Are cows happier with their horns?

Only few cows kept by cattle farmers in Switzerland have horns - an integral part of the animal, according to the promoters of the initiative. Keystone

Animal welfare is at the heart of this people’s initiative on cows with horns. The promoters decry the unnecessary suffering caused by de-horning. Its opponents argue that, without their horns, animals can move around more freely.

This content was published on October 26, 2018 minutes
Marie Vuilleumier,

A symbol of Switzerland is being put to a nationwide vote: on November 25, citizens will make a decision about cows, more specifically about their horns.

The initiativeExternal link denounces the almost systematic de-horning of cattle and goats: only 10% of Swiss cows still have their horns, according to the initiators of the vote, or 25% according to the government.

The vote challenges the gap between the image that Switzerland likes to present of itself and the reality: publicity posters, tourist brochures and chocolate bars all feature cows with horns, whereas these are in fact increasingly rare. Above all, though, the debate is about animal welfare: from the de-horning of calves to the living conditions of cattle.

The Swiss are voting for the third time in a row on an issue related to agricultural production.

In September, a large majority rejected the Fair food initiative, which was aimed at promoting more sustainable agriculture, and the Food sovereignty initiative, which sought to strengthen local production. The latest ballot vote focuses on a detail of Swiss agriculture, although the debate around cows’ horns encapsulates the clash between different world views.

The man behind the initiative

It all started with a mountain farmer from the mountains of Graubünden living in the Bernese Jura region.

Armin Capaul pulled off a small miracle of direct democracy by managing to launch an initiative almost single-handed and collect the required 100,000 signatures within 18 months.

He financed the process using funds from his pension scheme and thanks to donations and other support from private individuals, animal protection groups, farmers, environmentalists, consumer organisations and adherents of anthroposophy as well as esoteric organisations.

What does the initiative demand?

The text does not call for a ban on de-horning but rather measures to encourage farmers to keep their animals’ horns. 

The initiative, entitled For the dignity of farm animals, proposes adding a sentence to Article 104 of the constitution requiring official financial support to the keepers of “cows, stud bulls, female goats, and male goats used for breeding” as long as the adult animals have their horns.

Capaul says he launched the initiative in response to the unrelenting industrialisation of the agricultural sector, which forces an overwhelming majority of farmers to cut their cows’ horns so that they can be kept in a smaller space.

He decries the procedure as heavy and painful for the animal, requiring anaesthesia and the prescription of painkillers.

Calves and goats are disbudded before the age of three weeks, with the horn bud being burned with a hot iron. Over 20% of calves continue to suffer pain in the long term, according to the initiative committee.

The initiative’s proponents argue that horns are a living attribute and integral part of the animal. Horns help cows to recognize each other and play a role in communication, digestion, body care and regulation of body temperature.

Moreover, the proponents assert, it is quite possible to raise cattle with horns in loose housing barns; they must just be given enough space to move around without stress or risk of injury.

The free choice of farmers is respected, adds the initiative committee, and the financial support from the state government can be subsumed in the overall agricultural budget.

Government stance

This initiative could have adverse effects and prove “ultimately more harmful than beneficial to animals”, according to the the governmentExternal link. Farmers, encouraged financially to leave the horns on their cows, might turn their backs on loose housing systems in favour of tie-up stalls in order to save space and avoid injuries.

This restriction of the animals’ freedom of movement and social contacts would jeopardize their well-being more than de-horning, says the economics ministry, pointing out that horns increase the risk of injury both for the herd and the farmer.

Switzerland already promotes particularly animal-friendly stockbreeding methods, paying contributions for loose housing barns and regular outdoor access.

The initiative would also curb farmers’ entrepreneurial responsibility, warns the government. The farmer knows his animals and the space available, and is therefore “in the best position to decide if he wants to keep animals with horns or without”.

This is all the more relevant as agricultural policy seeks precisely to strengthen the entrepreneurial self-determination of farmers.

The government estimates that applying this initiative would cost between CHF10 million and CHF30 million ($10-$30 million) a year. Cuts would therefore have to be made elsewhere in the agricultural budget. Registering horned animals would also entail additional costs for the cantons and the national government.

Debate in parliament

Both chambers of parliament followed the arguments put forward by the government and, by a large majority, recommended rejecting the initiative.

However, debate on the subject has been heated. The Greens and the leftwing Social Democrats tried in vain to defend the proposal by highlighting the animals’ suffering, the rare occurrence of serious accidents involving horned cows and the wish to narrow the gap between postcard Switzerland and the reality.

The vote also yielded some surprises. The House of Representatives recorded a particularly high number of abstentions from across the political spectrum, including many from the conservative right Swiss People’s Party.

Although the initiative and Capaul’s tenacity have generated much sympathy in parliament, the majority considers that existing legislation is sufficient to promote animal welfare.

The free choice of farmers, the risk of injuries and the failure to take account of genetically hornless breeds of cows were also given as justifications for rejecting the initiative.

Farmers divided

Farmers’ groups have no unanimous position on the cow horn initiative. The Swiss Farmers’ Association has decided to let its members vote as they see fit.

The association of French-speaking Swiss agricultural groups and organisations, AgorA, is advocating rejection of the text, deeming it “a form of unwelcome interventionism”. As does the Association of Women Farmers and Rural Women.

Meanwhile, the Small Farmers’ Association and Bio Suisse recommend voting yes, in order to limit zoo-technical operations as much as possible and promote forms of stock breeding that are compatible with the needs of the animals.

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