From the June issue of Cow/Calf Producer.

Make no bones about it — Gary Patton knows the value in early castration of beef calves. The former order buyer and now cow-calf producer has been on the other side of the fence.

Earlier this spring, Patton calved out 76 cows in 25 days. And at 18 to 36 hours old, calves were tagged and, if they were lucky enough to be a bull, banded at the same time.

“A steer calf is worth more than a bull calf,” he says, simply.

Yet, the Arkansas cattleman’s philosophy goes beyond that of having more money in his pocket.

“I think it’s a whole lot easier on you and the calf,” Patton explains.

Patton isn’t alone in his thinking.

According to Dr. Clyde Lane, 2014 National Cattlemen’s Association Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) Educator of the Year and University of Tennessee professor emeritus, the sooner castration can be done, the better.

“One of the big things we’re interested in with the BQA program is trying to reduce the amount of stress on an animal.”

Less stress is what early castration is all about. “By doing the castration early, that alleviates added stress on the calf as it ages,” Lane says. “The larger that animal gets, the more stressful it is, the more loss of weight the calf will encounter because he will never be able to make up that amount of time it takes to get over the stress of castration.”

Early castration also means greater opportunity for a healthy calf later on.

“A stressed calf will not get the level of immunity that a calf will when not stressed by castration at weaning time,” Lane says. “There’s a health issue over and above that of castration.”

Updated castration guidelines

Castration of bull calves is an economically important management practice for the cow-calf producer, according to Lane. Feeder-cattle buyers prefer the quieter dispositions of steers and the ease with which those animals are handled while in the feedlot.

The American Association of Bovine Practitioners (AABP) updated its castration guidelines last fall. According to Dr. John Davidson, AABP president and senior professional services veterinarian, beef cattle, Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica, Inc., the guidelines are put in place to assist veterinarians with enhancing the welfare of cattle for their clients by providing information on how best to approach castration of calves on beef and dairy farms.

“Generally speaking, early castration using the proper technique for the chosen method and incorporating pain mitigation when available is encouraged,” Davidson explains.

The AABP guidelines call for castration to be performed by 120 days of age. However, purebred operations may delay the procedure further to allow proper time for the selection of future bulls, in which case the appropriate recommended procedures and pain mitigation practices should be used.

Use of a rubber ring or surgical removal are the preferred methods of castration recommended by the AABP. Overall, AABP lists the most appropriate method of castration as the one being in the best interest of the health and well-being of the animal, as determined by a veterinarian, within the environment in which it’s being raised.

“As with any herd health input, careful consideration must be given to the limitations unique to each ranching operation,” Davidson says. “Our goal with these guidelines is to provide the information necessary to promote the benefits of proper technique and pain mitigation. As with any proposed health practice, adoption is often hampered by limitations in labor, facility and awareness of the benefits of such a change.”

Why age matters

While castration is widely practiced throughout the beef industry, timing and method used vary considerably among producers. Generally, the beef industry advocates that calves be castrated as soon as possible after birth. The overall belief is that castration in young, sexually immature calves brings less of a stress response and reduces the risk of castration-associated blood loss and potential for infections.

The other side of the coin, however, finds producers concerned that castrating too early reduces growth rates in bull calves from birth to weaning.

A University of Florida study examined the issue of age at castration and its impacts on growth rate and weaning weight in nursing calves. The study also included a comparison between Angus and Brangus calves in the treatment groups to determine if there was a breed by castration effect.

Ninety-two intact Angus and Brangus bull calves born between Dec. 18, 2009, and March 28, 2010, were included in the study. Cow-calf pairs were divided by calf birth date, calf breed and dam age, and then randomly assigned to one of two treatment groups — early (n=51) and late (n=41) castration.

All bull calves in the study were surgically castrated using the Newberry Knife to incise the scrotum, and traction was used to remove the testes from the scrotum. Bull calves castrated early (n=23 Angus; n=28 Brangus) were a mean age of 36 days at castration on March 1, 2010 and April 23, 2010. Those late-castrated bulls (n=15 Angus; n=26 Brangus) had a mean age of 131 days at castration on June 16, 2010, and June 17, 2010. All calves were weighed once per month beginning in May until weaning in August. The study was conducted at the University of Florida Boston Farm-Santa Fe River Ranch Beef Research Unit.

