The first year we had goat kids I took them to the vet to be castrated surgically because I read that it was the most humane method. It was the first and last time I ever did that. The vet gave each one a shot of something that made them limp, but they were still capable of screaming weakly as he sliced open each side of the scrotum, pulled out each testicle and tossed it on the ground. He didn’t stitch up the incisions, saying that they were less likely to get infected if they were open “to drain.”
The following year I decided to try banding because a different vet told me that it wasn’t a big deal, and she even gave me her bander because she no longer raised sheep. Free versus $50 for a Burdizzo (a brand of emasculator) seemed like a no-brainer, even though I’d read that the Burdizzo was considered to be more humane. Banding didn’t seem like a big deal initially. We were not castrating that many bucklings the first year or two we used the bander.
We did notice that most of them would go hide in a corner and act depressed for a day or so. I didn’t realize it at the time because I was still new and mostly clueless, but that’s typical behavior for a prey animal that is in pain and feeling vulnerable. After castrating enough kids with a bander, however, we had some that would throw themselves on the ground screaming, roll onto their back, rub against walls or fences, screaming the whole time, and generally make me feel like a really terrible person. I had to go into the house where I couldn’t hear them.
Then in 2008, I had a couple of bucks that were too big for banding. One was the son of master champion Nigerian dwarf. By the time he was six months old, I just didn’t think he looked good enough to be a buck, even though his mother was a finished champion, so I decided to castrate him.
I also had a LaMancha buck that had developed a very bad habit of jumping fences and getting into the pasture with my Nigerian dwarf does. Because I didn’t want to wind up with a ND needing a c-section because she would not be able to birth half-LaMancha kids, I decided I needed to castrate that big boy. The vet wanted to charge me $100 to castrate him, so the cost of a Burdizzo suddenly looked like a great cost savings, especially since I had two bucks that I needed to castrate with it.
After castrating those two bucks, as well as three ram lambs, I was sold. Although the goats screamed when I pinched the cord, they stopped screaming as soon as I was done. The lambs didn’t make any noise at all when I pinched the cord. In no time, they were walking around normally. They were not depressed and hiding in a corner, and no one was throwing themselves on the ground screaming in pain as the blood flowing into the scrotum was being trapped there.
The next year after castrating several bucklings, I asked my daughter how they were doing when she came inside from the barn. She said, “Fine. Why are you asking?” When I told her I had castrated them about 15 minutes earlier, she was shocked because they were bouncing around like normal kids already. She had no idea they’d been castrated that morning.
Last week as were about to castrate our last bucklings of 2017, I got the idea to do a Facebook Live so that Thrifty Homesteader followers could see how a Burdizzo is used. I thought it would be educational. It was. But it also went viral (more than 13,000 views) and caused a lot of controversy. (The video is embedded at the end of this post.)
In 15 years of raising goats, I had actually never heard anyone say anything negative about using a Burdizzo, so I was really surprised at the number of negative comments. I was also surprised by a lot of the misinformation being shared in the comment section. I tried to keep up, but with more than 100 comments, I probably missed some. So I decided to write this post to address the most common questions and objections.
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Pain management when castrating goats and sheep
By far the most common questions were those centered around the pain of a goat being castrated. First of all, there is no pain-free method of goats and sheep castration. Those who think banding kids is pain-free are terribly mistaken. Wrap a rubber band around your finger so tightly that it cuts off the blood flow and see how it feels. You’ll be pulling it off within minutes. (Yes, I tried this myself.)
Kids don’t usually scream when you put the band on because that part doesn’t hurt. It’s when the blood flow is affected that the pain starts. That’s when many go hide in a corner, and some will start screaming. But if you’ve already left the barn, you don’t hear it.
What about anesthesia? Goats do not do well with general anesthesia. Vets don’t usually use it unless it’s a matter of life and death because some goats don’t wake up. In fact, they usually don’t even use anesthesia for a c-section. We’ve had two c-sections, and there was an anesthesiologist available for one of them, so the doe was sedated.
But there was not an anesthesiologist available for the other one, so she had an epidural, which is pretty freaky for a goat — not to mention the goat owner seeing her goat kick and move when her side is cut open. It was one person’s job just to hold her during the surgery and keep her from moving as much as possible. Although she wasn’t feeling “pain” during the surgery, she was stressed out, and it would have certainly been easier to have her unconscious. I know other goat owners who’ve had similar c-section experiences.
What about a local? Lidocaine is a prescription drug, and I don’t know of any vets willing to give a bottle of it to a goat owner, although there are probably some that do. However, an injection of lidocaine burns! I’m sure kids would scream just as much from a shot of lidocaine in each side of their scrotum as they do for the pinch of the Burdizzo. At our local hospital, they automatically offer everyone a local when inserting an IV. I’ve said no because I didn’t see the point of getting a burning injection just so I didn’t feel a needle prick.
However, I was with a friend at another hospital when she needed an IV, and she was very fearful. I asked the nurse if they could give her a local, and the nurse said they didn’t do that there because they didn’t want to deal with the possibility of an allergic reaction. So, even with humans, the idea of using a local for a quick procedure is controversial and not without risks. If I’m going to have a dentist drilling in my mouth for ten minutes, I’ll take the shot, but for something that lasts literally five seconds, which is how long you pinch the cord, I really don’t see the point.
