The day after the calf was born, he was somewhat friendly and curious about us. He walked right up to me. I went out to check on him the next day after that, and he had become leery of me and stuck close to Rosie, his almost always skittish mother cow. I thought that it wasn’t going to get any easier to catch him, so I decided to get a rope around him.

It wasn’t easy. I managed to get Rosie to go one way, and the calf to head into a corner. As I closed in, he made a break for it, but I caught him. I was completely shocked by how strong he was already. He let out a howl, bucked and kicked. I held on tight. Rosie came over and started making concerned mother cow noises. I managed to get him under control. I put the rope around his neck and tied him to a fence post. He didn’t like being on the rope. He started jumping around and trying to slip free. He tripped over himself and went onto his back. He became remarkably calm. I walked over to have a look at him, and there they were:

Bull calf balls in a little, furry sack.

“Oh man,” I said to myself, “those have to go.”

Covered in mud and shit from wrestling the calf in the paddock and thinking about how strong and fast he was after just a couple of days…well, “it” had to be done sooner rather than later.

If you happen to be clueless about how to castrate a calf, I was just as clueless at that moment, standing there, looking at his little marbles. I went inside and consulted our books. None of them addressed this situation. (Maybe they assume that people just “know” these things.) I typed “calf castration” into Google and began reading.

There are three methods, and I wasn’t looking forward to having to carry out any of them on that little bull:

1) Surgical – Cutting open the scrotum and removing the testicles
2) Burdizzo – Crushing the blood vessels to interrupt the blood supply to the testicles
3) Elastrator – Elastic band obstructs blood flow to the testicles and the scrotum

I called Paul, Becky’s cousin. Many of you will remember Paul from my Bacon post on Cryptogon. Paul is a dairy farmer, but he grew up on a massive bull farm. His dad, Donald, is a life long stockman. Paul would know what to do.

He said that the elastic band method is the way to go. He also said that he had an extra elastrator tool that I could have.

I drove over to Paul’s farm (15 minutes from us). Paul handed me the tool and a jar full of bands.

“One will do the job, but my old man uses two to be sure.”

This elastrator won’t win any beauty contests, but it gets the job done

Becky called her dad and explained what we had to do. Bruce had castrated his share of beasts and was willing to help us out.

Just before dark, Bruce and I set out into the paddock. We walked over to where I tied up the calf earlier and found an empty rope; he’d slipped out. Maybe five meters away, there was and Rosie and the calf. I had a headlamp on, and the bright light dazzled the calf for a moment. I tried to catch him, but he fled. Bruce and I got him cornered and he tried to get through Bruce this time, but without luck. Bruce went low and tackled the calf. I came up along side the calf and pulled his legs out from under him to get him on his back.

You’ve got to keep positive control of those hind legs or the creature could really clean your clock. His strength was incredible. (Well, it seemed incredible to me anyway.) Bruce put one of his gumboots down on the left leg while I held the right. I handed the elastrator tool to Bruce and a couple of latex rings with my spare hand.

He readied the tool. He then checked to make sure he could feel both of the calf’s testicles. (It’s critical to place the ring so that the bloodflow to both testicles is cut off.) He told me to feel them, so that I would know how to do it for sure the next time. I did. One. Two. A couple of seconds later, the first ring was on, and then the next. With that, we stepped away from the calf and he (for a few more days, anyway) got up and ran over to Rosie.


I don’t see things like this as pleasant or unpleasant, mean or not mean. It’s just reality. That calf represents a lot of food security for our family. These things just have to be done.

I’m probably like many of you: I’ve been abstracted from the underlying reality of eating meat for my entire life. Mentally, of course, I understood what was involved with eating a steak, but the disconnect from the process was astonishing. I have a very different outlook on the thing now; a reverence for it. There’s a remarkable feeling of accomplishment in all of this, even if we’re just trying to learn what many people were well into forgetting roughly one hundred years ago. It’s not easy, but it’s honest and real.

8 Responses to “Castration”

  1. Channa says:

    Good post; thank you. I read your post while watching our heifer and her mom. We were relieved that we won’t have to deal with castration this year, though it’s definitely a good skill to have. Your points about the origin of food, especially meat, resonates very deeply with Nate and I. We’re taking on a pig next week to raise for meat and lard. It’s a learning experience for our friends when they ask, “what are you going to name it?” and we reply “you don’t name it if you’re going to eat it.” They express shock, but hopefully they think about it the next time they enjoy a burger. Food becomes so precious when it’s at the expense of your own labor and another creature’s life. The reminder is appreciated.

  2. Ralph Corderoy says:

    For us city dwellers, why castrate the calf? Apart from stopping possible future offspring of course. Are you after castrato mooing?

  3. pebble says:

    I know very little about cattle, so have some questions. Why do you castrate so young? I get that it’s easier, but am wondering why you need to if you are growing for meat – is it because male cattle become aggressive as they get older (I know that goats do)? Does early castration affect the way the meat grows differently than if you leave the bull intact?

    What was the bull calf’s reaction to the rubber ring?

    I agree too about how distanced most of us are from how meat comes about. Thanks for the detailed explanation.

  4. Kevin says:

    —Why castrate the calf?

    * Bull meat is extremely tough and sinewy.

    * Castrating early minimizes discomfort for the animal.

    * Bulls are an entirely different class of animal to handle. They are not easy to contain or manage. The bull must be authoritatively kept away from cows that you want to remain empty (that’s how people around here refer to cows that aren’t in calf). Hint: If a bull sees, hears or smells a cow that is in season, you’re going to have broken fences. The Ambler is a remarkable creature, though. We were lucky our neighbor lent him to us. And yes, we made sure the gate was open when we let him into the paddock with our cows.

    —What was the bull calf’s reaction to the rubber ring?

    If it was uncomfortable, he showed no sign of distress at all. He went about head butting the other cows and running around as he did before.

  5. gaile says:

    Thanks for sharing this story with us. As a pescatarian who’s killed her share of fish, but doesn’t eat meat with legs anymore, I find it fascinating and admirable that you’re willing to face the reality of meat consumption head on, with reverence for the process, and the life of the animal.

  6. pebble says:

    Thanks for the extra detail Kevin.

  7. sarah says:

    This is really helpful to me as I am trying to decide how to castraate some buck goatlings and was thinking about a scalpel as opposed to the elastrator.
    Also, we are a family with 2 vegetarians who are attempting to get their heads round meat eating, as we are aiming to live sustainably. I am trying to persuade them that eating our own home -reared animals is so much better than substituting the protein source with intensively farmed dairy products bought in the shop. We are hoping our boer goats will provide us with some of both.
    Also found the stuff you wrote on goats really valuable.

  8. Rebecca says:

    Hi Sarah,
    Glad you found this helpful. You might want to look into the castration issue a bit further if you are thinking about using the elsatrator. We’ve not had to deal with goats yet, but I have heard that it might be a bit harder to use the elastrator successfully with goats than with steers. Personally, I’d want to discuss this matter with someone who has actually castrated goats before I went ahead.
    Thanks for your feedback. Good luck with your goats. . . and also with your vegetarians!