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Beef 911: We need to do better when it comes to castration

Doing it early and properly brings benefits to the producers, addresses animal welfare concerns, and prevents problems later on

We now have many tools at our disposal when it comes to castration of calves in the beef and dairy sectors of our industry. When used together in skilled hands, newer techniques at castration along with NSAIDs (non steroidal anti-inflammatories) will insure welfare issues are addressed.

Much has changed in the feedlot industry. Cattle are not dehorned — a few may be just tipped and the polled bulls look after the rest. Cattle are not branded unless required by finance companies for border crossings, or by community pastures. 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 be. Bigger older bulls on average have bigger testicles so right away we have compounding problems.

For the good of the whole value chain and the cattle industry, producers must get much better at castrating on farm. I don’t think we will ever evolve to not castrating as many European countries do. The smaller and younger the calf the better, especially when he is still nursing. Using rings when they are a day old is the easiest method and it causes the least stress. And since it can be done when tagging and giving shots, it doesn’t take much additional time. 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 its older.

But there are too many ‘belly nuts’ showing up in our Canadian feedlots. We must all examine how these apparent misses happen and what can be done to prevent them.

Many producers may not even realize they are shipping some steer calves with a retained testicle. If we go back to castration time, we may discover where the errors are happening. If you’re using bands at birth and a testicle has not descended, that calf should be left, marked, and rechecked later. You always need to recheck once the band is released to make sure both testicles are still contained in the scrotum. You may want to ensure the person processing the newborn calves has time without an overly aggressive mother cow in close proximity. We do more things now to newborns, including vaccinating, so we must take our time and do it right (including castrating).

Older calves can be knife castrated at a few months of age at the proverbial ‘branding time’ before the turnout to pasture. Ensure the most skilled individual is performing the castration. 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 where a NSAID — such as banamine or meloxicam (s.c. or oral) — is given. Because of the other stressors on the calf at this time, it is money well spent. The anti-inflammatories have come down in price and provide up to two days benefit. Since younger calves don’t weigh as much, less product is required. Implanting will also provide better growth and should definitely be considered.

If the knife is not used at this age (three to five months) a bander has been developed by Callicrate for these middle-sized calves. It is a middle-sized band put on the same way as bands at birth. This technique is easy to use but be warned, it is imperative 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 or Tasvax 8 (it should say tetanus on the label). At this age calves are often given their first or second blackleg vaccine, so this does not become a duplication. But just make doubly sure the blackleg vaccine contains tetanus. Ideally they should be given the tetanus vaccine two weeks before the stressful event.

For older calves with big testicles, banding with the larger bands is becoming the more preferable route — although best not to leave them this long and tetanus is a real problem. 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. Currently there is a small study comparing the differences between and knife and banding at this age and using or not using NSAIDs which may tell us more about which method is preferable. In my experience with older calves to yearlings I use both methods castrating with a knife on the smaller-testicled calves and using bands on the larger calves where I am worried about bleeding. The cut calves are also covered with antibiotics and both groups receive blackleg with tetanus and a painkiller anti-inflammatory shot. It has been found that with all these painful procedures the anti-inflammatory drugs help to keep the calves eating. So from an economic standpoint the calves do better. They are also healthier and less prone to succumb to things such as pneumonia or digestive upsets.

The real problem at the feedlot are the ‘belly nuts’ high flankers, which get bought as steers but are discovered partially intact (usually one testicle) at the feedlot. These are a real risk to the feedlot as they are much more difficult to cut as they are usually very big and staggy looking. Quite frankly the feedlots really don’t want them. I found out recently that a very large lot in the U.S. will turn back intact or partially intact bulls if they are discovered at processing.

We all as producers must work with our veterinarian as to the most appropriate method of castration for our farm based on age of calf, time of year, and resources at our disposal. We need to aim for as close to 100 per cent 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 learned that often not much else preventative wise (such as vaccinating) has been done to these calves.

If we diligently work to do the best job we can when castrating and look after these calves they will return dividends to us in the long run; animal welfare issues will be addressed; and the entire industry will benefit.

About the author

Columnist

Roy Lewis practised large-animal veterinary medicine for more than 30 years and now works part time as a technical services veterinarian for Merck Animal Health.

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