There are numerous reasons for bull calf castration beyond reducing sexual activity and reproduction. Bulls are naturally aggressive and so castration becomes necessary for the herd’s welfare and the protection of those that work with them. Bulls exhibit a lower-quality, inconsistent, tougher, less marbled carcass than steers. They also deliver a much larger number of dark cutters due to higher pH levels in the muscle, producing a visually unappealing dark red or purple beef.
Castration can be one of the most stressful and painful experiences for livestock, based on measurements of blood cortisol concentrations and the level of brain neurotransmitters associated with pain. Studies of calves castrated age one to seven days show essentially no pain-associated behaviours. Blood plasma cortisol level tests are virtually the same as those calves left intact. Calves castrated as young as 24 hours of age show a reduced stress level and a lower level of sickness.
I recently spoke with Dr. Trevor Hook, veterinarian of Central Veterinarian Clinic at Ponoka, Alta., about the difference in age and methods used.
“Our opinion here at Central Vet is that it’s better to do them earlier, in the first week of life, although that can be challenging as the testicles are small and banding is probably the way to go when you are doing them at that age,” Hook said.
He acknowledged this wasn’t practical for all producers with a lot of different things going on at calving time. Plus it can be difficult to make sure both testicles are in the band.
If it’s not possible for producers to castrate at the newborn stage, study results suggest castrating at the first handling opportunity. When calves are castrated at weaning or upon arrival at the feedlot, research shows a reduced weight gain in these animals.
When castrating bull calves at an older age, other factors come into play. Hook emphasized the need for good handling systems to lower the overall stress of the calves, but also to help ensure the safety of both the cattle and the people handling the animals. With older calves at weaning and especially in older bulls, Central Vet Clinic recommends surgical techniques as the optimal means of castration.
“They are not in pain as long, and they have shown that they don’t lose as much weight. They are not off their feed as long, obviously with the appropriate pain management,” said Hook.
He went on to discuss the difference in health and sickness they have seen at the vet clinic when it came to castration of newborns versus calves at weaning or older ages.
“Doing it surgically, ideally with a vet, is the best with the big calves. I’ve seen a lot of wrecks,” said Hook. “Vets can use more potent drugs and block the testicles, making sure they heal up well and fast.”
Hook has seen older bulls that were castrated in the spring and didn’t gain weight all summer because they fought with the chronic repercussions of a bad surgery. Newborn calves, on the other hand, tend to carry on with normal activities after the initial procedure is completed.
Michelle Arnold, a large ruminant extension veterinarian at the University of Kentucky, cites a research study in her writings showing a potential doubling of the sickness rate in comparison to steers, with an average of 28 per cent on incoming steers compared to 60 per cent in calves castrated at that age.
On the topic of pain management for castration, Hook and his fellow veterinarians at the Central Vet Clinic recommend the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs currently in use including Meloxicam, Metacam and similar drugs Flunixin and Banamine to buffer against pain and inflammation.
When the clinic works with older cattle and excessively large testicles, they like to use lidocaine to block the testicles with freezing before completing the surgical procedure. In this scenario, they use drugs not generally available to producers.
Hook recommends using pain medications during castration in all ages of calves, including newborns. The medications will “block the inflammatory process making them more comfortable and they will recover faster,” he said.
These pain control drugs are available to producers on a prescription basis. Hook said they strive to “understand each individual producer’s operation, number of calves and cattle, and ensure they are adequately trained on administering the medications with the proper dose to reach a comfort level.”
The Alberta Farm Animal Care Beef Code of Practice states that as of January 2016, pain control was to be used in castration of all bulls nine months and older, Hook noted. As of January 2018, this was updated to include pain control in all bulls six months of age and older, he added.
Although almost non-existent in years past, pain control in cattle, and specifically for castration purposes, has been growing widely in use, through the mandates of Animal Care Codes of Practice and the changing views of the more informed public. Castrating bull calves as young as possible with the use of pain control is becoming a common practice.
“Overall in our producers, I’d say the majority are using them (pain controls) because there is a benefit,” said Hook. “Both dairy and beef producers are using it, even in the newborn calves.”