The toughest time in a young bull's life is generally when he's thrust into the "real world" after being well fed all winter. Most bulls are raised in very unnatural conditions -- confined and fed concentrate feeds, pushed for fast growth. Even the bulls on "growing rations" are carrying more flesh than bulls raised on grass or wintered on hay, and it can be a major adjustment when suddenly turned out with cows. Some of them just can't handle the drastic increase in exercise and decrease in nutrition and fall apart rather quickly. After experiencing wrecks with overfat young bulls, most stockmen become more selective about the seedstock producers they patronize--trying to find a breeder who offers bulls in better working condition.
It also pays to have some kind of transitioning program after you bring a bull home. This will depend in part, however, on how long you have him before he goes out with the cows. Some ranchers buy bulls in the fall or winter while others bring them home just a few days or weeks before turnout. Some breeders offer a feeding or wintering program; even if the bulls are sold in the fall the breeder keeps and feeds them--delivering them closer to breeding season. This works well if you have a seedstock producer you have faith in, not having to worry about keeping and feeding a bunch of extra bulls until turnout, relying on the breeder to have the bulls in proper working condition at the time of delivery.
This situation works for Ross Middlemist at Dixon, Mont., who runs about 350 cows. He's purchased bulls for many years from Ron Skinner at Hall, Montana, who raises Angus, Salers and composites. "The bulls always look like they're ready to go to work when they get here and I don't think they're getting any grain at that point. We just keep them in a group on good hay until turnout," says Middlemist.
"They look pretty good when we bring them back in after breeding season. This past season we brought them in on August 10 and some of the pastures had been pretty meager. I felt good about how the bulls held up," he says. This is an indication that they were conditioned properly. Even if they were pushed for fast growth, they need some time to taper off and back down from that ration. Most bulls will not be getting anything but forage once they reach the ranch where they'll be working.
Ross Goddard runs 800 cows in the Lemhi Valley near Salmon, Idaho and uses a bull for every 20 cows. He buys 8 to 10 new bulls each year and tries to know the breeder or whoever he's buying bulls from, to know what the bulls have been fed. "All of them use a certain amount of grain or concentrate because they have to, to get them big enough soon enough, since almost everyone is selling yearling bulls. You have to know how much they've been feeding the bulls, and trust their judgment," says Goddard.
"When the bulls are delivered, we try to keep them on a little bit of grain concentrate until they go out, since once they go out they are working hard for 45 to 60 days," he says. They lose weight, and some of them lose a lot of weight, and this can be hard on them for the next year. Goddard tries to keep most of his yearling bulls on home pastures rather than range, since range terrain in this country is steep and rocky, and if young bulls go up on the mountain they really fall apart.
"The next year they're in better working shape and we don't feed them any type of grain or concentrate until about two months before the breeding season. We feed all our bulls three to four pounds of grain or a pellet ahead of the breeding season, along with their hay to build them back up and keep them going. We feed them alfalfa or a good mixed hay through the winter. We also keep a good mineral package in front of them all the time they are home.
The bulls are turned out with cows the end of April. Even though Goddard generally buys his bulls in the fall or late winter, the breeder usually holds the bulls and feeds them until late March or April. "So the yearling bulls will be here only about a month before turnout. Most people have them on a corn ration, so we'll keep them on a little corn for a while (but not as heavy a ration) so they won't go all to heck right off the bat, because as soon as they hit the cow herd they are running the weight off," he says.
He keeps the bulls before turnout in a small pasture rather than a pen, so they get used to being in a larger area. They have more room for exercise, to get their muscles in better shape for working. "If I don't have a pasture for them I put them in one of my bigger pens that's drier, so their feet don't get soft."
Roy Hoffman, another rancher in the Salmon, Idaho area, runs a lot of cattle and buys and sells cattle. He says the main thing about buying bulls it to make sure they aren't too fat. Optimum condition for a young bull will also depend a little on the terrain he'll be working in. "If it's a pasture, you can use a heavier bull, but if cattle will be out in the hills you want to make sure the bull is conditioned for that and has had more exercise." The breeder's feed program makes a lot of difference and it really helps if the bulls aren't on a very hot ration. "I think it helps if they are fed more oats and less corn," says Hoffman.
"It also helps if you can feed them in an area where they've got to climb a hill or travel between feed and water. Exercise is very important. It really helps if you can kick them out in a more natural environment; you can always use hot wires to let them use a pasture situation," he says. Some bulls just go to pieces after you buy them, mainly because of too much feed and lack of exercise -- and they can't handle the change.
A good vaccination program is essential for new bulls, to have them immunized against all the disease they might encounter in their new home. Some breeders will have the bulls vaccinated before they are delivered; in other situations you must vaccinate them when they arrive. Goddard says the bulls he buys are trich tested and semen checked, with a breeding soundness exam, but he generally vaccinates them upon delivery, with vaccines recommended by his local vet. "We brand them and give them all the vaccines we want them to have in this area. I usually consult the vet on what we need to give them because it can change; there are sometimes newer better vaccines available," he says.
Hoffman says young bulls, in his experience, are often plagued with foot rot and this can often be helped with a good vaccination and mineral program. There is a vaccine now for foot rot. Health history of the bull is also important. "You need to know if a bull had to be doctored when he was a calf. He may not hold up as well, and may really go downhill when you put him to work, if his lungs were damaged earlier," says Hoffman. It always pays to ask questions when you buy bulls, to know their history.
"Nowdays, we don't have to doctor these cattle very much if they're on the right vaccination program and the cow herd had pre- calving vaccinations. Some people don't like to use scour vaccines but in our area if you use those, and proper BVD vaccinations, it really reduces a lot of problems. We're in a really hot BVD area and the cattle have to be vaccinated," says Hoffman.
Making sure they are dewormed also helps. "We worm ours two or three times after their first breeding season and I know it makes a difference. If you use the injectable wormers these get a little better kill on the worms than a pour-on," he says. "If some of those bulls don't look very good we deworm them again, sometimes three times before their next breeding season."