Castration for Cattle: Methods Explained

Reducing Aggression in Male Animals is the Top Reason for Castration

by Hope Ellis-Ashburn

Castration may seem like one of the more daunting aspects of raising cattle, but there are many good options to choose from that are customizable to your operation.

Reasons to Castrate

According to Lew Strickland, a veterinarian with the University of Tennessee’s Extension Service and College of Veterinary Medicine, reducing aggression in male animals is the top reason for castration. That aggression, fueled by testosterone, is a safety issue for other animals and for humans potentially leading to injury or death.

“The No. 2 reason is meat quality,” he says, recommending implanting with a growth-promoting hormone at the time of castration for an improved growth rate and better marbling of the meat. The growth rate of steers is further influenced by the elimination of sex drive as unlike with bulls they’re no longer expending valuable energy pursuing females. Beyond the physical aspects, castrating calves also leads to an improved bottom line for producers as steers possess a greater value as meat animals than bulls. “It makes the value of the calf more, and the way we market them, they have to be steers,” says Derek Miller, referring to a marketing strategy known as preconditioning. This is when calves are weaned, broken to feed from a bunk and drink from a water trough, have received vaccinations, and if appropriate, have been castrated. If those conditions are met, they’re eligible for special sales where they bring a higher premium. Miller, of Whitwell, Tennessee, has been farming for decades and, when making decisions about his operation, relies on his experience that is heavily steeped in backgrounding calves.

If not referring to grass-fed beef, calves can reach a weight of approximately 400 pounds at around 4 months of age. So don’t wait to castrate.

Age of Castration

When it comes to the recommended age for castration, Strickland acknowledges that there are plenty of theories to go around. He recommends castration and implanting at the time of birth. However, he acknowledges, a lot of producers aren’t able to do that. “Most producers wait until they are working their cows and vaccinating, roughly around 3 to 4 months of age,” he says.

Miller falls into this category. “The calves we raise off of our cows, we castrate around 2 to 3 months,” he says. “The calves that we buy to background and precondition, we castrate when we purchase them.”

Typically, if not referring to grass-fed beef, calves will reach a weight of approximately 400 pounds at around 4 months of age, and Strickland recommends that castration occurs before the calf exceeds that weight particularly if the producer’s chosen method of castration is banding. “There’s just too much of a risk factor when they’re getting that old,” he says. “I’m worried about tetanus and not draining properly.”

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Common castration tools include, from left to right: large bander, Newberry knife and emasculatome.
photos by Hope Ellis-Ashburn

Choosing a Method

There are several methods of castration to choose from. Banding, a bloodless method, is simple but not always the best choice. “You run into the issue of knocking the calf back a little bit,” Strickland says. “Research has shown that calves recover faster with cutting.”

If banding is the selected method, Strickland recommends that it be employed sooner rather than later and to always use fresh rubber or elastic bands. “The bands will age over time and will not remain as tight as they should be to cause the blood loss for the scrotum to fall off,” he says.

Also, a common mistake that Strickland sees producers make when banding is not capturing both testicles in the band and, he adds, this can be a difficult situation to correct. He further advises that calves that are to be banded receive a tetanus shot one week before the date of banding and a booster at the time of banding. Miller makes use of the banding and vaccination technique for the calves born on his farm.

Cutting, a practice that involves cutting off the bottom third of the scrotum with a knife or scalpel and pulling out the testicles, is another option; it’s Strickland’s preference. When using this method, he advises making sure that you get all the tissue or cords out and, if needed, use some type of fly control. When cutting, Strickland also likes to use a topical bandage known as Aluspray that is applied by spraying it from an aerosol can once the procedure is complete.

“It covers the tissue, and if there is any sort of light bleeding, it helps with clotting,” he says. In terms of cutting, Strickland offers one final caveat. He advises calling your veterinarian before proceeding with any castration that involves a scrotum that is abnormal in appearance.

If you’re new to this technique, your farm veterinarian or another experienced producer, along with publications on the topic from your local extension service, are among the best resources to learn from. Like many producers, Miller makes use of more than one castration method, and he employs cutting on the calves he buys. When cutting, he advises ripping the cords so that the blood clots. “You don’t cut them even,” he says. Both Strick and and Miller advise vaccinating for tetanus when using this method.

Other castration tools that Strickland sees through this work include the Henderson cattle castrating tool and the Newberry castrating knife. After cutting off the bottom third of the scrotum, Strickland says that the Henderson tool is clamped to the cords; then, powered by a drill, it spins the testicles off and in the process twists the blood vessels together which helps to prevent bleeding.

On the other hand, the Newberry knife, which can be used in conjunction with the Henderson tool, is another tool that is used for opening the scrotum from side to side. Strickland advises producers using the Newberry knife to be watchful for an infection stemming from the improper drainage that can occur where the flaps of skin on the scrotum lay against each other and close during the clotting process.

Finally, there are two other tools used for castration. One is the emasculator. The bottom third of the scrotum is removed, and the tool is applied to the cords and closed. This serves to crush and cut the cords to prevent bleeding. This tool is typically used on larger bulls and is recommended to hold the tool in place for 30 seconds to ensure proper crimping of the blood vessels.

The second tool has a similar name, the emasculatome, and can be easily confused. It is used to crush the spermatic cords. When this method is used, Strickland says, the testicles dry up and the scrotum is left in place, never falling off.

Regardless of your chosen castration method or methods, vaccinating for tetanus is always advised.
photos by Hope Ellis-Ashburn

Pro Tips

Regardless of the chosen method or methods of castration, there are some tips to keep in mind as you negotiate the process. “I like to castrate in the cooler season of the year when flies are not around as much,” Strickland says. “I don’t have to worry as much about insect control in cooler weather.”

Miller, too, follows this practice but mainly because that is how it fits into his system. “We only buy calves to background or precondition beginning in October or November,” he says. He sells his calves in April. Furthermore, Millers’ calves are born in fall and winter and those are banded before hot weather and fly season begin.

Strickland further advises choosing a clean area that is not muddy and having a partner in place who can hold the calf’s tail straight up. “It helps put them in neutral,” he says. Doing so inhibits kicking and lessens the force of any kicks that do occur.

Finally, Strickland recommends injecting the testicle with 5 to 10 cubic centimeters of lidocaine and then waiting a minute so that it takes full effect before any castration that involves cutting. “It helps with pain relief and improves recovery time,” he says.

One common misconception among producers is that delaying castration until a calf reaches the 500-pound weight range allows the calf to make use of natural testosterone that will help him to grow. “They don’t grow that much from the testosterone they are producing on their own until they reach about six to seven hundred pounds,” Strickland says. If the producer is raising them for the market the 600-to-700-pound weight range is when they should be sold.

With research and practice castrating your beef calves can be a little less daunting and become a more familiar part of your farming operation.

This article about cattle castration was written for the January/February 2024 issue of Hobby Farms magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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