By Heather Smith Thomas
The best age and method for castrating calves may vary, depending on your situation. Some stockmen feel that a calf should be allowed to grow all summer before being castrated, since calves grow faster as bulls. The hormones of the young bull enable him to gain weight and breed definition more quickly than a steer of the same age. But on the other hand, steers may produce better quality beef, if you intend to sell or butcher the animal for beef.
Some people also have a preference regarding whether a knife or a “rubber band” is the best way of castrating calves. Whichever method is used, the animal must be adequately restrained for castration.
It is true that young bulls grow a little faster than steers, due to hormonal influences on growth. It is also true that the meat from steers is sometimes better quality. Steer meat is less apt to be dark colored and tough due to stress and excitement at the time of butchering, since steers tend to be more docile and calm than bulls.
Any bull calf that is not destined to become a herd sire should be castrated. Longhorn breeders who are trying to produce animals with spectacular horns prefer to castrate any bull calf they don’t intend to keep for breeding, since the steer of this cattle breed grow the longest horns.
Most stockmen castrate bull calves early in life. The procedure is not only much easier on calves when they are small, but cattle handling is easier with steers than young bulls as they grow up. Steers are less aggressive, and much safer to be around. As the calf grows up, he’ll be less apt to try to get through fences and go find other cattle, if he is a steer.
The simplest and most humane way to castrate, and with less risk of infection or extensive bleeding, is to put a “rubber band” (elastrator ring) on the calf when he is a day or so old. This can be done any time during the first weeks of life. These strong rubber rings can be purchased cheaply at a farm supply store or veterinary clinic. The ring is about the size and shape of Cheerios cereal. The tool to apply the rubber ring has four small prongs upon which you place the ring. The tool spreads and stretches the ring when you squeeze the handles, so it can be placed over the testicles and situated above them.
This can be readily accomplished with a small calf simply by placing him on the ground on his side, having someone hold his head and front legs so he can’t get up. Kneeling behind him so he can’t kick you with his hind legs, hold the scrotum with one hand and place the ring over it, using the stretching tool. Always make sure both testicles are in the scrotum before situating the ring. Pull them down as far as possible so they are completely below the ring when it is released. If the calf is tense or trying to kick, he may pull one or both testicles back up out of your grasp. He must be relaxed.
The tight ring cuts off circulation to the scrotum. The calf feels some numbing discomfort for a short while, and then no pain at all. Tissue below the constricting ring dies from lack of blood, the scrotal sac and its contents wither and dry up, falling off after a few weeks — leaving a small raw spot that soon heals.
Surgical castration with a knife can be done at any age, but this, too, is much easier on a calf when done young, while testicles are small. Removing the small testicles of a baby calf is not nearly as risky for blood loss or infection as it would be after he is older, with larger testicles and more blood supply.
A slit is made in the scrotum with a clean, sharp knife. Each testicle is worked out through the slit and removed with the knife. There is less bleeding if you scrape the knife back and forth on the cord attachment to sever it, rather than making a straight cut. A scraped and torn blood vessel tends to shrink up and close off more readily than a vessel cut straight across.
The procedure is easiest when the calf is lying on his side. A small calf can be held by two people; one person holds the head and front legs and the other holds the hind legs so the calf cannot kick the person doing the castrating. A large calf is more safely held with ropes, or restrained on a calf table (a small tilting chute).
If restraining him with ropes, you need a rope around his head and one front leg so the calf will not choke and also so he cannot get up, or a halter on the head, and both front feet secured with another rope, and a rope around both hind legs with a half hitch so he can’t kick out of it. The ropes should be securely tied or dallied around a fence post or some other sturdy object so the large calf will be completely restrained—stretched out on the ground on his side.
While the calf is thus restrained, this is also a good time to give him any needed vaccinations, or put in an ear tag or brand him.
Originally published in the March/April 2013 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal.