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Castration is a common practice performed on the male of many food animal species, as well as companion animals. It has several marked benefits for the owner, although there may be some disadvantages.
Castration is a term usually reserved for the removal of the testicles in the male animal. Technically, it can also refer to removal of the ovaries in the female, but for the purposes of this article, it will refer only to the male animal.
Castration is performed on cattle for two main reasons. The first is to control their behavior, as steers are generally easier to handle and confine than bulls. Bulls joust and push almost constantly when kept in close confinement and may do a fair amount of damage to each other. The second is to allow earlier finishing; steers will generally deposit fat earlier and to a greater extent than will bulls at the same age. Many will maintain that castration is also performed to prevent gamey flavor in the finished product. Flavor is determined by a number of factors, including feed; but there is no doubt that a mature breeding bull will usually have a much stronger flavor than a steer.
There is some debate over the proper timing of castration. Early castration (at several days of age) is advocated as easiest on the animal. Calves castrated at less than 36 hours old are easier to handle, particularly for one person. The shock of castration is also less the younger the animal. This makes sense as the younger the bull the smaller the actual amount of tissue removed and the smaller the actual incision needed to remove it. Castration can be performed at any age, however. Many purebred operators allow their bull calves to reach weaning age or older prior to castration. This allows the owner to determine if some of his calf crop look good enough to remain as potential breeding bulls. Castration at weaning or older requires the use of more sophisticated restraint, and a squeeze chute becomes a necessity for most operators. Generally, the older the animal, the greater the risk of complications from castration.
A popular alternative to implantation with artificial growth hormones has been to leave the testicles on male calves until they are closer to slaughter weight. This leaves testosterone present as a natural growth hormone, resulting in heavier weights, but sacrificing earlier finish. Late castration does not address confinement problems with bulls, nor does it address the obvious advantage of early castration in rendering the steers infertile and incapable of impregnating females. There are also studies which indicate there is no actual weight advantage in waiting to castrate at an older age. Bulls will be heavier up until the time of castration, but the stress of any form of late castration eliminates this advantage.
There are a variety of methods used to castrate cattle; some are more appropriate for certain aged animals than others.
A. Open castration can be performed on cattle of any age; however there are some very important caveats. Open castration involves the use of a knife or blade to open the scrotum and expose the testicles, which are then removed. Care must be taken to cut only the scrotal sack, so that the testicles can later be exposed by traction through the surgical opening and cut off. The incisions in the scrotum are left open to drain (the bigger the incisions, relative to the size of the animals, generally the less chance of infection). Cleanliness is of utmost importance. Hands, scrotum and instruments should all be disinfected prior to performance of any surgical procedure.
A Newberry knife is an extremely handy instrument to own when performing surgical castration. The scrotum is pulled down and back and the blade of the Newberry knife is inserted into the scrotal skin and clamped shut, making sure not to touch the testicles. The knife is then pulled down and back leaving two incisions in the scrotum. The testicles then pop out of the incisions.
Another method to expose the testicles for open castration is to cut the bottom 1/3 to ½ of the scrotum away, using either a scalpel blade or very sharp knife. Care must be exercised to avoid cutting the testicles, the large vein on the inside of the calf’s leg, or your own hand.
If open castration is performed on very young animals, the testicles may be exposed, the membrane covering the testicles carefully cut open and the membrane (vaginal tunic) separated from every part of the testicle except the very bottom (the tightest attachment.) At this point, the membrane is completely severed from the testicle and the testicle itself is gently but steadily pulled from the open incisions until the spermatic cord tears and the testicles can be removed. Try not to touch anything that is to remain within the calf, as this will minimize the risk of infection. The remains of the cord snap back into the body, so that exterior hemorrhage is minimal. There is a slight risk of internal hemorrhage; but if this method is reserved for the extremely young bull calves, it is an excellent and safe procedure.
If an emasculator is to be used, the testicles within their covering of membrane are exposed. Traction is applied with one hand, while the other pushes the scrotum up. This breaks down the muscle that regulates how high or low the testicles hang. By breaking down this muscle, the animal can no longer pull the testicles back up tight to the body. Now the testicles are ready to be removed. The actual removal of the testicles requires somehow severing the entire cord. This is best accomplished by use of an emasculator. Most emasculators have both a cutting edge and an area that crushes and crimps the spermatic cord, drastically reducing hemorrhage, and this is the only kind that should be used. The emasculator is placed straight across the spermatic cord above the testicles. The hand holding the testicle reduces the tension on the spermatic cord, so that the cord is not stretched tight when the actually cutting and crushing occurs. The emasculator is closed. It is then held tight for a minimum of 15 seconds (or longer, the bigger the animal). It is critical that the crushing part of the instrument be closest to the calf’s body, and the cutting blade below that. Because of the way the instrument in made, the easiest way to remember that is (as we were taught in veterinary college) is always place the emasculator nut-to-nut. This ensures that the cutting blade is toward the bottom of the testicle and the crushing portion is closest to the body. It does no good to crush the cord below where it is cut.
