Castration debate: cutting versus banding

Many veterinarians prefer cutting if it can be done at an early age but say banding has its place in certain circumstances

Earlier is better when it comes to castration of male calves, and the method depends on its age and on producers’ preference and circumstance.

Dr. Carling Matejka, a veterinarian at Fen Vet in Airdrie, Alta., says some people prefer to band rather than cut and it may depend on age of the calf.

“Age is an easy criterion to use, but it may actually depend more on the size of the bull (and his testicles) rather than age,” she said.

“On our own farm, we switched from banding to cutting even though banding is easy on the very young ones.

“If you cut calves that are a little older than newborns, however, you will probably see better rates of gain just because they won’t have prolonged irritation and pain.”

Calves that are cut will have pain for a short time but tend to heal quickly and return to a steady rate of gain.

Banded calves are fine at first but suffer irritation and pain a few weeks later when the band cuts through the dead skin and the dried-up scrotum and testicles are ready to fall off. Also, the raw area left after it does fall off will take a few days to heal, which can cause a setback.

“There is no exact age or weight that makes the most difference, but if you can cut calves instead of banding, it usually will be worth it,” said Matejka.

Dr. Daryl Meyer, a veterinarian in North Platte, Nebraska, said castration should always be done as young as possible.

“Anyone buying feeder calves prefers them to be already castrated. If a calf is 400 pounds or more, it is very stressful to castrate at that age, with more setback in growth and gain.”

In larger animals, the testicles and the blood vessels that supply them are much larger, so some people band to avoid excessive bleeding. It also avoids an open wound if conditions are muddy and dirty or there are lots of flies.

However, castration at an early age is considered best.

“I don’t know if anyone has measured whether it’s stressful for those little calves versus castration at branding (or when vaccinating before summer pasture turnout), but we haven’t seen much setback on the young calves,” said Meyer.

“Baby calves take it in stride, and go right back to suckling and playing. Calves castrated at branding age might lie around for part of a day but usually bounce back quickly. It may make a difference how old they are at branding — whether three weeks or three months of age.”

An aggressive mother cow can make a difference for some producers who want to castrate shortly after the calf is born.

“A person may feel lucky to just put an ear tag in and get out of there, but I still say the sooner the better,” Meyer says.

Any time after a calf has suckled and bonded with mama is a good time to tag, castrate, and disbud. It is less stressful and there is less risk for serious bleeding.

Meyer says he prefers to cut rather than band, even on very young calves.

“This is the best way to make sure you get both testicles. Even though banding is simple, quick and bloodless, personally I’d rather cut them.”

That method requires clean conditions and equipment. He recommends chlorhexadine disinfectant because it doesn’t irritate. Make sure the scrotum is clean, use clean equipment and follow up with disinfectant spray, he advises. Fly repellent is also useful.

Banding may seem easier and safer because there’s no bleeding and 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 and a serious health risk. If you only get one, the animal ends up with bull characteristics,” says Meyer.

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