*contains graphic imagery*
It’s a bloody business, operating a cattle farm.
The days ticking down to Thanksgiving are typically a flurry of family matters and last-minute grocery trips, but in our house and family, those duties fall on the capable shoulders of Jon’s sister. Our job is merely to show up. And keep the farm afloat.
This week marked the roughly two-month mark in which calves need their vaccines and the bulls, young ones, are castrated and thus turned into steers.
Why oh why must we do this? It sounds inhumane, I know. It makes the hairs on my neck prick. But I grew up close to nature–we regularly hunted deer, gutted fish, saw the ways that animals hunt each other in order to live. I am not a vegetarian. If you are not a vegetarian either, you’ve benefited from the procedures detailed in this post.
Calves are castrated for a few reasons. On this farm, we have designated bulls for reproduction that have been bred for a series of genetic traits that result in superior stock. It’s about herd control. By castrating male calves, genetic control is leveraged. Birth defects aren’t passed on. Also, castrated males produce better quality meat–more fat, less tough pure muscle. There are also some behavioral issues to consider–castrated cows are less aggressive, and less likely to overwhelm (and possibly injure) heifers once the birds and the bees start humming. It’s harsh, utilitarian, I know. These are the economics of ranching. This is life. This is your food.
Calves are castrated young in two ways–by banding, which cuts off blood supply to the testicles and drops them after several days, or by surgery. This isn’t the pampered, sanitary surgery of your dogs and cats, but an operation of quick efficiency, nimble hands, sweat and shouts.
Over two days, the guys separated maybe 100-something calves away from the mothers. They’re placed in a corral, ushered down a chute, vaccinated and, if the gender requires, castrated.
It was a six-man operation–two young hands to alternate working the cows from corral to chute, one man to castrate, and three men to medicate and tag.
One the cow is pushed into the chute, its head or shoulders are permitted through a slender opening that shuts to hold their bodies in place without constricting their necks.
The temperament of each cow seemed to vary enormously. Some were calm, and some more hysterical. I hesitate to liken it to the anxiety of small children in a doctor’s office, but it really did seem comparable. I think, more than anything, the experience itself–the confusion–is what frightens most.
The castration itself is a quick procedure, maybe 2-3 minutes, but admittedly bloody. Anesthetic is not administered. This isn’t because animal wellness isn’t a factor, but because anesthesia takes a long time to kick in and wear off, which means longer “down time” for the calves away from their mothers, as well as increased risk of disorientation which might lead to falls and injury. Finally, in the US, there is no designated pain medication for castration. Anything administered specifically for that purpose would be considered extra label and would require a veterinarian on-site, which is costly and, quite frankly, impractical for large operations.
The calf is lifted by the tail and then held in place by one of the hands to reduce the chances of the castrator being kicked in the face. Injury on both sides is always a risk, but measures are taken to avoid them.
In quick, unceremonial movements, the incision is made and the scrotum cut away. The cords are stretched. Because the calves are not fully matured, blood supply to this area is also not fully developed. The stretching tapers the blood vessels and reduces bleeding. Finally, a spray is applied for wound care.
And then, and then, they’re free. They return to each other.
Questions? Protests? Fire away.