In the case of very large bulls, knife castration should be supplemented with ligation, or sutures placed through the spermatic cord to prevent massive blood loss. This would be accomplished with the animal cast upside down or on its side, and is far more likely to be performed by a veterinarian. Ligatures need to be sterile, and absorbable.
Disadvantages to open castration include the risk of fly strike (in warm weather) and/or infection (anytime, but greater risk during muddy periods when the open wound can be easily contaminated) and serious, even life threatening hemorrhage. Open castration is contraindicated in cases of inguinal or scrotal hernias, when abdominal contents may be present in the inguinal area or the scrotum itself. Open castration in such a case could result in evisceration.
Studies have documented that open castration is far more acutely painful than other methods when performed on older bulls, and performing such a procedure on larger bull calves without analgesia could be considered by many to be cruel and inhumane.
B. Bloodless castration can be accomplished by use of a burdizzo or emasculatome. This instrument does not cut the skin, but rather severs/crushes the spermatic cord without cutting the scrotal skin at all. In good working order and correctly used, a burdizzo will destroy the blood supply to the testicle, leaving the scrotum intact. Emasculatomes come in different sizes for different aged animals, and they are prone to wearing out and must be replaced. To use a burdizzo, one testicle is isolated in the bottom of the scrotum and the spermatic cord is found and pushed to the outside of the scrotum. The cord should be clamped about 1” above the testicle in small calves and 2 “ above the testicle in older animals. The burdizzo is carefully placed over no more than 1/3 of the width of the scrotum, making sure that the cord is held in place by the two cord stops, and then the cord is gently clamped. There should be a popping sound or feeling as the cord is severed. While the cord is still clamped pull the testicle down and forward to ensure that the cord is cut completely. This process is performed twice on each side. Care must be taken to ensure that the emasculatome is still on the scrotum however, as riding up too high could accidentally catch the penis of the calf with ensuing disastrous results. Care must be taken to include only 1/3 of the width of the scrotum and stagger the crushed areas so that they do not run in a straight line across the scrotum. To fail to do so can result in the loss of all blood supply to the scrotum and it may develop gangrene Burdizzos are heavy, awkward and slow to use. Calves castrated in this method will be stiff-legged with very swollen scrotums for a number of days following the procedure. Furthermore, you will not know for several weeks to months (when the testicle atrophies) whether the surgery has been successful. Advantages are that flystrike and infection should not be a problem.
C. The last major classification of castration techniques involves the use of rubber bands around the entire circumference of the scrotum, cutting off the blood supply to everything beneath the band. This results in the entire scrotum and testicles sloughing as a unit.
In addition to the elastrator, designed for the very young calf, are several other instruments that are based on the same principle, strangulation of the blood supply to the scrotum and testicles.
The Tri-bander and the XL-Bander are designed much like an elastrator, only they use a much bigger and theoretically stronger band. My experience has been that these bands must be applied during warm weather, as if it is too cold, the rubber will stretch and fail to return to a smaller size.
Both of these instruments are relatively quick and easy to use although getting a set of testicles through the opening provided sometimes is much easier said than done. The Tri-Bander claims to work for calves from birth to 400#, while the XL Bander is designed for the 250-750# calf. A disadvantage of these banders is that the rubber ring is not tightened, it is just released and expected to be adequately tight for all operations. This is not necessarily the case.
The EZE Bloodless Castrator is an instrument designed to place a larger, theoretically stronger rubber band around the scrotal neck of larger male cattle. It operates much like a caulk gun, and if properly used is an excellent instrument. Like the elastrator, it is imperative that both testicles be below the rubber cord both before and after it is tightened. Its mechanism can wear, and the instrument needs to be replaced if difficulty getting adequate tightness is encountered.
My personal favorite of all the banders is the Callicrate Bander. This is a heavy duty, well made, virtually fool-proof bander designed for cattle from 300-3000#. Directions are straight forward, and if care is taken, the results are excellent. This bander too uses a premade loop of heavy rubber. The ratchet-style tightener is easy on the hands and tightens to a maximum amount every time.
The only trick to any of these banders is getting the testicles through the preformed, albeit stretched open, loops of rubber. The Callicrate Bander comes with a video and details with photographic instructions, demonstrating the proper way to hold the loop and stretch it over the two testicles. My hands are not strong enough to accomplish this the way the video details the procedure. I routinely arrange the open band beneath the scrotum and then pull the scrotum only through the band. Once I have 1/4 -1/3 or more of the scrotum through the band, I then go around the outside of the band pulling any long hairs that are entrapped in the band. Sometimes the hairs from the belly or even the legs will be trapped between the scrotal skin and the band. Once I have cleared the hair away, I palpate one testicle and pop it through the band into the scrotum. I will then adjust the band upwards if necessary so that there is no part of the first testicle blocking the entry into the opening of the band. I then pop the other testicle through the band, adjust the band so that it is above both testicles, and then continue by either tightening, crimping and cutting the band; or closing the bander and removing it from the scrotum. (Depending on which bander I am using.) The Callicrate and EZE Bloodless Castrator have the advantage of individually tightening the rubber bands to the appropriate level for each animal, so that adequate strangulation of all the necessary tissue can be accomplished every time.
