Country Living Series

Monday, July 22, 2013

Cow matters

We needed to take care of a number of cow-related chores before I leave for Portland.

The most important thing was to castrate Chester, our bull calf. Chester is our meat-on-the-hoof, and we normally butcher around two years of age. But his lifespan will be considerably shorter if we don't castrate him, since we won't tolerate another bull on the place. Bulls can become active by about nine or ten months of age, and once they "discover girls" their disposition and temperament goes down the toilet. Hence the need to turn Chester into a steer.

But Chester has been a wiley little boy and evaded our every attempt to pen him. To be fair to Chester, however, the failed attempts were due to our "operator errors," such as not making sure the opposite gate is latched before pushing him through the first gate into a pen. Et cetera.

Anyway, all systems were go on Saturday when we got Chester cornered in a stall.

To castrate, we use an emasculator, sometimes called a bander. This handy and inexpensive little device is nothing more than a gizmo that spreads a tight rubber band over the top of the calf's testicles. It takes literally five minutes or less.

The rubber band is slipped over the prongs...

...and then when the handle is squeezed, the band opens wide.

This band is slipped over the top of the testicles and then the tool is removed, after which the band tightens and deprives the testicles of their blood supply. They whither and dry up within a couple of weeks, and eventually drop off. While somewhat uncomfortable, it's painless. If you've seen the way vets castrate -- throw a calf on his side, slice open the scrotum, clip out the testicles -- all without anesthesia, you'll understand why we prefer this bloodless method.

The challenging part, obviously, is getting the calf's cooperation.

Bull calves can't be castrated until they're at least a few days old, once the testicles have a chance to descend. But little Chester is now about five weeks old, and has some kick in him. Don tied a rope around his neck. (Since the pen is kinda dark, the camera flash is on, which reveals all sorts of dust on the camera lens -- sorry about that.)

Chester was understandably suspicious about our intentions, but fortunately he didn't struggle too hard.

Nonetheless he required two people to hold him. Don grabbed his back quarters then held onto one leg, while Older Daughter stood by to secure the second leg.

After this things got a bit too intense to take photos, so Younger Daughter (who was operating the camera) couldn't get any shots of the actual process. But Don and Older Daughter gently hefted Chester's hind legs off the ground, while I slipped his testicles through the band. It's kinda hard to get the band off the bander, but after one or two attempts I succeeded.

I'm a little concerned that I didn't get the band high enough on his scrotum. A few years ago we had a bull calf we emasculated in the pasture while trying to fend off an angry cow with horns. It was a rodeo, and we learned later that the banding didn't "take." There was juuuust enough testicle left that the calf grew into a nasty-tempered quasi-bull. We were glad to put him in the freezer.

Anyway, after this procedure we immediately let Chester rejoin the herd. He didn't appear to suffer any ill-effects from the operation.

Nonetheless I find myself peering at his nether regions whenever possible. It appears he's banded correctly, so for the time being we won't worry about him and will hope for the best.

The next chore to accomplish was to put a tractor tire into the bull pen to act as a feeder. We've just been feeding Samson and his pen mate Shadow over the fence into their shed, but the old hay is starting to get piled too deep; and until we have a chance to clean their shed, no sense adding more to the pile. A tractor tire will work fine as a feeder until rainy weather comes in the fall.

So, using our neighbor's borrowed tractor, we heaved one of the smaller tractor tires close to the bull pen.

Don cut out the sidewall...

...then we chained it to the tractor bucket and lifted it over the fence into the pen.

It landed upside down (naturally). Samson immediately came over to sniff this new thing.

So, armed with stout poles, we went into the pen to flip the tire over and adjust it where we wanted. Any work inside the bull pen is a two-person operation: one person to do the work, the other person to keep the bull at bay (hence the stout poles). It's not that Samson is mean, it's that he's a bull. We never let ourselves forget that.

Once the tire was flipped over, we filled it with hay for their evening meal.

The next cow issue to address was getting a neighbor's cow in with our bull so he could breed her.

This neighbor has an Angus cow, and since we have the only bull in the neighborhood we're happy to let Samson breed her. So early Sunday morning he came over with the cow in his horse trailer, which he expertly backed up to the barn.