Some people commented that sheep and goat castration should be done by a vet. I’m assuming those were people who are not raising livestock. It would not be less painful if a vet did it. Some vets use a Burdizzo for castration, and they may or may not give anything for pain, depending upon their philosophy — kind of like whether or not a nurse will give a human a local before inserting an IV needle. Some vets do not even give anything for pain when castrating sheep and goats surgically. In fact, Goat Medicine, a veterinary text, says that kids under a month of age are often castrated surgically without anesthesia.
Risk of infection following sheep and goat castration
When kids and lambs are banded, there is a risk of tetanus because it’s an anaerobic condition, which is where tetanus thrives. The band also creates a nice little crevice where soil can get wedged, and soil is where tetanus lives.
When I first started banding, I knew a woman who warned me about tetanus. Her brother had quit banding and switched to the Burdizzo because he’d lost too many lambs to tetanus from banding. I was always worried about this for the six years that we were banding kids and lambs, but luckily we didn’t lose any. Since the Burdizzo does not break the skin and is bloodless, there is no risk of tetanus. There is also a risk of fly strike (maggots) when bucks are castrated surgically or banded.
Age at castration for goats and sheep
Several people commented on the video that the kid was too old to be castrated, and that kids should be castrated as young as possible. This is not true for goats or sheep. When castrating pigs, they have to be done surgically, and it’s true that it’s easier on them if done within the first week. Many people also do calves within the first week simply because they’re smaller and easier to handle.
However, goats and sheep have very narrow urethra, which make urinary stones particularly deadly for them. A stone the size of a grain of sand can kill them because it’s impossible to pass. So, sheep and goat breeders wait until at least two months to castrate because it gives the urinary tract more time to mature. This is especially important for kids that will be pets or weed eaters, as well as fiber wethers because those animals will hopefully live long lives.
If you are raising sheep or goats for meat and will be butchering them in a few months, it’s not as much of a concern because they are going to have a very short life. However, we rarely wether our sheep now because we realized they grow faster if they are intact. We’d rather leave them intact and send them to the locker at six to eight months than castrate them and feed them hay over the winter, then send them to the locker the next year and wind up with the same amount of meat as we’d have had if we left them intact and butchered them a year earlier.
Success when using a Burdizzo to castrate goats and sheep
When I started using the Burdizzo in 2008, the only complaint I had ever heard was that you didn’t immediately know if it was a success. Because you are crushing the cord, it doesn’t look any different after you’ve done it. There’s no band. Unlike surgical castration, the testicles are still in the scrotum.
Once the cord is crushed, blood can no longer flow to the testicles, so they shrivel up and disappear. But it will be a few months before you can’t feel anything in the scrotum. When castrating sexually mature animals, the testicles will shrink, but may not disappear entirely.
Last week I was estimating that we’d castrated about 150 bucklings with a Burdizzo in the last 9 years and about 100 with a bander before that, but after looking at my records, I realized it’s closer to 200 castrations with the Burdizzo. We’ve had 0 failures on goats.
One reason I think it’s been so successful is because I hold the cord with one hand as I’m clamping it with the other, so it can’t slip out. All of the people I’ve heard complain about failures with Burdizzos have been cattle people, and if you’ve ever seen a cattle Burdizzo, it’s huge and you have to use two hands with it. That means it’s impossible to hold the cord while clamping. I have used the sheep and goat sized Burdizzo on smaller cattle, such as Jersey and Irish Dexter, and it worked fine.
Because we usually butcher intact lambs, I have not castrated that many sheep. However, if a lamb is not big enough to send to the locker in the fall, I have castrated them so they can grow out more over the next year. I have had three failures in sheep.
I think this was due to the fact that 6-month-old sheep have wool on their scrotum — a lot of wool! And it provides a great cushion that protects that cord. The first time I castrated sheep I was worried that it might not have been successful because it didn’t feel like it clamped down as far as it does with the goats, even though it locked into place. It only failed on one side on three sheep, but they’re not wethered unless both sides have been castrated. So, if you have a failure, you can see how one testicle keeps growing while the other is shrinking.
I have recently heard that some people clamp both sides twice, but I don’t see the point in doing this with goats. There have been three or four times in all the goats I’ve done when I thought the cord might have slipped out of the Burdizzo, and in those cases I re-clamped that side.
But in the case of the sheep, I redid the failed side when we discovered it a few weeks later. If I do older sheep again, I will clamp each side twice if they have a lot of wool on their scrotum. It’s ultimately less stressful for them to have to go through the whole procedure only once, rather than waiting a few weeks and going through it again.
If you sell sheep or goats that have been castrated with a Burdizzo, be sure to tell the buyer. Many years ago I bought a sheep that had just been castrated with a Burdizzo, and when I noticed testicles, I freaked out thinking that he was still a ram. I emailed the seller, and she explained Burdizzo castration to me.
However, some buyers might just take the animal to the vet and have it go through another procedure unnecessarily. I have heard of this happening multiple times. Unfortunately, some vets are unaware of the normal size of goat and sheep testicles at various ages, and if they feel any testicles at all, they just assume the goat needs to be castrated. This is why I created the photos below that show the difference between brothers — one who is intact and two that were castrated.
When I sell goats that have been castrated with a Burdizzo or Side Crusher, which is a similar tool, I also show buyers exactly what size the testicles are in relation to the length of my fingers, so they’ll know when they’re shrinking. And I explain to them how big the testicle would get within the next month if they had not been castrated.
Having experienced all three different methods of sheep and goat castration that are common in the US, we prefer the Burdizzo because the kids and lambs are the least stressed and recover more quickly. Plus I don’t have to worry about tetanus, fly strike, or other infections because the skin isn’t broken.