Both early- and late-castration treatments were performed prior to weaning and the onset of puberty. The concept of delayed castration is to leave male calves intact long enough to capture the benefits of

Table 1. The effect of age at castration on calf growth performance
    Treatment*    
Item Early Late SE** P-value
Birthweight, lb. 80 81 2.40 0.83
Weaning weight, lb. 456 452 11.50 0.76
Weight per day of age, lb. 2 2 0.06 0.24
Adjusted 205-d weaning weight, lb. 512 504 8.90 0.51
Body weight change, lb.        
     May to June 77 75 4.70 0.79
     June to July 86 82 3.60 0.40
     July to August  100 96 4.30 0.55
     May to August 176 171 5.90 0.49
Average daily gain, lbs./day        
     May to June 2.32 2.27 0.14 0.79
     June to July 2.06 1.96 0.09 0.39
     July to August  1.65 1.59 0.07 0.54
     May to August 1.88 1.82 0.06 0.49
     Birth to weaning 2.00 1.92 0.05 0.19
* Early castrated (average age at castration = 36 days)        
*Late castrated (average age at castration = 131 days)        
** Standard error (n=92)        
Source: University of Florida Extension Service        

endogenously secreted androgens known to stimulate growth in animals. Still, to capture the full benefit, castration would most likely need to be delayed until calves approach puberty.

As outlined in Table 1, no differences were observed in bodyweight change and average daily gain during the trial period. The bottom line is that calves castrated at or near birth overcame any potential growth delays related to castration by the time the bodyweight measurements were initiated. And, early castrates did not seem to experience any significant disadvantage in growth because of the treatment throughout the trial period.

Florida research further suggests producers have some flexibility in determining when to implement castration. Castration completed at or shortly after birth will not have a detrimental effect on calf performance or ultimate weaning weight.

How to get the job done

“Just after the calf is born is an excellent time for castration,” Lane reiterates. However, he cautions producers to be wary of over-protective mothers during this time.

Hay rings and special attachments for four-wheelers can be used as protective barriers, as well as pick-up truck beds, and can assist cattlemen in tagging and castrating newborn calves.

Opponents of early castration fear loss of testosterone. Lane says that can be alleviated by using a calf implant. “Research says that calf will be as heavy at weaning as if it had been left as a bull,” he explains.

For purebred breeders, Lane suggests castration be completed by the time the calf is 3 months old. “Usually by then, the producer has a pretty good idea of which bulls will be saved and which ones won’t,” he explains. “Go ahead then and take that bottom cut and castrate them. Again, there’s a lot less stress at 3 months of age than at 7 or 8.”

Despite their shared belief in early castration, Lane and Patton differ in their preferred method.

“I personally like the idea of being able to band, castrate and tag a calf all at the same time,” Patton explains. “It’s a lot easier on the calf to do the castration shortly after birth than it is to do it when he’s 300 to 600 pounds when it’s hot and when the flies are out.”

The bander or elastration method places a rubber band around the neck of the scrotum. The band is applied using a forceps-like instrument. As the rubber band is placed around the scrotum, the testicles should be pulled down so the band is between the testicles and the point where the scrotum attaches to the groin. This cuts off the blood supply and the scrotum and testicles slough off in about three weeks.

Lane, on the other hand, is a firm believer in the Newberry Knife. “It’s so much safer,” he says. “Razor blades, knives — it only takes a twist or kick, momma to get after us, then we end up possibly injuring ourselves or the calf.”

He describes the Newberry Knife as similar to a pair of pliers, containing a blade about 2 inches across when closed. It works by cutting the scrotum, which has a front and back half (two flaps). “You get excellent drainage with this,” Lane says.

As with any tool, though, it must be used properly. “(Castration) has to be performed so you cut from basically one leg to the other,” Lane explains, “across the scrotum, cutting both sides of the scrotal sack.”

Lane compares using the elastration method to putting a rubber band tightly around his finger. “After a few minutes,” he says, “you’re going to take it off your finger because it hurts.”

Recovery begins instantly once that initial cut is made, Lane says. “You also have a greater tendency for tetanus infection with the bander method, regardless of age.”

A clean environment is desirable when completing castration, Lane says. Applying a disinfectant and fly spray repellant also aid in reducing stress on the animal.

All in all, Lane says waiting until a bull calf is 700 or even 800 pounds to castrate adds an incredible amount of stress to the animal.

Customer satisfaction

BQA guidelines call for producers to practice early castration, completing the task between birth and 4 months of age.

Patton recalls telling the buyer of some cow-calf pairs he was selling he wouldn’t find a bull calf in the bunch.

“The buyer of the pairs sure liked the idea of purchasing the steer calves rather than bulls,” Patton notes.

In a day and time when customer satisfaction comes from both sides of the fence, following BQA protocol and early-castration methods go a long way in making good business for cow-calf producers — whether for other cattlemen or beef-eating consumers.

“We’ve got to do things different than granddaddy used to do them,” Patton says. “It’s a different day and time. We’ve got to change with the times.”

Patton says producers must ask themselves how much money they want to make in the business. “I read a market report recently. Weaned calves were worth $20 per hundredweight higher than non-weaned calves. An order buyer would rather buy a steer calf than a bull calf. He’s worth from $5 to $15 a hundred more.”

He continues, “How much do you want to make? Do you want to sell a calf for $700 or do you want to sell a calf for $1700? It’s your choice.”

Author’s Note: The American Association of Bovine Practitioner’s Guidelines for Castration can be found online here.