The Kindest Cut of All

Meat and Livestock Australia funded research has taken the guesswork out of which castration method delivers the best animal welfare outcomes for the northern cattle industry.
calendar icon 8 January 2013
clock icon 7 minute read

Banding, rings or the knife? Which is the most humane castration method?

Carol makes behaviour observations following castration.

University of Queensland Senior Research Fellow Carol Petherick, who recently completed research comparing tensionbanding with surgical castration, says appearances are deceiving and less blood is by no means a guarantee of less pain or less risk of infection. Carol said the research clearly showed tension-banding castration is an inferior option to surgery for the northern beef cattle industry.

“Castration is one of the most common procedures carried out in the beef industry. From a marketing perspective tensionbanded castration is promoted as producing superior welfare and production outcomes compared to other castration methods, particularly for older bulls,” she said. “However, our research shows this is perception, not fact.”

Tension banding being applied.

Three months post-castration, researchers found there were no weight or production differences between the two methods.

Research Approach

Carol, along with a team from CSIRO, New Zealand’s Massey University and the Queensland Government, compared the welfare outcomes of tension banding versus surgical castration on two age groups of Brahman bulls: weaners (seven to 10 months old) and older bulls (22 to 25 months old).

Pain was assessed by measuring blood cortisol levels (a hormone activated by stress) and by recording the animals’ behaviour. Wounds were also assigned a score to help monitor post-castration healing and recovery.

“We found banding caused less pain and discomfort than surgical castration during the procedures,” Carol said. “However, during the next 1.5 hours, banded bulls from both age groups experienced greater pain and stress than the surgically castrated bulls.”

This data logger helped assess levels of animal stress by detecting how long the bulls spent standing or lying down.


Carol said ketoprofen (a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory) helped alleviate pain in the surgically castrated mature bulls (mostly between 1.5 and three hours afterwards) but not in the mature banded bulls.

“Ketoprofen made little difference to the weaner groups, they all recorded high cortisol concentrations but we believe this was because the mature bulls were all quiet and accustomed to being handled while the weaners were not, and the cortisol response to pain was masked by their stress response to being handled and restrained,” she said.

Two to four weeks post-castration the mature banded bulls were still showing elevated cortisol compared to the surgical castrates, while haptoglobin concentrations (an indicator of inflammation) were significantly high in all banded cattle.

Kilos and Costs – The Profit Drivers

The simple philosophy of the groups is based on establishing two figures – the kilograms of meat produced and the costs of producing that meat.

Facilitator Bill Hoffman, of Hoffman Beef Consulting, said each group addresses unique production and profit issues at quarterly meetings, but at their core is a strong focus on measuring and monitoring business health through annually calculating the kilograms and the costs.

Located at Guyra, Ebor, Yarrowitch, Baryulgil, Northern Rivers and in the North West, the groups involve 72 producers who collectively manage 79,900 cattle, conservatively valued at $63.9 million, across 119,850ha.

“The most profitable beef producers do not necessarily have the lowest cost of production (CoP), but they have it under control, it’s relatively low, and importantly, they’re using the figure to improve their beef enterprise,” Bill said.

Most of the groups have been calculating CoP for a number of years, which has enabled Bill to develop indicative regional benchmarks for different beef operations in various locations.

Comparing CoPs

Within the six groups there is a wide range of CoP each year from $0.79/kg to $3.92/kg. Each year there are outliers (notably different figures from the bulk of the data) for a range of reasons, but the median 2010-11 CoP across the Ebor, Guyra and Yarrowitch groups was $1.22/kg.

“The benefit of having six beef profit groups with the same facilitator is we can compare the CoP within the group, and across the groups, because it was calculated in the same way,” Bill said.

“In the early days the group environment offers support and confidence in calculating CoP. Over time the capacity is built within the individual members so that if the group was to dissolve, producers would continue to calculate their CoP individually as a measure of business health.”

Bill emphasised any form of benchmarking needs to be approached with caution.

“Benchmarking an individual business year-to-year with itself gives the most informed view of where the business is going. A high CoP in one year may indicate one off events such as major pasture renovation or significant repairs and maintenance so it is important to look at the trend over a minimum of three years, preferably five,” Bill said.

“To date we have kept the process simple as that is what group members tell me they want. We focus on the operational level of the business and a small number of Key Performance Indicators that are strongly collated with profit and I am sure that has strong flow on benefits to overall profit.”

CoP and kilograms of beef produced are strong indicators of profit. Between 2008–09 and 2010–11 CoP has fallen by $0.33/kg and kilos of beef produced has risen by 14,896kgs across the three NSW northern tablelands Beef Profit Network groups.

“In 2010–11 86% of the members would have achieved a positive operating margin in $/kgs of beef they produced and that is a pleasing result,” Bill said.

Average Cost of Production (/kg) and Total Kilograms of Beef Produced over three years for Six Beef Profit Groups.

Source: Bill Hoffman

Measuring Greener Pastures

Southern Australia’s first pasture audit in 17 years has found pasture varieties and their condition have changed dramatically in the past two decades.

Analyst Graham Donald, who also worked on southern Australia’s first pasture audit in 1994, observed the effect of prolonged drought and the tightening economic situation for many producers has had an impact on pastures.

“The audit showed 30% of southern Australia’s pastures are in decline and there has also been a substantial change in pasture composition which reflects the huge shift in the way farmers do business,” Graham said.

He explained one of the biggest changes was an increase in the variety of pasture cultivars and the large-scale adoption of fodder or dual-purpose crops, reflecting a drive for increased enterprise flexibility as producers hedge their bets against climatic challenges.

State Trends

The audit, funded by MLA, found the area planted to lucerne in NSW, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and south Western Australia had risen considerably while Tasmania also had increased plantings of cocksfoot. South Australia had more fescue and burr medic and in Western Australia, there were more plantings of serradella.

Conversely balansa clover plantings had substantially reduced.

“This could mean it was oversold in the ‘90s or just didn’t have the persistence producers wanted,” Graham said. “The recent perturbed climate events following a period of extended drought may affect the sustainability and persistence of some pastures.”

Research Direction

MLA Manager, Environmental and Natural Resource Management, Cameron Allan said the results of the audit will provide input to the $27 million Feedbase Investment Plan and also ensure a maximum return on producer levies by helping to identify the best R&D opportunities.

“A defendable case is required for investment decisions and historically, pasture-related information generally available is now insufficient – it lacks detail,” he said. “This audit has gathered opinions from local experts about the mix of pastures in their locality.

“Many pieces of data are combined to build a case including ABAREs statistics, volume of seed sold and local evidence but it still leaves us with an incomplete understanding of the feedbase that supports our livestock industries.”

Cameron said this unique snapshot of pasture composition and condition had enormous potential.

“We hope to create a living database where this information can be more regularly updated and provide valuable support and sound justification for investment decisions made by the public and private sectors,” he said.

“It could also be used to update producer tools such as the website www.”

Cameron said the next step is to work with public agencies and the private sector to see how this information can best be used to support industry.

A Map Illustrating Subclover Distribution Across Australia.

Above: A relatively new pasture in Australian livestock production, serradella now grows on 1.5% of West Australia’s grazing area.
Source CSIRO.

January 2013

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