by: Stephen B. Blezinger
Ph.D., PAS

About this time of the year many producers begin giving thought to the future of their cow herd and what the New Year will bring. One major decision they will make will be whether or not they will need to buy a new bull or bulls to replace current animals in the herd. In many cases these decisions have already been made and bulls have been bought at fall production sales or are currently being bought. Whatever the situation one thing the cattle producer must keep in mind is that new bulls, especially since most of these are young – 18 months to 2 years of age – require added management to insure a good start to their career and the kind of longevity we look for in a bull. We've all heard the horror stories from cattlemen who have gone out bull shopping, spent a ton of money on a great animal with super genetics only to have him “fall apart” or “crash” out in the pasture and in extreme cases even die of malnutrition or complications of exertion and lack of necessary nutrients. Every breeder who markets developed, breeding age bulls dreads the phone call from a customer saying, “I don't know what happened to the bull I bought from you, he just fell apart when I put him in with the cows.” While this may not have anything to do with the operation that sold the bull, a situation like this is not good and will probably create a situation where the buyer will not be a repeat customer for the ranch.

So what is a bull buyer or bull producer supposed to do in these situations? First, both individuals (buyer and seller) have to recognize that they have a role to play in the transition process from the bull being on its home ranch and in a development/finishing program to the new ranch where he will be out on pasture and with a group of females he is expected to service. Secondly, the buyer and seller need to communicate about how the bull has been managed through the development period and what will be expected of the animal after purchase. Finally, application of some common-sense management steps can offset a lot of headache and potential ill-will through this process.

This article will review some basics of bull feeding and management during the development process, what it goes through as it makes the transition from developing bull to breeding bull and some guidelines for making this transition as smooth as possible and effectively reduce stress levels in these cattle. Over the next few weeks we will focus on other aspects of bull management. These cattle deserve appropriate care in order to maximize your investment and get the full benefit from the genetics you are purchasing.

Background on Bull Development

A key to understanding how to manage newly purchased bulls is to understand how they are developed in the first place and determining which program was used on the bull or bulls you are considering for purchase. Obviously, ranches have been developing and marketing bulls for years. Development programs vary dramatically from ranch to ranch depending on the owner or manager's philosophy concerning how bulls should be developed and what they perceive their customer base is looking for. These programs can range from the very simple to the very elaborate.

In most cases a bull development program may start soon after the bull calf hits the ground that the owner/manager has decided shows promise of becoming a good bull; to be marketed into a commercial or purebred herd. The decision is based on many factors which we'll not go into in depth other than they can include genetics, EPD's (birth weights, weaning weights, yearling weights, milking ability, etc.), phenotypic character (color, structure including muscling and bone, polled vs. horned, etc.), disposition, overall perceived quality. Overall, bull calves selected to go into a bull development program should be those that will be sound reproductively and that will sire calves that are desirable from a production standpoint, i.e. they will produce meat or milk in a cost effective manner.

Even before the animals are selected the producer has to decide how he will grow out the bull calves and to what point they will be grown. He must decide if they are to be grown and developed from weaning until they are yearlings (perhaps 12 to 14 months old) in which case the buyer will have additional developing to do with that animal. He may decide to grow these cattle further, to 18, 24 or more months of age. Obviously these cattle are bigger, more mature and provide more indication of what they will be like as completely mature bulls. As mentioned, the next question is how does the producer get them to that final target weight? Some of the options used include:

