So, I didn’t know that there were people that were against the idea of castrating food animals. So let’s get a few things straight. But first! Some background:
- A bull is an intact male cattle.
- A steer is a castrated male cattle.
- A heifer is a young cow. (Cows are female.)
- A buck is an intact male goat.
- A ram is an intact male sheep.
- A wether is a castrated male sheep or goat.
What kinds of animals are castrated?
How does castration work?
To be fair, I will show you the concerns first, but stick with me—castration is an essential part of livestock production. And it’s certainly not done to be mean. For different kinds of animals, there are different methods of castration. For calves, the blood supply to the testicles is interrupted with a castration clamp or a rubber ring or latex rubber band. The testicles then shrink and completely regress (Burdizzo method) or slough off (band method). My personal favorite method is with an emasculator (c’mon, that’s just fun to say), where the spermatic cord is crushed and cut to prevent hemorrhaging while still detaching the testes. This is typically done without anesthetic, but also very quickly; in the band method, the testicles will go numb over a period of time, about ten minutes. Based on a survey by Kansas State University, one in five veterinarians in the US use anesthetics or analgesics. Fun fact: human men use the Burdizzo method and the band method on themselves sometimes. The more you know! With pigs, the most common method of castration is with a surgical knife. The method is as follows (adapted from the pig industry handbook)
- Hold the piglet by both hind legs with its head down.
- Using the thumb, push up on both testicles.
- Make an incision through the skin of the scrotum over each testicle in the direction of the tail.
- Be sure the incisions are made low on the scrotal sac to allow for fluid drainage.
- It does not matter if you cut through the white membrane of each testicle or not.
- Pop the testicles through each incision and pull on them slightly.
- Pull each testicle out while pressing your thumb against the piglet’s pelvis.
- Thumb pressure on the pelvis is important to ensure that the testicular cords break off at the point of your thumb rather than deep inside the body, which may promote development of a hernia.
- If necessary, the testicle may be cut free of the cord using a scraping motion.
- Cut away any cord or connective tissue protruding from the incision and spray the wound with antiseptic.
I’ve heard some complaints that the wound is left open. Yeah, it looks a little freaky, but it’s good to let it drain. Trust me. Even veterinarians in a clinic on an operating table leave it open sometimes.
Aggression: Frankly, intact male livestock are a danger to other animals in the herd and to the humans that work with them. Of course, certain animals are kept intact for breeding, and they are dangerous to work with. Dairy bulls are notorious for their aggression—they will kill someone who enters their pen. Now imagine a herd of a thousand head of cattle, and half of them are pumped up with their natural testosterone, and rarin’ for a fight. Not a good time!
Problems of breeding: Ranchers get to pick which cows are bred and keep tabs on them. They can be given treatments and separated from the herd as they near their time to give birth. If the choice is taken out of the farmer’s hands, calves and cows could be lost to medical complications because the owner didn’t know this or that cow was pregnant. Genetic disorders are a risk if brothers and sisters may mate, and certainly some heifers that are too young to carry offspring will undergo extreme physical stress. Dairy calves are especially susceptible to disease, and must be separated from the herd immediately or they will likely die.
Product: Yes, it’s true—the meat of some animals tastes better to customers when they are castrated. Also, animals tend to gain weight better.
Why not castrate?
It hurts. Some of us will consider this a temporary pain with long-term benefits to the animals and the people. Others will consider this an abuse that needs to be corrected.
What to do, what to do?
Look… we need to castrate farm animals. Disagree with the way it’s done, sure, but don’t say we don’t need to do it unless you’re willing to sacrifice human and animal lives for what can be considered a temporary pain.
So what can you do? We live in a country where customers say, “we want no drugs of any kind, we want no antibiotics, we want no hormones.” You, the customers, are going to have to make a decision. Do you want anesthetics to be used? Speak up. It will cost money. You have to be willing to pay, because that farmer is not going to go bankrupt just so you can feel better. Some counties have outlawed non-anesthetized castration, and that’s fine, if you can get the whole country to do it. The problem is, when your public is uninformed and sees the local meat prices go up, they buy from out of state or imported meat. So, you run into the problem where you hurt your local farmers. I believe in voting with dollars. We’ve talked about this before, in our hog article, about market-driven changes. If enough people write to McDonald’s, for instance, to say “I want my animals raised like this”, and it’s a reasonable demand, changes happen.
There is research on hormonal castrations that are no more painful than an injection. The injection ultimately decreases the production of testosterone for a certain amount of time. It’s expensive and requires more labor, as several injections are required, but there are definitely benefits in animal welfare.
The problem? Holy shit, it’s a hormone. Consumers don’t want it. News flash. You eat hormones every day. They’re natural. It’s protein—you digest them like protein. And, if you’re a woman, you might be taking birth control—a hormone pill! Please. Sounding scientificial doesn’t make something bad.
And now you know the thing that pisses me off: when animal welfare progress is halted because people don’t know any better. Here’s what a lot of people don’t know: topics like this are discussed so much in scientific research, as veterinarians try and find new, better ways to do common practices. It is essential that that happens first, before you fly into a courtroom without offering any alternatives to the practice. It is important to remember that new technology is always emerging, and you will see farmers trying different things to see which is better for them and their animals. The pain associated with castration is a challenge they have to face, but let’s not demonize this practice or assume that ranchers do it because they’re sadistic—they don’t. These are people who take pride in raising up a big, fit healthy animal.
(Post Script: And I promise castration doesn’t ruin the rest of their lives! Those steers and cows running around on the grassy ranches of Northern California look pretty damn happy to me!)