by: Heather Smith Thomas

There are several ways to castrate calves and bulls. Regardless of the method, it's generally less stressful for the animal at a young age. Daniel Thomson, Kansas State University (Professor of Production Medicine and Epidemiology) says that castration, dehorning, branding are necessary but painful for the animal. “These have become routine husbandry procedures but we have to make sure that we are current regarding the best techniques and opportunities for preventing pain. Some of these things have come under scrutiny. The number one thing we can do in terms of minimal pain is to do it as early as possible in the calf's life,” he explains.

“Whether it is early castration or debudding versus dehorning, these procedures should be done at the right time. I wish we could spend more effort as an industry changing our management rather than looking for a new tool or an analgesic to cover up poor management. I understand that there are different production systems and different circumstances in which the animals are not touched by humans until they are older,” he says. On large ranches where cows calve out on the range there is usually no good way to catch those calves and process them in the first days of life.

“Our recommendation is to do it as young as possible, but it's not a utopian world where humans and animals can live their lives without pain. Short-term pain is less stressful/costly to the animal or to the people working with them. Our focus has to be on improvement in our ability to prevent pain, but we also have to think about the safety of the animal and the people working with the animals. If we can do things to minimize stress, this is a big step,” says Thomson.

“We all know that when a person is ranching or farming things are not always convenient to do at the proper time. Most producers jump at the chance to improve the health and well being of their calves, even if it is difficult to do. Ranchers and farmers understand that good animal health and well being equals improved performance and sustainability, and without profitability there is no sustainability,” he says.

“Things like immunocastration may be something we'll use in the future as the technology improves and it becomes more reliable. When you castrate a calf with a knife, you know it is successful. There would be some benefits, however, if you could castrate an animal with injections rather than surgically or banding. But this also comes back to consumer acceptance of beef from animals castrated with hormonal manipulation. On the animal welfare side, however, there is some opportunity here,” says Thomson.

With the methods in common use today, our best and most humane options are to castrate calves as young as possible. “The quote I always tell my students is that the longer the testicles are attached to the calf, the more attached the calf is to them. It's always harder on him to lose them when he's older.”

Technique is also important. “The veterinary-patient-client relationship is very important when it comes to producers understanding the best and latest techniques and working with their veterinarians to know how to do these properly. These are surgical procedures, and in most state are considered veterinary procedures. You can legally do this to your own animals, but having a good relationship with your veterinarian can help assure that you do it correctly. There has been research looking at timing, technique, metabolic modifiers such as steroid implants, etc. to improve the health and performance of those calves,” says Thomson.

“The other thing that I think is very important for ranchers, feedlot operators, etc. is to be sure they have some sort of best management practices. As we enter the age of technology, social media, etc. I think it is really important for our industry that people receive the proper training in handling the animals and that it is documented, and we have some sort of written plan about how we are going to do these procedures on our farm or ranch. If someone abuses an animal on your farm or ranch (and this comes under scrutiny) and if you can show that you trained that person to do it properly, this may help you keep your farm or ranch open for business,” he explains.

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