By Heather Smith Thomas
Animal welfare issues are being discussed regarding the beef industry, including questions about whether we need to use pain medication when castrating calves. Dr. David Rethorst, director of outreach for the Beef Cattle Institute at Kansas State University, said the challenge is finding a point where we can satisfy consumer desires and that producers can actually work into their management programs.
“Some people think we need to be using lidocaine when castrating baby calves at spring branding, but the amount of tissue that we’re disrupting at that age is small,” said Rethorst. Calves heal quickly at that age if surgical castration is done properly and with clean conditions.
“If a calf gets to weaning age or older before he’s castrated, then there’s a place for using lidocaine blocks in the testicles and some meloxicam for pain management,” added Rethorst. At this point the best-case scenario is to castrate very young or not at all.
Studies show that not castrating may be a viable option. He explained, “We’ve done some studies with yearling bulls coming off feed tests that didn’t pass fertility standards. We’ve proven that those bulls will grade just as well as their steer counterparts with today’s genetics. The meat was tested with sensory panels, taste-testing and tenderness criteria, and there was no statistical difference in the meat.”
A study last summer used young bulls up to 18 months old that were going to be shipped to a feedyard. Half of the group was castrated. The castrated bulls were given steroid implants and fed a beta-agonist. Those left as bulls were not given implants or beta-agonist.
Bulls outperformed steers because of the steers’ depressed feed intake during the first two weeks after castration, he reported. “The pain and stress of castration reduced their performance.”
Not castrating does raise some management issues, Rethorst admited. “How do we deal with bull calves trying to breed cows/heifers, and deal with the riding issues in pens of bulls on feed? This presents another set of challenges.”
There is no easy solution, but the beef industry has tackled various issues before and come out better for it, he observed. “I am sure we can do it again; we just need to work on this. We need to recognize how much stress this puts on calves at weaning age, and how much more respiratory disease this causes, and how [many] more antibiotics we have to use. We already have consumers concerned about antibiotic use and antibiotic resistance.”
Death loss is much higher among animals castrated at an older age.
“When doing BQA (Beef Quality Assurance) training,” Rethorst said, “I tell people that every time we lose a calf we are wasting resources that have been entrusted to our care. If we lose a calf at weaning or when he goes into a feedlot, we’ve lost all the resources that have gone into getting that calf from birth to weaning, and we’ve also wasted the resources that went into taking care of his mother.”
This waste could be avoided by castrating these animals a lot younger or not at all, he concluded.
Note: Reprinted with permission from the Angus Beef Bulletin EXTRA