When it comes time to make his bull calves steers, Livingston, MT, producer and veterinarian Ralph Miller opts for a band rather than the castration knife.
Miller is among a growing number of producers delaying castration to take advantage of faster, more efficient weight gains from intact bulls. Research indicates bulls typically gain 15% faster and convert feed 20% more efficiently than castrated steers, likely due to testosterone.
Compared to traditional castration, the banding process is also much easier and less stressful on animals.
"Placing a high-tension band on the scrotum appears to generate a more localized immune response than surgical castration. And, if done properly, (banding) doesn't result in any apparent depression of the animal's appetite or rate of gain," says Matt Sween, a research associate with the University of California-Davis Animal Science Department.
Sween has conducted trials among surgically castrated, banded and intact bulls at five months of age, and found that surgically castrated calves typically don't gain weight for seven to 10 days after castration. Banded calves, however, maintain the same rate of gain as bull calves left intact.
"At weaning, banded calves are typically 20 lbs. heavier than those that are surgically castrated," says Sween. "The surgically castrated calves will catch up, but they need more days on feed to do it," Sween says.
Results are similar among older animals, according to Utah State Extension beef specialist Dale ZoBell, who has banded virgin bulls. In comparison trials, ZoBell found intact bulls had the best rate of gain, while bloodless castrates had a better rate of gain than surgical castrates.
By the end of the trial, however, the surgical castrates had caught up. Carcass characteristics (carcass weight, back fat, rib eye area, marbling score and cutability) were the same for all three groups.
ZoBell's results match Miller's experience. Miller bands his January-born calves in September at eight months when preconditioning shots are given. The calves are put back on grass until mid-October when they are sent to the feedlot for finishing. Within that four weeks from September to October, the scrotal sack drops off, according to Miller. "We see a five to seven percent weight gain in the fall and the steers never miss a day on feed," Miller says.
Miller also has three years of carcass results on his steers and is satisfied with performance. This year his steers graded 69% Choice, with about one-third of the carcasses qualifying for the Certified Angus Beef program.
When To Band So when's the best time to band? Utah's ZoBell says, "Banding can be used on any size of bull, but you've got to find a time that fits your management.
"If you've got animals with good carcass traits leave them intact as long as possible to take advantage of performance," he suggests. But he cautions against getting too close to finish.
Castrating too early may not be beneficial either. Sween frowns on elastrator rings put on at birth. "I think it affects the animal's growth. Testosterone is a muscle builder, so when you take that away, it could limit performance."
Elastrator rings can also be less effective in completely removing the testicles, which creates a management problem down the road.
>From a management standpoint, California's Sween advocates banding calves at about five months of age. If calves aren't banded until they are older and they are running with open cows, they may spend most of their time chasing cows when they come in heat, he says.
To avoid this, Sween suggests calves banded at an older age should be weaned or run with bred cows.
Perhaps bandings greatest niche comes in being utilized for castrating older bulls. Dee Griffin, veterinarian with the University of Nebraska Great Plains Veterinary Educational Center, says, "Banding has proven to be an outstanding alternative in that situation to knife castration."
Griffin's worked with the Meat Animal Research Center (MARC) and instituted banding nine years ago as a means to castrate 1,100-lb. bulls that had been involved in genetic research projects. "With surgical castration we had a rate of 8-9 percent complications with 1-2 percent of those being severe. With banding we have few problems."
Today, several hundred bulls are banded at MARC each year and Griffin says he won't handle bulls that come into the feedyard any other way.
For purebred producers Miller says another advantage to delaying castration is the opportunity to select cleanup bulls. "Leaving bulls intact to heavier weights creates an opportunity to select bulls that may make good commercial cleanup bulls."
Proper Procedure ZoBell, Sween and Miller all say they've never had a problem with banded animals getting sick. But ZoBell cautions, "The band needs to be put on right."
A good squeeze chute is a must to properly apply the band. Veterinarian Lynn Locatelli, a feedlot consultant in Benkelman, NE, says it's important when applying the band that both testicles are placed in the band and that the band remains above both testicles before tension is applied. The band also needs to be put on tight.
Locatelli also suggests giving at least one tetanus shot at the time of banding.
"We band feedlot cattle at revaccination time about 14-21 days after arrival. This gives animals a chance to get on feed and also allows the opportunity to give two tetanus shots: one at arrival and, if desired, one at revaccination.
She cautions that not all blackleg vaccines cover tetanus, so she suggests checking for one that does.
Another tip: Miller suggests banding in the morning and keeping calves corralled overnight. "If there is a problem with the band, it'll break right away, and you can treat the calf," he says.
But Miller says problems are usually few. "Anyone we've ever started banding their calves has liked it," he adds.
And Locatelli says banding is a technique that is easy to teach. "Compared to surgical castration, I feel more comfortable teaching a good crew how to band."
California's Sween adds, "The bottom line is that high-tension banding is faster, easier and less traumatic for the animal than surgical castration. Even if it didn't return an extra 10-20 lbs. at weaning, it would still be a great benefit to animal managers."