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On-Farm Castration: Techniques, Issues, and What’s Coming – Part One

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April 2017

Castration has many recognized benefits in animal production, but at the same time is one of the most contentious issues we face in modern times. Castrating young bulls prevents unwanted pregnancies in under-developed heifers, improves carcass quality (growth, tenderness, marbling, etc.), and decreases aggression toward pen mates and human handlers. However, the procedure is undeniably painful and causes significant stress to the animal castrated without the benefit of anesthesia or pain relievers. Human beings have been castrating male animals for thousands of years: ancient Egyptians and Greeks recognized the benefits of castration for making domesticated bovines more docile and easier to handle. Regardless, modern society has grown uneasy with the practice, and it is imperative for cattlepersons to be responsive to consumer demands.

In January 2017, US packers slaughtered 1,312,800 steers compared to only 36,200 bulls (USDA NASS). That is 36 steers for every bull! One can infer from this ratio that there are proven economic advantages to castration. In fact, the average US steer weighed 14 pounds heavier than bulls at slaughter in January 2017. Castration in cattle can be accomplished by several different procedures with the most common being surgical castration or elastic band application (“banding”). Both procedures, when performed correctly, have low incidences of complications and result in a steer who can grow out efficiently. The main factor influencing method of castration used comes down to operator preference and age/weight of bull to be castrated.

Surgical castration is the method preferred by most veterinarians and feedlot managers. This method ensures the removal of both testicles and has fewer complications when performed correctly. Age and size of the bull castrated can influence an operator’s comfort with surgical castration as older, more developed bulls will be more likely to bleed heavily. Additionally, this method requires the operator to work behind the animal with a sharp knife and the inherent risk of human injury is higher than with banding. Clean surgical castration is not associated with the risk of the animal developing tetanus post-operatively.

Elastic band castration is the method most commonly preferred by cow-calf operators in my experience. The technique involves placing a commercially available rubber band around the neck of the scrotum to effectively cut off circulation to the testicles entrapped below it. The testicles and scrotum will shrivel and fall off in 2 to 3 weeks after application of the band. This method does not put the animal at risk of hemorrhage, but does carry a higher likelihood of tetanus if the animal is not properly vaccinated. This method is also more likely to fail (band breaks, both testicles are not entrapped at time of application, or band is not placed tightly enough). More importantly, banding is more painful to the animal. Studies have shown higher peaks and increasingly prolonged elevations in “pain chemicals” in the animal’s body after banding compared to surgical castration. Banded calves take longer to return to normal behaviors and grow rates, although at the end of most comparison studies the animals end at similar weights and average daily gains. It has been shown that banded animals are more likely to get sick and have higher rates of lameness in the feedlot.

Beef Quality Assurance teaches us that male cattle not intended for breeding should be castrated before 90 days (3 months) of life. Before this timepoint, the animal’s testicles are very lowly developed and the calf is less likely to have adverse outcomes post-castration. BQA also teaches us that every provision should be made to prevent pain and distress to the animals we care for. While seemingly unorthodox to mainstream low cost production mentalities of cattle production, more and more producers are implementing pain mitigation practices at the time of castration on the farm. The hold up for farms that do not currently provide pain relief to calves may stem from one of several factors: access to veterinary care or drugs, time efficiency of procedure, or lack of concern or understanding.

Access to drugs or veterinary care: In North Carolina, castrations in cattle are not often performed by veterinarians, nor even performed under the supervision of veterinarians. Beyond this, there are not currently approved any drugs for use in cattle to relieve or prevent pain in the United States. The drugs that are commonly used are either tightly controlled by the DEA and/or are used extra-label by veterinarians. Therefore, without veterinary involvement, access to pain-relieving drugs is unlikely. In situations where a veterinarian has been consulted, the drugs that can be prescribed and used by the producer themselves are limited. As a prescribing veterinarian, I would only be able to provide a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) to a concerned farmer. A 2014 study found that calves given one dose of flunixin meglumine (a type of NSAID) at the time of surgical castration had the same outcomes as calves given saline, or in other words, there was no benefit to giving the drug at castration. Other studies looking at effects of long-term NSAID administration to castrated calves showed benefits over calves not receiving the drug. It must be pointed out that drug administration was provided for 3-7 days and began 24 hours before castration. Long-acting NSAID formulation would greatly improve our ability to provide pain-relief to castrated calves. However, provision of an NSAID at the time of castration misses one big piece of the puzzle: these drugs do nothing for the pain and distress felt at the actual time of castration. To block this experience, a producer’s hands are tied without having a veterinarian perform the castrations. The drugs necessary to prevent an animal feeling the castration procedure are only available to veterinarians and cannot be prescribed out.

Time efficiency of procedure: It is often said that working slow is the fastest way to work cattle. This, to me, means never rush to get things done when moving cattle because things are bound to derail in a hurry if you do. Regardless, I always want to get cattle up and then back to normal as quickly as I possibly can. I know that the act of penning and moving through a chute is stressful, even to cattle accustomed to being worked. Time away from pasture is time that animal is not being productive and potentially costing me money! When it comes to castrating calves, I want to minimize the amount of stress that calf has to experience. Addition of drugs and techniques to minimize pain and stress add time to the procedure on an individual animal. This additional time per calf costs more in labor and adds time that all the calves behind him have to wait before they get to go back home. All this adds up to more and more stress. While I do not think this argument is justification for not providing pain-relief to castrated calves, it is certainly a nagging thought in the back of my head as a livestock veterinarian. Many producers and veterinarians in our industry’s status quo will cite this reason as why they won’t do things differently.

Lack of understanding or concern: I do not like to admit that this is a factor in our industry. In a survey of livestock veterinarians, greater than 75% reported that they felt castration is a painful procedure. I really want to talk to the nearly 25% that did not think it was painful to try to understand their versions of reality. In that same study, only 1 in 5 respondents reported using any kind of pain-relieving drugs in cattle they castrate. I have also had producers decline my recommendation for adding pain control while at the same time wincing when they view a castration. Further, I have fielded comments like, “The average consumer doesn’t know what we do, nor really care, so why should I change the way I’m doing things?” Attitudes of indifference in the face of our own admittance that we are not doing things the best way we can are concerning. Let me be frank – castration is painful. Castrated animals will benefit from us changing our approach to this procedure in the future. Whether or not the general consuming public is concerned about castration practices is debatable. Regardless, I guarantee that if I graphically described the way a steer is made to someone four generations removed from cattle production, they would think about it the next time they went to purchase beef.

In this two-part series of articles, I am intending to “stir the pot.” Answers to this problem are yet to be found. I do not see chiasmic changes to cattle production ahead, but with global markets becoming more important than ever to our product’s success and domestic demand for humanely-raised animal proteins continuing to grow, I feel we must be proactively minded rather than reactive. Next month, I will look into new research regarding the future of castration management and attempt to offer some solutions to the issues presented here.