1) Forage Developed – These are bulls that have been grown out and developed on a forage based nutritional program which may be purely pasture, pasture and hay, pasture and silage, hay, hay and silage, etc. In most cases these types of programs require a minimum of mineral supplementation. Depending on the season of the year and/or the forage quality some supplemental protein and energy may need to be provided to keep bulls gaining at and acceptable rate (2.0 to 2.5 lbs per head per day minimum). The goals here are multi-fold. First, bulls are not overly finished by the time they are marketed, in other words they do not carry a lot of extra fat. This is related to lower rates of gain and generally means the producer will have to keep the bulls longer prior to marketing. This also means that the bulls will not be as big as a similarly aged bull that has been developed on a higher energy nutritional program. These bulls will normally not be as “bloomy” or carrying extra amounts of fat across it's body. Second, this allows the producer to take advantage of his forage source as a primary part of the nutritional program, thus reducing costs. This can be somewhat risky if the program is not based on stored forages (hay or silage). Weather patterns can change dramatically over a short time period and can require a change in the program mid-term if it suddenly dries up and pasture quality deteriorates. Cattle developed on these programs are more accustomed to “making their way” out in the pasture and are normally at less risk of falling apart once they have been sold and placed with a group of females. His digestive system is more adapted to extracting needed nutrients, in this case from roughages, which requires a specific rumen bacterial population.

2) Modified Forage Developed – These bulls are also developed on a strong forage base but higher levels of supplemental concentrate are provided to increase the animal's intake of protein and energy and subsequently his rate of gain and finish or fatness at the end of the feeding period. Since these cattle are programmed to gain more they are heavier/bigger at a younger age and can be marketed earlier. This can be good and bad. For the producer it can be good since the animal will not need to be kept as long prior to sale. Second, it takes some of the risk out of depending on the forage base. Third, it's not as expensive as full feed development but can show some of the same positive results. Programs of this nature are often based on limit fed concentrates in many cases used in self-feeders. On the other hand the buyer must be careful that the bull he is buying is not overly developed at too young of an age and may not have the desired maturity to accompany his size. More about this in a bit. Generally, use of a modified forage development program is good since it can incorporate the best of both worlds, utilization of forage resources and more rapid growth and development of the bull.

3) Full Feed Developed – Many producers like using a full feed development program for several reasons. First it can illustrate the animal's true genetic potential for gain and feed efficiency. Second, it results in big, growthy, bloomy bulls that many buyers really look for. A third reason some producers prefer this type of program is that they feel they have complete control over the feeding program and can determine exactly what the animal gets and when. By using a well-designed full feed program producers can grow bulls for appropriate times and to appropriate sizes before beginning to push the animals to higher rates of gain and levels of finish. A complete program of this type will include a “cool-down” program where bulls have the last 30 to 45 days of the feeding period to back off of the high feed intake-high average daily gain protocols and come into the sale on a ration which includes higher levels of roughage, lower energy levels and lower gains. Unfortunately, in an effort to place bulls in a sale in as finished of a condition as possible, producers often push bulls for all they are worth up to the very last day. This can be prevented by careful planning of the entire development period, back into and including prior to when the bull is weaned.

Of all the programs, to the buyer, bulls developed under the full feed programs are of greatest concern and must be management the most carefully after purchase and bringing them home to the ranch.

Management and Feeding of a Bull After He Gets to the Ranch

The last thing a buyer should do with a new bull is to unload him off the trailer directly into a pasture with the females needing to be bred. All bulls, whether yearlings or older bulls (2 year olds) need time to rest and adapt after they are transported home. Whether the sale of the bull is private treaty, production sale or otherwise, the transition from the development pasture or lot, handling through the sale process and transportation home(sometimes there may be transportation to the sale facility), is stressful on the animal and steps to minimize this stress should be taken.

Let's discuss some steps a buyer can use to insure as smooth of a purchase and transition process of a new bull as possible.

1) During the buying process, ask the producer (seller) about his development program. Questions may include:

a) Determine which of the categories listed above their program falls into?

b) How long the bulls have been in the program?

c) What the rates of gain have been?

d) What type of feed or supplements have they been on?

e) How much were they fed daily?

f) Were their any health issues?

g) What type of health program did they use (vaccinations and treatments for any bulls that may have been pulled for sickness)?

2) If possible, procure some of the same feed or supplement the cattle have been fed. If it was a custom mix, ask the producer/seller if he will let you have or sell you a few bags to take home with you for the transition.

