Your calf crop depends on the bulls you put with your cows. Bulls are half the equation, regarding genetic quality and how early in the calving season your calves are born. If bulls are not optimally fertile you may end up with a higher percent of later calves. The care and management of bulls during their off season—when they are not out with the cows—can make a big difference in whether or not they can do their job.
Larry Melhoff, 5L Red Angus (Sheridan, Mont.) says that bull management will vary with each operation, partly depending on facilities available for keeping bulls separate from the cows. Many ranches try to utilize a pen or pasture that's located away from the cows. “We encourage people to take the yearling bulls out of the cows and make sure they regain any lost weight. They do need to catch up a bit if they've worked hard,” he says.
“Sometimes people leave all their bulls together, but this can be hard on the yearlings and sometimes even the two year olds if they are still losing their teeth. Many people never feed their bulls any extra, so the older bulls do very well and the young ones may take a beating,” says Melhoff. The yearlings and two year olds do better through winter if they can be in a group by themselves.
“We have our older bulls in a 250 acre hillside pasture and they do fine—and the exercise is good for them. They are a lot like dry cows, once they are mature. It's the young bulls that need a little help; they should be fed like the young cows,” he says.
Bulls also need to be acclimated to where they will be working. “If we take bulls from the northern part of the country and take them south—especially the Southeast where they may go on fescue—the adjustment time can be dramatic. This can be quite challenging if they have to work hard in the heat of summer in those conditions and climate. It's especially important for those bulls to be taken out of the cows right after breeding season and picked up again,” he explains.
“The challenges of different forages, and the heat, make a larger parameter of necessary adjustments in young bull development. The good managers are able to make yearling bulls work, however.”
If bulls are purchased as yearlings, the development phase is very important. Seedstock producers must condition them in a manner that these young bulls can be physically fit with hard muscle, not fat. “They should be developed in big pens with adequate exercise, so they don't have to go directly from very soft condition to breeding cows in big pastures.”
The transition should be as smooth as possible. “In the 1970's and 80's producers were performance oriented, trying to get as much daily gain as possible on young bulls and it became a race. We went past what was optimal for these bulls,” says Melhoff. It's better to allow a minimal transition in nutrient levels when these bulls have to go out and work. This makes it much easier for the bull, and he won't fall apart by the time he is picked up out of the cows.
“About 10 years ago we didn't have very large pens for our bull development. We were out of room, so I made a quarter-mile lot at the edge of a field, and put 50 young bulls in there. It was a sacrifice to take a chunk out of a hay meadow for a bull run but we needed the room. It had water at one end and a feed bunk at the other end, with ¼ mile walking distance in between. It worked very well so we added another run.”
“Now we're up to where we can handle about 400 bulls in these quarter-mile runs, with feed and water at opposite ends. It has made a big difference.” Bulls are like young athletes; if they are physically fit, they have fewer injuries.
“We found that in the larger pens, we had some bull injuries as they were growing and developing; the extra room and exercise sorted out the ones that have some structure issues or foot problems. We were finding those at home (and can take them out of the program) before they go to our customers, and that's the way it ought to be,” he says.
“We hear back from our customers that the bulls developed to be athletic and fit go out and do their job and bounce right back. These bulls are a lot more accustomed to traveling. The worst thing you can do is put them on a good diet with no exercise.” What makes the commercial cattleman's job easier in bull management is how well the seedstock producer develops the bulls. This is the crucial starting point.
“We would prefer to be able to give these young bulls more challenges than just the quarter mile pen, in more varied terrain, but even just demanding the extra walking has made a very big difference,” says Melhoff.
Just as important as exercise is proper nutrition and mineral management. Every geographic region has its challenges, either in deficiencies of certain trace minerals or overabundance of something that interferes with utilization of other minerals. Iron or molybdenum, for instance, can hinder copper absorption. “It pays to check forage samples and see what kind of mineral program would be best for your ranch. A lot of producers have their cows on a good mineral program but sometimes neglect the bulls, and they need just as much attention. It's especially crucial for the young bulls. We try to use a Multimin injection for our bulls, at least 30 days prior to turnout. This seems to boost the immune system and we feel it's made a difference,” he says.
If bulls are kept on a good program they stay healthier and last a lot longer—with better fertility. Mineral nutrition has a lot to do with how they semen test, and hold together joint-wise, feet and leg soundness, etc. Vaccination programs are also important. Sometimes the bulls are neglected and their vaccinations are not as timely as that of the cow herd.
It's just good business to take care of the bulls. “It's like having a proper maintenance program on your vehicles. They last longer. If a person doesn't take care of a young bull, it's like running a vehicle 100,000 miles without an oil change. On some ranches the bulls are just assumed to work under any conditions; people don't intentionally neglect them, but it happens. It's natural to try harder to take care of the larger group — the cows — especially when a person is really busy and just trying to deal with the bigger issues. But it pays large dividends to pay attention to the bulls and their needs,” says Melhoff.
Some of the challenges are due to the constraints of each operation. Not everyone has a good spot to put those bulls or make divisions so the young bulls can be managed separately. Each operation has to make their own adjustments.
The investment in young bulls is usually large, however, so it pays to try to protect that investment with proper off-season care. “Ranchers have become good at making assessments about what they need in a bull, to fit their cow herd and environment. They've studied their EPDs and know how to feed cattle right, but it's amazing—after they've done the homework and paid substantial capital for the bulls—how many don't follow through and take good care of that investment,” he says.
Some of those young bulls get injured or don't get a chance to regain condition after breeding season, and even if the bulls don't end up washing out of the program it hurts them for the rest of their productive life. “In most other things, people protect a capital investment with a lot of pride and care, such as maintaining a tractor or a vehicle, and this is no different. Some people forget about the value of these young bulls are; they are the essence of the breeding program. Sometimes it's just a matter of putting it in proper perspective.”
Most of the emphasis is placed on proper care of the cow herd, since that's where the bulk of your feed resources will be going, but the operations that do not manage their bulls properly are usually the ones with more open cows. It always pays to fine-tune bull management as much as possible, to give them optimum conditions for health and fertility.