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When is the best time to castrate?

Marci Whitehurst for Progressive Cattleman Published on 17 January 2017
castration tools

As producers anticipate a new calf crop, they continue to consider the needs of their livestock. This includes castration of bull calves. So when is the best time to castrate?

Grant Dewell from Iowa State University states, "The earlier, the better." W. Mark Hilton of Elanco Animal Health says, "Ideally, castration happens shortly after birth."

Dewell shares that the longer you wait, the more likely you are to see long-term problems and the more stress you put on the animal. “Before 3 months of age is best. At 4 to 6 months of age, you may need to give tetanus toxoid, pain meds, and increase monitoring for potential problems.” Hilton recommends giving the tetanus toxoid two weeks before castration in order for tetanus antibodies to be present at castration. Banding at 4 to 6 months causes more prolonged stress than using a knife.

According to research, 75 percent of steers are castrated before 3 months of age. After three months, the safety of the producer and the animal are at risk. Hilton notes that bulls castrated at 6 to 7 months weigh significantly less 30 days after weaning than those castrated early. Daily gain decreases, as do marbling scores and tenderness when comparing late castrates with those done soon after birth.

Hilton's first recommendation is castrating at birth, within the first seven days if possible. A close second is under three months. "Steers castrated close to birth show no differences in cortisol [stress] response compared to uncastrated controls. In addition, steers castrated early and then implanted weigh about 17 pounds more than non-implanted, nursing age steers. This increases the profitability of the producer and is safest for the animal."

Both experts agree that if a calf is past three months, it is imperative to give pain meds. Dewell recommends a local anesthetic followed by a pain reliever, with the latter being the most crucial. "Pain management for calves at 1 to 3 months of age can be helpful as well," Dewell says.

What method should be used?

Dewell recommends using whichever method you are most comfortable with, but if you prefer to use bands, they are most beneficial when used between 1 week and 1 month of age. "This method is bloodless, and with minimal complications when done correctly. If you use bands, be certain you have both testicles. It is ineffective if one or both testicles aren't banded or if the scrotum is crushed." Dewell recommends surgical castration after the first month.

"If calves are castrated at or soon after birth, the method of castration [surgical versus rubber band] shows no significant difference with regard to stress or weight gain," Hilton says. Because castrating at birth may not be practical in large-scale production, many open-range producers castrate at branding and have good results, as long as the calves are less than 3 months old. Again, the younger the calf, the less stressful the procedure.

Small-scale producers often call their veterinarian to perform castration. They maximize the visit by pouring the calves for flies, inserting fly tags, implanting and administering vaccines in conjunction with castration. "That young baby calf will exit the chute and guess who is there to lick and love all his pain away? Mom," Hilton says. A mother cow's affection, attention and milk benefit the calf and keeps stress down. Thus minimizing the calf's time away from its mom is also beneficial.

Hilton emphasizes that good nutrition coupled with good practice brings the highest benefit. He prefers using a Newberry knife for castration, but says whatever instrument is used, cleanliness is key. "Put your knife in a bucket of betadine water and wash and dry your hands in between each calf. You can dip your hands in the antiseptic water and dry off. This greatly reduces the risk of infection."

Dewell says watch your conditions. "Being mindful of where your cattle will be helps with health after castration. Clean and dry is optimal."

In a “nutshell” (sorry, I couldn't resist the pun), closest to birth makes for the easiest castration experience for producer and animal alike. "People may think they're getting a deal when they buy an older bull calf and then castrate it late; however, those animals never regain their weight loss in comparison to their peers. They shrink, the carcass quality decreases, and your sickness rate increases," Hilton cautions. Assessing your needs and conditions is best, but sticking with the motto “sooner rather than later” will improve your castration practices.  end mark

Marci Whitehurst is a freelance writer based in Montana.

PHOTO: It is recommended that you use the castrating method you are comfortable with. From left to right are the Newberry knife, bander and emasculator as a few of the options. Photo by Marci Whitehurst.