by: Heather Smith Thomas

There are several ways to castrate calves and bulls. Regardless of the method, it's generally less stressful for the animal at a young age. Daryl Meyer, a veterinarian in North Platte, Nebraska, says that his personal preference is the earlier the better, and the cleaner the better. “I understand why some people leave their bull calves intact until later to take advantage of natural growth hormones, but I also think it is important for people to think about the next owner of those animals as being a customer, and consider what the customer wants. This applies whether you are selling heifers, bulls or steers. In this particular case, they want steers,” he explains.

“If you don't want to provide the customer with a steer and plan to sell those calves as bulls, then you must be willing to take the discount (bull calves being worth less per pound as steer calves). There are various methods/simple procedures to change that bull calf into a steer and pocket that extra money year after year, so I don't understand why people leave their calves as bulls and then sell them at a discount,” he says. There are still a lot of bull calves sold, however, for various reasons, some people just don't have a chance to handle those calves as babies and never get around to castrating them.

“Lance Henderson, who invented what's now called the Henderson tool, told me that in his feeding operation, probably 40 percent of the male calves he buys are still intact. This is frequently the case, if you are buying calves from Missouri, Arkansas and the Southeast. Nearly half the male calves coming into feedlots are bulls and have to be castrated at that time,” says Meyer.

The Henderson tool eliminates risk for bleeding when castrating bull calves or mature bulls. This tool is also being used for castrating horses. “The tool slides into a cordless drill, like a drill bit. Once you have the spermatic cord stripped down as you are removing the testicle, you just clip this apparatus onto the cord and hit the drill button. It quickly spins/twists and crushes the cord and blood vessels. Twisting them off minimizes bleeding,” says Meyer.

“The key to reducing complications in these older animals is to thoroughly open up the bottom of the scrotum when you cut them, and then use this tool. This eliminates bleeding, and if you are really clean and give the animal long-acting antibiotics you rarely get any infection.” The incision must be large enough to accommodate drainage without occluding.

“Years ago we used to bring a lot of Southeast feeder calves to Nebraska. For awhile I went from cutting with a knife to using a bander, but then felt that we had more problems (and more discomfort for the animals) using the bander than just cutting them. I went back to cutting them, even at this age—when they enter the feedlot,” Meyer says.

Castration at this age, no matter which method is used, knocks those big calves for awhile and they don't grow as well. “Even though you buy them at a discount, you are losing days of weight gain. Plus, every once in awhile—before I got Henderson's apparatus—we'd have one that wouldn't stop bleeding and we'd lose them. And there are some, particularly in a feedlot situation, even if you are being really clean, that get an infection and then you have to treat them, and you can still lose them. A few continued to bleed even though we'd clamp those vessels, and form clots. You sometimes have to catch the animal again and get back up in there and clean those clots out and deal with the resulting infection,” he explains.

“It's safer now to castrate them, using Henderson's tool, but you still have the setback on that animal—from the pain, and the time it takes for recovery from being castrated,” says Meyer.

The discount between bulls and steers may vary in different parts of the country, but there is always a discount. “By the time the calf is 500 pounds the bull calf will be about 30 pounds heavier than if he had been castrated and not implanted as a baby. So it would be logical to assume that if you castrate and implant that calf when he is young, he will be the same size as a non-castrated calf, and worth more per pound. He has a lot less stress when it's done early, and with an implant in the ear, he'll weigh just as much as the intact male at 500 pounds. The discount in price at that age will be at least $3 to $4 per hundred pounds. On a 500 pound calf you would get $15 to $20 less if he's still a bull, and it might be even less,” he says.

The only instance where it might be acceptable to wait that long to castrate a calf is when a seedstock breeder thought the calf would be part of a group of bulls to sell, and then decides the calf is not bull material. The bottom end of the bull crop may cut and sold as steers. “I feel this is the only justification for waiting that long before castrating a calf,” says Meyer.

“Lance Henderson told me that in his part of the country many of the people selling calves have town jobs, and small herds that they handle infrequently. They may gather the calves once a year and sort them to wean, and don't want to let them loose again so they just take the calves to the sale barn. This may be the only time they've ever handled those calves. I can understand this, but people do need to start thinking about the next person who owns those animals,” he says.

Comparing Methods – Most people who castrate calves as babies either band them or cut them. “Even though banding is simple, quick and bloodless, I prefer to cut them. I think the discomfort a calf endures is less, and for a shorter length of time when castrated surgically,” says Meyer. There is some discomfort and irritation from the band until the dead tissue of the scrotum dries up and falls off and the raw area heals.

“When an animal is uncomfortable, it is not gaining weight optimally. The goal is to put pounds on as efficiently as possible. The fewer days of discomfort, the better.”

The banding may be easier for some people, and they feel it is safer because there's no bleeding and possibly less risk for infection, but it must be done correctly or there are additional risks. If the band is not completely above the testicles and catches part of one, this creates on-going pain for the calf and a serious health risk. If you only get one (and the other testicle is above the band) the animal ends up being a stag, with bull characteristics.

“The banders used on larger calves are effective. The one I used for awhile did the job, but I felt that the cattle were uncomfortable for a longer period of time,” he says.

“The nice thing about cutting them is that you know for sure that you got both testicles. When cutting them young, there is also less risk for serious bleeding than when they are bigger,” Meyer says.

“It is important to keep everything clean when cutting calves. I recommend keeping equipment in a bucket of water with disinfectant such as chlorhexadine. This disinfectant has the broadest spectrum of activity (against a wide variety of pathogens) and is also non-irritating to the tissues. You also want to make sure the scrotum is clean. If it isn't, clean it first before you start. Use clean equipment, and then follow up with a disinfectant spray. If it's a time of year when there are flies, use a fly-repellent product as well,” says Meyer.

“If it's a larger, older animal, I recommend giving some long-acting broad-spectrum antibiotics, such as long-acting penicillin or tetracycline to give at least 48 hours of antibiotic protection. If the animals are in a dry-lot type environment (rather than out on clean grassy pasture where they have room to move freely) they should be daily monitored, and moved around. Just like gelding a horse, these animals need to move around to help minimize swelling and complications. If they are in a drylot without much room, it helps to move them around every day for awhile, or open the alley gate and let them go out in the alley and get some exercise.” Baby calves out on pasture with their mothers will get plenty of exercise, but older animals in a feedlot situation need to be moved around. This will help reduce the soreness and swelling.

Pain management is another issue. The Canadians are talking about requiring local anesthesia when castrating older calves. “In our situation I think we first need to get people to cut calves much earlier. This would be a huge accomplishment. Once we get that hurdle crossed, maybe then we can start looking at pain considerations. The important thing is to get them cut earlier,” says Meyer. The pain and stress is much less, and more temporary for a baby calf than when castrating a larger, more mature animal.

The main things to consider about castration are the earlier the better, the cleaner the better, and changing the mindset of stockmen to remember that the next owner is a customer—and you want that customer to be happy with what you are selling.

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