3) Transport the bulls home as expediently as possible. Place the bull in a small grass trap with a sound fence, fresh water and hay.

4) If the bull was on a full feed program it will be best to provide him with a similar amount of feed to that he had been receiving. This is where it will be best if the buyer is able to get some of the same feed that the bull has been developed on. It will make the transition easier. If you cannot get access to more of the same feed you will want to begin making the transition over to what feeds you have available within a couple of days of getting him home. Make the change by mixing his old feed with the new feed and over the course of three to four days completely change him over. Abrupt changes in feed can cause severe digestive upset in cattle resulting in scouring, going completely off feed. In extreme cases you could see acidosis or bloat.

5) If the bull has been on a full feeding program or even a forage based program he will need to be “cooled down,” i.e. adapted to a feeding program that is lower in energy. This will not be as much of an issue if you are feeding or supplementing the females he will be running with. In many cases, however, he may be going into a pasture where all he has is grass, hay and a mineral supplement. The issue here is that he will be on a diet that is much lower in energy plus, with the breeding activity he will begin utilizing a lot more energy than he has been as he services the herd of cows he has been placed with. This is allowing the rumen bacteria to adapt to the new ration or feeding program and to subsequently process the new, higher forage levels more effectively.

6) Cooling down should be done over at least a two week period of time. This will also give you time to insure the bull is healthy as well. After about two to three days of arrival, and assuming the feed transition has been made, begin reducing the amount of feed he is being provided. Be sure he has free-choice hay and water. I also recommend keeping a mineral feeder in the pen with the same mineral kept out in the pasture so he knows what these are. Bulls can be pretty tough on mineral feeders so be sure to use one that is durable. Over the course of the next couple of weeks reduce his feeding level either to the level that he will be supplemented with the cows in the pasture or down until he is on full hay and pasture. I do, however, normally recommend supplementing a new bull, especially young bulls as best possible through the breeding season to prevent excessive weight loss.

7) Once the bull is ready to be turned out be sure he is place with a group of females he can service effectively. Younger, smaller bulls should be placed with smaller groups of heifers. Try to stay away from placing yearling bulls with groups of older cows. If this cannot be avoided try to limit the number of females in this group.

What to do if he “Crashes.”

Inevitably from time to time you will have a bull that “crashes,” i.e. losses excessive amounts of weight when he is placed out in the pasture. Generally this is due to not going through an effective transition and cool-down period. However, sometimes a bull will crash simply because his libido drives him to the point where he is breeding cows and not focused on anything else. He simply wakes up one day and has lost a huge amount of weight and has little energy to get around. Your best bet to prevent this is to watch the new bulls carefully to make sure they are not overdoing it. If a bull does crash, pull him out of the pasture as soon as you can and place him back in the smaller grass trap with free-choice hay and water. Remember that he is in a depleted energy stage. Additionally he is probably also depleted in protein, minerals and vitamins. Your best bet is to continue to provide him with has and begin feeding him a complete cattle supplement with a generous fat level. Fat is very energy dense and can effectively replenish energy stores. Do not feed him all he can eat but gradually bring him up on feed until he is consuming one to two percent of his body weight and is showing an improvement in body condition. Once he has regained some condition he can be placed back with a group of females again but remember to watch him closely.


Buying a new bull is an exciting process and provides much anticipation for what he can contribute to the cow herd. The process should be conducted carefully, however, and with a great deal of communication between the buyer and seller. Finally, careful management and commons sense can go along way to successfully introducing a new bull into the herd and insuring he has a long productive life.

Finally, as 2009 draws to a close I want to extend to you all the best of Christmas wishes from the Blezinger Family. We appreciate your readership through all these years and look forward to many more. May all of God's blessings be on you and your family in 2010. Merry Christmas!!

Dr. Steve Blezinger is and nutritional and management consultant with an office in Sulphur Springs Texas. He can be reached at 667 CR 4711 Sulphur Springs, TX 75482, by phone at (903) 885-7992 or by e-mail at


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