Bulls are tough. They have to be, to withstand the abuse they give each other.
While helping move range cattle as a child, I witnessed a fight between two old bulls that left a vivid memory. They were evenly matched and equally determined, there was no way the riders could break up the fight. The bulls were oblivious to humans, bullwhips, stock dogs and chucked rocks as they crashed into trees in an aspen grove, snapping small trees off like matchsticks. We finally had to take the herd up the mountain without them, leaving those two bulls to finish their battle in their own good time.
Bulls are very durable, but occasionally they do get injured. It can be very frustrating to have a good bull out of action when you were counting on him. All the accidents and injuries that happen with bulls cannot be prevented, but there are ways to minimize the risks.
Minimize Injuries During Breeding Season
Bulls that got along reasonably well during winter become more competitive when there are cows to breed. Len McIrvin, who runs horned Herefords near the Canadian border at Laurier, Washington, raises some purebreds to supply bulls for his operation. He turns out 130 bulls on range and says there are always a few freak injuries such as broken legs. He even had one bull killed by having a horn run through his ribs, but most of the injuries consist of broken penises and stifled bulls.
"We try to use younger, lighter bulls on heifers," McIrvin says. "This reduces the risk of a broken penis. You get more injuries with bigger, heavier bulls trying to breed heifers."
He says injuries due to fighting can be minimized if bulls intended to be turned out together for breeding can be wintered together first. "Then the pecking order is already established, and they are not apt to fight so much or so hard. If you keep bulls separated during the off season, they spend more time fighting when you finally put them together. An older bull, especially, has more trouble if he's been separate. If he gets whipped, he can't handle it psychologically and he'll go off and sulk, and not do you any good."
Another problem McIrvin sees during breeding season is bulls that are out of commission due to eye problems. "With our dry desert range conditions we have dust, cheat grass seeds, and pinkeye problems. A bull with a blind eye is at a disadvantage when fighting and may become injured. Management to control flies and pinkeye can prevent some of these problems."
If a person doesn't have to breed on range, with all the bulls running together, there are more options to prevent the kind of fighting that results in injuries. On our Idaho ranch we breed cows in April, before they go to the range, in small breeding groups with 1-3 bulls in a group. In groups with two or three bulls, we select closely related bulls that are compatible, with a pecking order already established, such as bulls of different ages. The younger bulls rarely challenge the older ones, since they've already lived together over the winter and know who is boss. By contrast, if you have evenly matched bulls they spend most of their time fighting or trying to keep each other from breeding, and may injure one another while breeding. Serious injury can occur if one bull hits another while in the act of mounting a cow.
Greg Shaw of Shaw Cattle Co., Caldwell, Idaho, says they have had few injuries since they only turn out one bull to a pasture in their purebred herd. However, he does have several recommendations for producers.
"When turning out bulls for breeding, make sure they are in proper condition, physically fit and not overweight. And when possible, take the bulls out of the cows when done breeding. Have a short breeding season and don't leave them with the cows all summer," Shaw says.
Once the breeding activity slows down, bulls have nothing better to do than spar and go looking for trouble -- fighting tends to increase when bulls are "unemployed."
Off Season Injuries
Last fall one of our neighbors, Sam McKinney, who runs Angus cows and Limousin bulls, had two, 3-year-old bulls break a hind leg, in separate accidents. This was after breeding season, with the bulls locked away from the cows.
"We had 14 bulls there," he says. "Some yearlings and six, big 3-year-olds that were always sparring around. It was a big pasture with lots of room, but they were always fighting. I didn't see the accidents, but I suspect two bulls were fighting, head to head with legs braced, and a third bull rammed into one of them. I've never seen a broken leg occur just from normal fighting, but if a third bull hit them full force while that leg was braced, it could snap."
McKinney also said, "bulls may have their differences settled and be calm and quiet, until you start moving them. Then they always fight, using the disruption to take advantage of one another."
We've found the same problem at our place. When moving a group of bulls from one end of our place to the other -- two miles along a road -- we no longer trail them because of the continual fighting which is a danger to each other, the horsemen and the fences. Now we haul them instead.
Dr. Duane Mickelsen of Washington State University, who specializes in bovine reproduction, recommends bulls be as physically fit as possible to avoid injuries due to fighting.
"Young bulls that have just come off test may look great but they are pampered and fat, and more apt to be injured. If possible, keep them separate from your other bulls for awhile, and in an area where they have to do some walking, until they've had a chance to get more exercise and fitness. Young bulls are like young football players, they are easily injured until they get in shape."
McIrvin agrees that fitness and experience are crucial. It is important for young bulls to live together and learn how to fight and protect themselves. A bull that hasn't experienced the rough and tumble of sparring for pecking order is a prime candidate for injury when he is put with other bulls. McIrvin stresses the use of good judgment and a knowledge of cattle psychology when managing bulls.
"Whatever happens with bulls is predictable. We just need to take time to use cattle psychology," he says.
Shaw tells his bull customers to keep the new bulls separate for awhile, instead of putting them in with older bulls, especially if the footing is bad due to icy conditions.
"Minimize the mixing of young bulls and older bulls as much as possible," he says.
Mickelsen advises producers against putting one new bull in with a group because he will get picked on. If bulls must be mixed, it's better to add several at once, to spread the fighting around so no one individual has to bear the brunt of it.
He also says that "horned bulls confined together in small areas can be big trouble. If a bull gets cornered he can really get hurt. They must have room to get away. Horned and polled bulls can be together without problems if the bulls have room to get away from one another."
Also, to avoid freak accidents, keep hazards and obstacles to a minimum in bull lots (old fences, fallen trees, feeders in bad locations, etc.). Footing can also be a factor in bull injuries. Mickelsen says that dirt is always better than concrete in a bull lot. While concrete is nice for cleaning; manure away from feeders it gives poor footing and contributes to a lot of injuries.
Deep mud can be a problem, but can also be beneficial. When bulls are fighting. "They wear out quicker and will quit fighting sooner," Mickelsen says.
He also says that some older bulls of the same age can never seem to settle it and should never be put together.
The worst injury Mickelsen has seen was an older bull trying to fight a younger, stronger one. "The older bull had never been whipped before and would not quit, just standing there braced and pushing, and he snapped both stifles. He was totally crippled."
His muscles were stronger than his bones. To avoid this kind of problem, Mickelsen recommends good nutrition for bulls and adequate minerals in the diet to build and keep bones strong.
He also emphasizes the importance of good conformation and soundness. More injuries occur when bulls have poor hind leg conformation, especially post-legged (hind legs too straight, no angulation in stifles and hocks). Sickle-hocked bulls with too much angle in the hind legs also tend to break down, he says.
Shaw agrees that conformation is the most important thing. "The first criteria for reducing risk of injury is to select bulls that are structurally sound."
Strong well-formed legs and joints, proper leg angles and adequate bone can be as important in a bull as muscling and feed efficiency. A large investment in a fast-gaining, young bull will be wasted if he becomes injured and cannot breed cows or must be butchered for salvage.
Much like teenage boys, bulls should be expected to partake in a certain amount of sparring back and forth. However, producers can take certain precautions to help minimize the chances a herd bull will become injured.
About the author: Heather Smith Thomas is an accomplished freelance writer and rancher in Salmon,, Idaho. Her work includes several hooks on livestock production and management, additionally her articles appear in many popular beef cattle publications.