We have many tools at our disposal for castrating calves in the beef and dairy sectors of our industry.
Newer techniques for castration, coupled with non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) where indicated and prescribed and used together with skilled hands, will ensure welfare issues are addressed.
Much has changed in the feedlot industry over time. Cattle are not dehorned, a few may be just tipped and the polled bulls look after the rest. Cattle are not branded unless finance companies insist.
The feedlots really don’t want to castrate either and, quite frankly, it is not the place to get that done. Over the years, especially with high markets, calves identified as bulls were probably not discounted as much as they should have been.
There are also issues with hygiene, stress and the fact that most cattle entering the large feedlots are bigger. Bigger older bulls on average have bigger testicles, so right away we have compounding problems.
Producers must get better at castrating on the farm for the good of the entire value chain. I don’t think we will ever evolve to not castrating, as many European countries have done.
The smaller and younger the calf, the better, especially when it is still nursing. The rings at a day old are the easiest to do and cause the least stress. As well, producers are often handling for tagging shots as well, so it saves a procedure.
If you use a calf implant at this time, growth will be about as good as an intact bull and you don’t have the worry of castrating when older.
Older calves can be knife castrated at a few months of age at branding time before turnout to pasture. Ensure the most skilled individual is performing the castration because the quicker the procedure with a sharp scalpel or knife, the less the chance of infection, excessive bleeding or inflammation.
It is starting to become commonplace to use an NSAID such as banamine, and because of the other stressors on the calf at this time, it’s money well spent. The anti-inflammatories have come down in price and provide up to two days benefit. Younger calves still don’t weigh much and therefore require less product.
Implanting will also provide better growth and should definitely be considered.
If the knife is not used at this age (three to five months), consider a bander developed by Callicrate for these mid-sized calves. It is a mid-sized band put on the same way as bands at birth.
This technique is easy to use, but it is imperative that calves have a tetanus vaccine. Tetanus is found in some of the eight-way and nine-way clostridial (blackleg) vaccines. The two brands I am most familiar with are Covexin Plus and Tasvax 8. It should say tetanus on the label.
Calves are often given their first or second blackleg vaccine at this age, so this does not become a duplication if you make sure the blackleg vaccine contains tetanus.
Banding with the larger bands is becoming more preferable with older calves with big testicles, although it’s best not to leave them this long.
Purebred producers raising breeding bulls may not know until bulls are culled at semen evaluation time, so these larger bulls enter the feeding system and we need to do something about them.
A small study is comparing the differences between knife and banding at this age and using or not using NSAIDs, which may tell us more about which method is preferable.
I use both methods with older calves and yearlings, castrating with a knife on the smaller testicle calves and using bands on the larger calves when I am worried about bleeding. The cut calves are also covered with antibiotics and both groups receive blackleg with tetanus and a pain killer anti-inflammatory shot.
It has been found that anti-inflammatory drugs help keep calves eating with these painful procedures, so from an economic standpoint the calves do better. They are also healthier and less prone to succumb to conditions such as pneumonia and digestive upsets.
The most significant castration problems are those that end up unknown to anyone at the feedlot. These are the “belly nuts” high flankers, which are bought as steers but discovered partially intact, usually with one testicle, at the feedlot.
They are a real risk to the feedlot because they are much more difficult to cut, are usually large and staggy looking and, quite frankly, the feedlots really don’t want them. I found out recently that a large lot in the United States will turn back intact or partially intact bulls if they are discovered at processing.
Producers must work with their veterinarians to determine the most appropriate method of castration for their farms, based on age of calf, time of year and resources at their disposal.
They need to aim for as close to a 100 percent success rate as possible and use painkillers when advised. This will save needless problems down the line.
Feedlots have figured out what bulls cost them, and intact bulls coming to the auction market usually means that not much else has been provided in terms of preventive care, such as vaccinating.
If we diligently work to do the best job we can castrating and look after these calves, they will return dividends to us in the long run and animal welfare issues will be addressed.