There are possible complications with any of the Bander methods. Because the testicles and scrotum essentially rot off the animal from lack of blood supply, there is an environment conducive to the growth of the anaerobic bacteria; those that grow without oxygen. Tetanus is a main culprit here, and a tetanus toxoid vaccination should be given to any bull undergoing castration by banding.
Both testicles must be present below the band before and after it is tightened. Just like with the much smaller elastrator, if you miss a testicle, you have not castrated the animal. Such a bull may be fertile.
The most likely complication from the band method of castration is failure to adequately tighten the band. This could result in arterial blood flow into the testicles that cannot return due to venous occlusion. The testicles and scrotum would swell tremendously in such a case. Other possible results are not as immediately obvious. A small amount of blood flow to and from the contents of the scrotum can still remain, resulting in the outer areas sloughing, but the inner contents not. I have had to go back at a later date and clamp and tie off a bleeder that remained even after the testicles and scrotum were necrotic and dangling precariously by a thread that unfortunately still had blood going through it. (This is a much more difficult procedure than doing it right the first time.) My experience is that you cannot get these bands too tight. You should not be able to budge any band once it is tightened around the scrotum. If you can feel any looseness, carefully cut the band off and reapply.
Bulls castrated with the rubber band methods will act uncomfortable for several hours after the band is applied. My experience has been that these same animals will come up to the feed bunk and eat well that same day. As the testicles and scrotum deteriorate, the smell of rotting tissue can become pretty potent, which gets worse the larger the bull and the larger the testicles. This doesn’t seem to bother the cattle, but it is definitely offensive to most humans. It will also attract dogs. This doesn’t become a problem until the scrotum falls off; unfortunately many a canine has attempted to carry a well-aged treat into the car or house, so be warned. This is not something you want left in the back seat of your vehicle on some sunny day.
Cost-wise, the bands for the Tri-Bander, (instrument @$30.00) presently run about $5.00 for 25 bands. The XL Bander (about $87.00 for initial purchase) rings cost about $1.00 a piece, The EZE castrator (about $175.00 with enough rings and clips for 25 head) bands and clips will run $1.50 for each head. The bands for the Callicrate Bander (running about $220-$250.00) are almost $2.50 each. I repeat, I have been happiest with the latter and it seems genuinely foolproof.
There are a couple things to bear in mind when it comes to castration.
Calves retained intact as bulls do gain somewhat better and faster than calves steered at birth. However, the older these bulls become, the more stress they undergo when castrated, regardless of method used. You must also contend with the potential carcass damage caused by fighting and jousting, particularly with horned cattle. Young bulls are obnoxious, and become far more so when grouped together or in any vicinity of heifers in heat. Remember that the growth enhancing effects of testosterone are not present until between 3 1/2 and 5 1/2 months. If you routinely castrate all your bulls at weaning, there is little growth advantage to be gained from a couple of months at most of testosterone and it would be easier on the cattle and yourself to perform castration when the bulls are newborn.
Delaying castration as a means of using natural growth hormones (testosterone) present in the testicles does not appear to compensate for the setback to growth caused by the actual castration. Numerous studies have shown that delayed castration has a negative effect on gain that cannot be overcome by the time of slaughter when compared to calves steered at less than 8 weeks of age. Delayed castration may be justified as a means of allowing for the evaluation of young stock for herd sire potential.
Castration by any method is going to have little acute discomfort in the calf that is less than 8 weeks of age. Some European countries permit castration by lay personnel only on calves in this age range. After 2 months, castration must be performed by veterinarians and the use of analgesics/anesthetics with the procedure is legislated.
Detailed studies have shown that there is a dramatic and immediate pain response to a 750 # bull being surgically castrated using a Newberry knife and emasculator without anesthetic. This effect is evident both in the chute and in the resulting immediate weight loss that occurs in many bulls castrated in this manner. These same studies documented little or no evidence of acute pain, even without analgesia when castrated using a rubber band method. Combined with the fact that very few of the bulls castrated in this manner lost weight immediately following the procedure would indicate that the rubber band method of castration is far less acutely painful than knife castration without anesthetic. However, daily gains after castration of both types did not ever reach the values seen in calves steered at a younger age. The bands may take up to 4-8 weeks to actually result in sloughing of the testicles and scrotum. While not acutely painful, this protracted length of time in healing would seem to be responsible for the failure to gain at rates similar to younger (and fully healed) castrates.
There seems to be a growing interest in not only organically produced beef, but in humanely raised beef as well With larger corporations dictating animal care requirements to their suppliers, this trend may continue on a very large scale. The timing and techniques used to castrate bulls will be a significant part of this issue. Knife castration of older bulls should be performed with analgesia, and the necessity of using rubber banding methods on older bulls that cause an extended period of healing should be well justified.
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