The cow, whose name is Cowbella, made a lot of noise during this process.

This brought ALL of our animals up from the pasture. ALL of 'em. Our fault, we forgot to close the gate to keep them down. I blame it on the early hour.

The last thing we needed was seventeen animals milling around as we're trying to get Cowbella in with the bull, as well as trying to get Shadow out. Since Cowbella is going to be Samson's pen mate for at least a month (through two heat cycles to ensure she gets bred), no sense keeping Shadow locked up with him any longer.

Anyway, I trotted toward the pasture gate and gave the universal "Bossy bossy bossy bossy BOSSY!" call. With Don bringing up the rear, rather to our surprise everyone obediently headed back into the pasture. I made sure to close the gate after them.

Then we could turn our attention to Samson and Shadow. We needed to shoo Shadow out while keeping Samson in. This proved challenging, but successful in the end. Then our neighbor released Cowbella, and she trotted right into the bull pen with very little persuasion. Here Samson gives her a greeting kiss (unfortunately Cowbella was blocked by a tree because otherwise it was a sweet moment).

But of course the part he was really interested in was at the other end, the lech.

With Samson dancing attendance, Cowbella quickly settled in. She's an Angus, and as such is significantly bigger than Samson, who is a Dexter. However we've learned not to worry about the mechanics of small bulls breeding larger cows.

Where there's a will there's a way. Ahem.


  1. I was going to say something like you making me remember the good old days on the farm back in Illinois. Whenever I take a trip through memory lane I remember one night back in the 1950's when I was trying to light a kerosene 2 burner tray to put into the hog waterer to keep it from freezing. On this particular day it was about 15 degrees below zero with a 20 mile an hour wind and dark. I had about 10 strike anywhere matches (in a 20 ga and 12 ga shotgun match holder) but you had to take off your gloves to use them. I was also kneeling in a mix of pig slop and water that was about 1" deep and was already cold to begin with. I finally got the thing lit on the next to the last match and put the burners under the waterer and got the door shut. Ah yes the good old days!!!

  2. I sure hope none of those slippery little things escaped the green cheerio. Looks awful close. I pray that the "job" was successful.
    Do you give a tetanus antitoxin (TAT) at banding? The old vet I worked for years ago always said that most of the cases of tetanus he had seen were from banding so when I did my two boys in 2009, I gave them a TAT just to be safe. Ole Doc taught me alot. Way more than I ever learned from the young whippersnappers who came along later. Some were such know-it-alls that I hated working "with" them.

  3. I think a plastic crochet hook that's had the hook filed a bit bigger would make slipping those bands off easier. Looks like it's down awful far to me. All that extra tissue could just act as a wick for infection, like an undipped umbilical cord.

  4. I don't think you have the green rubber band up high enough. We always put it all the way up at the top of the testicles. Right where they come out of the calf. We also feel them to make sure the testicle is Below the band and hasn't slipped up top of the band. Sometimes when they are getting big, you almost have to slide them through one at a time. He is pretty big to band, actually. We try to do it sooner.
    Personally, if that was my calf, I would cut that one off with a knife and reband him. I would also give him a tetanus antitoxin now. You don't want any problems. You give them the entire bottle of the tetanus antitoxin. this is different than the tetanus vaccine.

  5. What a great "day in the life..." post. Thanks.

  6. Lol, all the cattle people getting twitchy when they see your banding pic - probably having flashbacks :) I have to admit, that's what sent me to the comment section too, but now that I'm here I'll say thanks for all the pretty pictures for me to look at while I sip my coffee.

  7. When we did our bucklings this spring we had to borrow a cow bander for one. Almost seemed a shame to do it, but then we caught a whiff of our buck and it wasn't so bad! Lol! -MaineMamma

  8. I think you are too high. I tried that system one year and went back to using a Stanley carpenters knife with fresh, sharp blades. Less infection and other problems and never a missed testicle as I can count to two. Also, it is easier to get a calf, or sheep or goat, down to work on if you approach them from the side and reach under them between the front and back legs and grab the far side front and far side back legs and pull them up and toward you laying the calf down on it's side. Then you can switch to whatever grip best suits the job you are doing. You would be suprised how large an animal you can handle this way --ken s