Recent data collected by OSU Extension specialists reveals a positive trend in the castration of bull calves prior to marketing. In 2013, 10.3% of lots at selected weaned and feeder calf sales contained bulls. However, this number steadily decreased to 7.1% in 2014 and further dropped to 4.7% in 2020. The most recent data from 2022 indicates that only 5% of lots at these sales contained uncastrated males, with a temporary increase to 12% in 2021 due to weather conditions. This overall decrease reflects a favorable shift in the industry.
Castrating bull calves at a young age has long been advocated by extension educators, and objective research supports this recommendation from various perspectives. From a health standpoint, calves castrated before three months old experience lower stress levels, exhibit fewer signs of sickness, and have reduced rates of death loss.
Considering animal welfare, older calves undergo more stress during castration and experience longer periods of stress-related impacts compared to those castrated at birth or branding. Uncastrated bull calves also tend to display more aggressive behavior, increasing the risk of injury to other animals and humans.
When it comes to beef quality, calves weighing over 500 pounds at the time of castration generally have carcasses with less marbling and lower tenderness ratings. This can result in missing out on quality grade premiums. Economically, bull calves castrated after three months of age weigh, on average, 20 pounds less at slaughter and take 12 days longer to reach the desired weight in the feedlot compared to those castrated at a younger age. This translates to higher feedlot costs.
From the perspective of cow-calf operators, bull calves typically receive lower prices at the sale barn relative to steers of the same weight, and this discount tends to increase as calf weight increases. Recent data shows that bull calves can face discounts ranging from $11/cwt to $12/cwt, which can amount to a revenue difference of approximately $30-$60 per head for a 500-pound calf.
One might wonder if bull calves gain weight faster than steers while on the ranch, thereby enabling the sale of more pounds of calf at marketing. However, it's crucial to consider the impact of the bull discount and the price slide associated with selling into a heavier weight category. Burdine's analysis demonstrates that bull calves would need to be 67 to 100 pounds heavier than same-age steer calves to compensate for the bull discount and price slides of $10/cwt or $15/cwt, respectively.
If you currently do not practice regular castration of male calves before sale, it is worth evaluating whether you have the necessary resources to incorporate it into your calf management protocol. Unlike some management practices, castration is easily observable by buyers, making it a straightforward aspect to highlight in "marketing your management." Furthermore, it offers a relatively high return on your efforts. If you require guidance on the how and when of castration, reach out to your county extension educator for assistance. By embracing early castration, you can enhance the health, welfare, and profitability of your calf operation.