Cow Tales: The making of a steer | TSLN.com

Cow Tales: The making of a steer

Kenny Barrett Jr., DVM, MS

Cattlemen are busy during the spring of the year. Brandings are a frequent occurrence and provide an opportunity to socialize and further cement the relationships between friends and neighbors. Young ranch kids toil in the dust waiting for their chance to step up from less glamorous tasks. More “established” members of the crew take their place next to the branding pot. But invariably at each branding a trusted individual will be selected for “making the steers.”

Castration is the elimination of the influence of the testicles. It can be accomplished surgically or by disrupting the blood flow to the testicle with an elastrator band, latex band, or Burdizzo clamp. When bands are applied, they tend to be used at birth or on larger bulls. Surgical techniques vary and depend on the individual performing the castration and the size of the bull. A recent survey of veterinarians suggests surgical castration by producers is the most common. Veterinarians become involved more commonly as herd size decreases, bull size increases, or presentation becomes abnormal. Examples of abnormal presentations include testicles that fail to descend fully into the scrotum and scrotums enlarged by a hernia, abscessed testicle or other ailment.

It is still unclear which method of castration is the best. I prefer banding at birth or surgical castration at branding. Efforts to control pain and inflammation seem to be more important as age increases. Many European countries have regulations requiring pain management above certain ages or body weights. Ideally castration should be safe, as pain free as possible, quick and have minimal effects on production. All forms of castration have potential negative side effects. Surgical wounds can become infected and hemorrhage can be difficult to control. Bands need to have adequate tension to completely disrupt the blood supply to the testicle and can break or loosen prematurely.

Pain management is more difficult to assess. Currently there are no products labeled for pain control in the U.S. for cattle. The problem is further complicated by the lack of an adequate way to measure pain and therefore pain relief. If you want to measure a decrease in pain you must first be able to accurately assess pain itself. Most models attempt to quantify changes in behavior after castration when different techniques to alleviate pain have been used. Local anesthetics administered in the testicle, epidural anesthesia, sedatives and different NSAIDs, or cow aspirins, have been investigated. Again, results have been mixed.

It is important to note research is being conducted to establish a model for assessing pain. Researchers are investigating blood levels of a stress hormone called cortisol, a protein called substance P, and other inflammatory mediators as indicators of pain. Study results have been somewhat inconclusive as scientists try to unravel the biological response to pain and any variables masking or altering the pain response. For example; how do weaning, commingling, transport, novel feeds, unusual water sources, animal handling and other factors alter the observer’s perception of pain due to castration on arrival at a feedlot? Perhaps more interesting is the initial efforts to develop a product that would allow castration by injection.

Producers have castrated bulls for as long as anyone can remember. The reason we castrate is centered on production. However, castration can also enhance the safety of the people and animals around the would-be bulls. Additionally, the eating experience of beef is enhanced for the end consumer, not to mention the supply of mountain oysters. Steers obviously can’t sire any offspring, but they also have a greatly reduced tendency to exhibit sexual behavior. Steers don’t seem to have the same urge to continuously “challenge the pecking order,” so fences last longer. Buildings and equipment also have a tendency to remain intact longer around steers. A horse and rider are never “gently” removed by a determined steer. Everyone with cows has a story about bulls.

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Bull calves seem to escape most of the behavior issues of their post-puberty counterparts and they gain weight faster. Also, performance can easily be enhanced safely and economically in steers. Heifer calves can reach sexual maturity before weaning and bull calves are rather efficient at identifying these fertile females. Teenage pregnancies in a cowherd rarely turn out with a happy ending. Additionally, steers tend to produce a carcass with greater amounts of marbling, increased tenderness and less dark cutters creating a more satisfying eating experience for the end consumer.

In the end, there are a host of issues around castration we often take for granted. Producers will continue to castrate bulls for production reasons, but we need to remember other stakeholders. The general public is greatly concerned about how animals are treated and even more importantly – how they think they are treated. Castration is painful. We need to take steps to reduce pain by castrating early in the calf’s life and using some form of pain management when we can’t. We should be proud of the product we produce and steal every moment we can to share our message with those confined to the concrete zoo. If we don’t address public concerns, we can expect legislation, albeit poorly construed, to create policies governing beef production. Ranchers are some of the best stewards of land and animals, and their efforts will continue to provide a flavorful and nutritious product well into the future.

