorn. However, there are distinct advantages to dehorning, or even "disbudding" young calves.
Cattle that are dehorned or disbudded are usually done so for safety reasons: Safety of the people needing to be in very close proximity to them on a regular basis, and for other animals. It doesn't take much for a horned cow, with sharp horns to gore another animal--or even a human--even when they don't mean to. This is especially a risk when cattle are routinely kept in confinement in close proximity to one another, where the cow being gored or prodded cannot escape when they need to. It's an even greater risk when cattle are in stressful situations, and in confinement. This is why most dairy operations--those that are intensive confinement--make it a best management practice to make sure all cows are dehorned, or heifers that are going to be raised as replacements for the dairy operation, are disbudded.
Otherwise, extra precaution needs to be stressed when a farmer has to work with horned cattle, to minimize injury to him-/herself and other animals as much as possible. That means handling cattle in a calm, quiet manner, and not allowing them to endure more stress than they have to when things like pregnancy-checking and vaccinations need to be done.
Here's a fun fact for you: Very few horned cattle tend to get themselves stuck in a fence or entangled in brush. This is primarily because they really do know the breadth and size of their own horns, and are remarkably intelligent in figuring out how to maneuver their horns through--and even around--seemingly tight spaces. Cattle are actually a lot smarter about getting their horns through a tight, narrow space than a dog is trying to get a big stick through a door! I have heard of a few stories where, for instance, a rancher had watched one of his Texas Longhorn cows tilt her head just right so that she could walk right through a space scarcely no bigger than the width of her body, and too tall for her to just raise her head up at the right height. Turns out she had a horn span of over 5 feet long!
The lesson here is, therefore, is that you should never use presence of horns to determine if the animal you are looking at is a cow or bull, or even a steer or heifer. Instead, you're better off looking away from that set of horns to look more to, instead, what's between their legs, on their belly, or even under their tail.
Here's some photos to give you a good look into why and how cattle vary by horned versus polled, and it's not dependent (except in some Zebu cattle) by sex.
Here's the thing: If you see a calf suckling from what looks to you like a "bull" (because it's a bovine and has horns), chances are you are looking at a cow (a mature, female bovine) caring for her calf.
The cattle and breeds shown here are just a smidgen of what's really out there. Because of space and time (at least mine having to go look for good photos), I didn't include other breeds like Red Angus, British White, American White Park and Red Poll for naturally-polled cattle, and Charolais, Beefmaster, Limousin, Brown Swiss, Holstein, Jersey, and many others to choose from for horned breeds.
I hope by now that you understand that the myth that only bulls have horns is just that, a myth!
Range Nerd, Forage & Grazing Fanatic and a Bovine Enthusiast. A love for farming, and for the soil.
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