An eye toward the future has always been a quality shared by top cattlemen. Whether it's a seedstock producer positioning the herd to have a viable genetic base for generations to come or a commercial cattlemen looking to gain the edge by capitalizing on the right combination of genetics and management to be profitable in any market scenario, forward thinking has dominated production of recent times.
In the 21st Century beef industry, “the future is now” is very relevant to everyday production practices. Tools to improve genetics, management and efficiency are readily available through many different outlets. Two-year-old heifers and yearling bull management during the first breeding season still test cattlemen trying to capitalize on these important breeding pieces that could have significant impact on the program. These delicate items are often sacrificed at a huge loss due to lack of forward thinking. Restructuring management practices to keep them sound, both physically and reproductively, will pay dividends in the long run.
Yearling bulls are often the best genetic option for commercial cattlemen. These “young guns” possess progressive pedigrees and the ultimate combination of Expected Progeny Differences (EPDs) that put together above average numbers for desired traits. The unique challenge of maintaining proper body condition score (BCS) and getting cows bred in a timely manner often mesmerizes even the most discriminate producers.
“Yearling bulls are more aggressive breeders and are still growing which makes them a hard commodity to manage. Pay attention to BCS. If a bull gets below a high four, it may not necessarily impact fertility, but it will impact stamina and libido. When yearling bulls get too thin, it may take a long time for them to recover or may have long term affects on future performance,” says Dr. Randy Perry, Fresno State Ag Foundation.
Past experiences often dictate future management practices for commercial cattlemen. Like anything else, nothing makes a statement like a bad experience. Cattlemen may be losing out on future profits when yearling bulls become a problem.
“A lot of commercial cattlemen have tried yearling bulls. For some reason, this failed in their program and they went to buying older bulls. Once this happens it's hard to get those guys back to yearlings. Yearling bulls take special management to be successful,” says Tom Donati, Donati Ranch, Oroville, California. Donati specializes in raising yearling bulls for his customers and utilizes yearling bulls in his commercial herd.
As producers look to capitalize on the advantages yearling bulls bring to the program from a genetics standpoint, simple changes in management philosophy could help the bottom line. Purchasing bulls prior to the breeding season is often a simple solution.
“We like to have our customers purchase bulls at least 30 days prior to breeding season if not longer,” Donati says. “This will help the bulls get acclimated to their environment before they have to go to work.”
“If a producer has the facilities and proper feed resources, a 60 to 90 day acclimation period is ideal. Most producers are buying bulls to go out on dry feed during breeding season and this will help them adjust to their new environment,” Perry says. “If producers don't have proper feed resources and bulls are turned out on really poor feed for 60 to 90 days they'll lose body condition, which only leads to problems.”
A solid relationship with the seedstock provider could also help young bulls during the adjustment period. Knowing the rations bulls were developed on often leads to a greater success rate in the pasture.
“A lot of yearling bulls are fed harder than they need to be. This will lengthen the acclimation period because these bulls are going from getting all they need to a tough environment with poor nutrition,” Perry says. “Some producers will buy bulls at weaning to adapt them to their country before they turn them out as yearlings. These bulls aren't as big and stout, but they get the job done.”
“We develop our bulls on a high roughage diet. When producers take them home and turn them out on grass, the adjustment period is short,” Donati says. “Producers must still pay close attention to the bulls during breeding season and feed year conditions.”
Monitoring the bull to cow ratio and length of breeding season could also help young bulls be more successful breeders. Depending on pasture management, single-sire pastures could be a viable alternative. Multiple-sire pastures provide an insurance policy to commercial cattlemen and help bulls adjust to their workload.
“The main thing we have to do is get as many cows bred as soon as possible. Depending on terrain, we like to turn out one bull to the number of females that match his age. For example, if he's 15 months old, 15 cows. I can do this in an intense grazing system and turn out a single sire for 15 cows. The disadvantage is, if there are three cows in heat at the same time, he won't get them covered like an older bull would,” Donati says. “We also have multiple sire pastures and the younger bulls keep the older bulls working. It is amazing how fast those younger bulls get in there and get the job done.”
“A lot of progressive cattlemen have gone to a shorter breeding season. This is advantageous for yearling bulls because they are aggressive breeders,” Perry says. “Multiple-sire pastures protect producers. If there is a problem, hopefully another bull is picking up the slack. I recommend one bull to 25 cows for a yearling. Pay attention to turn out dates and when the cows are cycling. If there are a high percentage of cows coming in the second time around, it is better to figure it out then than at preg check.”
Using yearling bulls in a rotation sometimes will help increase the number of cows bred early in the season and take the load off the yearling bull. Keeping a close eye on BCS and feed resources will help meet nutritional demands.
“Rotate yearling bulls every 14 to 21 days during the breeding season so bulls can rest. Know your feed conditions. If it is a short feed year, these bulls may have to be supplemented during the breeding season. A good rotation schedule will help manage bulls correctly,” Donati says. “By rotating these bulls every few weeks, 50 percent of the cows should be bred after the first or second rotation. Each rotation should get easier and those bulls will start getting a few days off. At the end of the breeding season, if the yearlings have held their condition, we like to have them out so they get enough experience.”
“It's hard to leave yearling bulls out for a long breeding season. These bulls have nutritional demands for getting cows bred and still have demands for physical growth,” Perry says. “It depends a lot on terrain and feed resources, but a good practice is to rotate bulls throughout the season. Genetics are a big factor. Easier fleshing bulls will handle better in adverse conditions.”
Maintaining yearling bulls through the first season is a producer's number one goal to ensuring the future of his investment. However, the work is far from over. A successful second breeding season depends on a series of timely management practices.
“Even though it is nine months before those bulls have to go to work again, put some condition back on them,” Perry says. “Some producers have a lot of success taking yearling bulls, after they pull them off the cows the first time, and put them in a lot to feed them up for the second season. The mature bulls may be able to get by in the off season on poor pasture, but yearlings have to be taken care of.”
“Yearling bulls are still growing, just like a first calf heifer. After that first breeding season they are sometimes not in very good shape,” Donati says. “I like to see them have a BCS of 6 to start the next season. They need some reserve to work with and they can get more cows bred early in the season.”
Health, management and nutrition have always been the three keys to the cattle business. Providing the right maintenance schedule is just like servicing a vehicle, it makes the machine run better and realize peak performance. Working bulls in the down time gives producers peace of mind that they're ready to go and eliminates problem bulls.
“There are many factors that can affect semen quality, make sure you buy from a reputable source that guarantees fertility. After that, bulls should be semen checked and trich tested each year before breeding season,” Donati says “Bulls that are in poor condition may be infertile breeders.”
“A lot of producers pay close attention to minerals for the cow side of the operation and forget the bulls. During the breeding season, bulls have the same access to the minerals the cows do,” Perry says. “In the off season, it is very important provide them with a good mineral program. There are a lot of options now that make this an easy tool for producers to take advantage of.”
Accidents will happen and there is always the risk of injury to the herd bull battery. All the right steps can be taken and not 100 percent will return to breed cows the next year. Each producer must decide where and if yearling bulls fit into their management scheme. Mating scenarios take a long time to come full circle. A “future is now” approach will allow ranchers to maximize dollars returned from the bull buying budget through proper care and management.