Connecticut, West Virginia, Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, Idaho, Nebraska, and Alaska have at least one thing in common: each has a Panhandle (WV has two). The Nebraska Panhandle is the westernmost part of Nebraska, where the prairie turns into rocky mesas, buttes, and pillars, such as Chimney Rock. It’s where the Midwest becomes the West.
Cattle outnumber people by about three to one in Nebraska. While Eastern Nebraska has excellent cropland for corn, the rest of the state is abundant with grassland for cattle grazing. In the semi-arid Panhandle, cattle ranching dominates. That means Rocky Mountain Oysters are a celebrated delicacy.
This past April the Sidney Shooting Park held its 8th Annual Rocky Mountain Oyster Fry and Fundraiser at the Cheyenne County Fairgrounds west of Sidney, Nebraska. At the Silver Dollar Bar and Grill, also in Sidney, you can stop in for cold beer, onion rings, and Rocky Mountain Oysters – described by one satisfied customer as hot, fresh, and tender.
They might have been hot, fresh, and tender, but you and I know that there aren’t any oyster reefs in Nebraska. These Oysters are bull testicles – or, more accurately, calf testicles. In spring or early summer, ranchers dehorn and castrate bull calves that they won’t be using as breeding stock. They call these non-breeding stock steers. The males that keep their testicles and are later used as breeding stock they call bulls. The main purpose of castration is to calm their tempers, says Dr. Jake Geis, cattle rancher and veterinarian.
Simply put, bulls like to fight. They fight to establish dominance and even after they settle the hierarchy, they fight to re-assert dominance. Dr. Geis says that he’s worked on bulls that have been banged up fighting each other; sometimes the animal is so badly injured that a rancher has no choice but to put it down. Breeding bulls are essential so the problem can’t be entirely avoided, but castrating the non-breeding animals reduces the number of bulls from half the calf crop to three or four.
Also, bulls are more aggressive toward people than steers. Castrating bulls makes them mellower and safer to work with. A herdsman could be seriously injured or killed by a bull while loading or unloading them via trailers.
Another problem, says Dr. Geis, is that when bull calves reach puberty, they want to start breeding. Young females, or heifers, on the other hand, aren’t ready to breed. They can get pregnant but they can’t yet safely deliver and raise a calf. Castration eliminates this problem.
Arguably the most important reason for castrating bull calves is that Americans prefer the taste of steer meat to that of bull meat. The hormone profile of steers with their reduced testosterone changes the flavor of the meat. Dr. Geis says that not all cultures share this preference. He mentions that in Italian culture bull meat is preferred. This means they raise the bulls to harvest weight but have to manage all the problems with aggressiveness and fighting.
With a pair of organs coming off each calf, ranchers could easily end up with scores of them in a day’s work. The dogs get their share before the ranchers, herdsmen, and their families cook the rest just as they would any other part of the animal. The same as cattlemen have done for centuries all over the world.
When they’re not castrating bulls, beef cattle herdsmen are doing various other things with cattle such as feeding, giving vaccinations, tagging or branding, trimming hooves, assisting with births, performing artificial insemination, loading animals onto trailers, driving feed trucks, maintaining pastures, mending fences, and just about anything else that needs to be done on the ranch or feedlot.