Cattlemen are busy during the spring of the year. Brandings are a frequent occurrence and provide an opportunity to socialize and further cement the relationships between friends and neighbors. Young ranch kids toil in the dust waiting for their chance to step up from less glamorous tasks. More “established” members of the crew take their place next to the branding pot. But invariably at each branding a trusted individual will be selected for “making the steers.”

Castration is the elimination of the influence of the testicles. It can be accomplished surgically or by disrupting the blood flow to the testicle with an elastrator band, latex band, or Burdizzo clamp. When bands are applied, they tend to be used at birth or on larger bulls. Surgical techniques vary and depend on the individual performing the castration and the size of the bull. A recent survey of veterinarians suggests surgical castration by producers is the most common. Veterinarians become involved more commonly as herd size decreases, bull size increases, or presentation becomes abnormal. Examples of abnormal presentations include testicles that fail to descend fully into the scrotum and scrotums enlarged by a hernia, abscessed testicle or other ailment.

It is still unclear which method of castration is the best. I prefer banding at birth or surgical castration at branding. Efforts to control pain and inflammation seem to be more important as age increases. Many European countries have regulations requiring pain management above certain ages or body weights. Ideally castration should be safe, as pain free as possible, quick and have minimal effects on production. All forms of castration have potential negative side effects. Surgical wounds can become infected and hemorrhage can be difficult to control. Bands need to have adequate tension to completely disrupt the blood supply to the testicle and can break or loosen prematurely.

Pain management is more difficult to assess. Currently there are no products labeled for pain control in the U.S. for cattle. The problem is further complicated by the lack of an adequate way to measure pain and therefore pain relief. If you want to measure a decrease in pain you must first be able to accurately assess pain itself. Most models attempt to quantify changes in behavior after castration when different techniques to alleviate pain have been used. Local anesthetics administered in the testicle, epidural anesthesia, sedatives and different NSAIDs, or cow aspirins, have been investigated. Again, results have been mixed.

It is important to note research is being conducted to establish a model for assessing pain. Researchers are investigating blood levels of a stress hormone called cortisol, a protein called substance P, and other inflammatory mediators as indicators of pain. Study results have been somewhat inconclusive as scientists try to unravel the biological response to pain and any variables masking or altering the pain response. For example; how do weaning, commingling, transport, novel feeds, unusual water sources, animal handling and other factors alter the observer’s perception of pain due to castration on arrival at a feedlot? Perhaps more interesting is the initial efforts to develop a product that would allow castration by injection.

Producers have castrated bulls for as long as anyone can remember. The reason we castrate is centered on production. However, castration can also enhance the safety of the people and animals around the would-be bulls. Additionally, the eating experience of beef is enhanced for the end consumer, not to mention the supply of mountain oysters. Steers obviously can’t sire any offspring, but they also have a greatly reduced tendency to exhibit sexual behavior. Steers don’t seem to have the same urge to continuously “challenge the pecking order,” so fences last longer. Buildings and equipment also have a tendency to remain intact longer around steers. A horse and rider are never “gently” removed by a determined steer. Everyone with cows has a story about bulls.

Bull calves seem to escape most of the behavior issues of their post-puberty counterparts and they gain weight faster. Also, performance can easily be enhanced safely and economically in steers. Heifer calves can reach sexual maturity before weaning and bull calves are rather efficient at identifying these fertile females. Teenage pregnancies in a cowherd rarely turn out with a happy ending. Additionally, steers tend to produce a carcass with greater amounts of marbling, increased tenderness and less dark cutters creating a more satisfying eating experience for the end consumer.

In the end, there are a host of issues around castration we often take for granted. Producers will continue to castrate bulls for production reasons, but we need to remember other stakeholders. The general public is greatly concerned about how animals are treated and even more importantly – how they think they are treated. Castration is painful. We need to take steps to reduce pain by castrating early in the calf’s life and using some form of pain management when we can’t. We should be proud of the product we produce and steal every moment we can to share our message with those confined to the concrete zoo. If we don’t address public concerns, we can expect legislation, albeit poorly construed, to create policies governing beef production. Ranchers are some of the best stewards of land and animals, and their efforts will continue to provide a flavorful and nutritious product well into the future.

kenny barrett jr. is a veterinarian at the belle fourche veterinary clinic in belle fourche, sd and pens “cow tales” monthly. learn more about the clinic on the web at http://www.bfvetclinic.com, or drop them an e-mail at: office@bfvetclinic.com to suggest a topic for the next installment of “cow tales.”

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