It’s always better for the calf buyer if the calves are steers rather than young bulls. Daryl Meyer, a practicing DVM in North Platte, NE, reminds stockmen they need to remember that the next owner is a customer. “You want the customer to be happy with what you’re selling.”

Mark Hilton, a Purdue University DVM, says people who buy bull calves, even at a discounted price, aren’t getting a good deal. “They’re making less money than if they had bought steers, and good research backs this up. There are setbacks in growth – and health risks – if calves are castrated late. The health is better, carcass quality is better, welfare of the calf is better, and profit for the feedlot is better, with early castration,” he says.

He adds that the notion of better gains on calves as bulls because of testosterone is a fallacy. “Studies show that a calf must be about 40 weeks of age before he gets a boost from testosterone, and that’s 10 months! It’s not enough reason to leave them as bulls, and it’s not fair to that animal to castrate that late,” he says.

There is no excuse for waiting, unless you intended for them to be bulls and then decide to make steers of the bottom end of the group. “There should be more incentive to producers to do it early. Bull calves are not discounted enough at market,” Hilton says.

“But we can’t just look at dollars. If you are selling a 500-lb. calf, instead of looking at money you lost because he’s a bull rather than a steer, you should consider the calf and realize that you did wrong for that calf – and the buyer who has to take the risk.”

 

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Meanwhile, the buyer is making a mistake, too, thinking the 500-lb. calf is a bargain because it’s discounted $5/cwt. “Bull calves should be discounted at least $10/cwt.,” Hilton says.

Of course, discounts between bulls and steers vary by region, but there’s always a discount. “By the time he is 500 lbs., a bull calf will be about 30 lbs. heavier than if he’d been castrated and not implanted as a baby,” Meyer says. “It would be logical to assume that if you castrate and implant the calf when he’s young, he’ll be the same size as a non-castrated calf, and worth more per pound. Plus, he’s undergone a lot less stress, and with a little implant in the ear, he’ll weigh just as much as the intact male at 500 lbs.”

Castration at this stage of growth, no matter the method, will set big calves back for a while in growth. “Even though you buy them at a discount, you’re losing days of weight gain,” Meyer says. Plus, it’s more stressful on the calf the later that castration is performed, and more potential of bleeding and infections.

Castrating calves late always entails more risk, Hilton adds. He had a client last year who got into a problem because of weather. “He was planting corn when he ordinarily would be working calves, and then harvest was late. This affected his weaning date, and he didn’t get calves castrated or vaccinated before weaning.

“In November, when he put the calves through the chute for their first vaccination, he castrated them at that time – at 500-600 lbs. He put them back on pasture with their mothers, on poor fall pasture. He weighed the calves at initial vaccination/castration, and again two weeks later when he gave final vaccinations and weaned them. The average calf had gained nothing during that period,” Hilton says.

In addition, about 35% of those calves came down with bovine respiratory disease (BRD) after weaning. “The vaccines didn’t work because the calves’ immune systems were compromised by inadequate nutrition, stress of castration, weaning, etc. It takes protein and energy for the body to heal, so castration was one more challenge.”

He says that had those calves been castrated earlier in life, they wouldn’t have undergone the additional stress at weaning and might not have had as much problem with BRD. “This was an example of the compounding effects we see time and again with disease problems. Many small negatives lead to a big problem,” he says.