by: Clifford Mitchell

Most cattlemen are in tune with the needs of the cow herd. Careful management follows the production cycle, whether its matching cows' production to the forage cycle or finding an inexpensive alternative to make sure proper nutrition is given at the right time. For most, the bull battery is an after thought when it comes to extra management because a lot of times those walking bulls will stand around for several months doing nothing before they are called upon to service the cow herd.

Due to lack of skill, facilities, time management strategies or environment (terrain) a lot of cattlemen will purchase older bulls. Most steer clear of that yearling herd bull because of management headaches or other detractors. When properly incorporated into the breeding program, firms look to younger bulls and the advantages they can sometimes bring to the table.

“That yearling bull is a little different kind of animal to handle. Once producers try them, they are usually hooked,” says Mike Hall, Cal Poly Beef Cattle Specialist.

“I started using yearling bulls about 10 years ago. It was a learning process and I had to see how they would hold up. Cal Poly was getting good bulls to test, they were close, so I took advantage of the opportunity and it has worked well,” says Tyke Minetti, Maretti & Minetti Ranch Co., Guadalupe.

For most, applying the right management is critical when using the young bulls. Getting these new genetic pieces through the first breeding season will set them up to be productive members of the herd bull battery.

“I'll buy yearlings off the test in October and they're in pretty good shape. I like to keep them in a holding field, where they can get plenty of exercise, and get them ready for breeding season,” Minetti says. “Where I keep them prior to breeding season is kind of a unique place. Those bulls can stretch out a little and they get used to being outside rather than in a pen. They are somewhat acclimated and it's not such a shock to their system when I turn them out with cows.”

“People that use these herd bull prospects should plan for the future needs of the herd bull battery rather than what the needs are today. Use these bulls a little and then rest them for next season,” Hall says. “At Cal Poly, we feed a high roughage ration to get them ready for service no matter what conditions they could go into. Bulls are raised in a large pen, on a steep incline, with water at the top and feed at the bottom. They have to walk and get exercise as we develop them.”

Proper development goes a long way to ensuring success the first breeding season. Turning out yearling bulls that are carrying a little more condition sometimes is not a bad thing.

“The biggest difference between yearling and mature bulls is sometimes those yearlings work harder getting cows bred. Yearling bulls will also sometimes fall in love with a cow and stay with her until he figures out another cow is in heat,” Hall says. “These younger bulls need to have some condition when they are turned out to meet maintenance requirements. Yearling bulls can sometimes lose up to 300 pounds during a breeding season.”

“We'll turn yearling bulls out December 1 with a group of 2nd calf heifers that are in a little easier country and we'll feed those heifers something depending on the forage resources,” Minetti says. “We make sure they get more care than an aged bull because those yearlings will chase pretty hard and burn a lot of energy.”

Setting these yearlings up for success whether it's added management or better pastures could help these bulls continue to develop. Length of breeding season and how the bulls are grouped could also have a bearing on the future.

“Bulls are bulls, they are going to fight. Run those young bulls together and don't put them with the big bulls. There is less chance of getting one injured if they are equal size. We have a great situation because a group of yearlings can stay together the entire breeding season,” Minnetti says. “Yearling bulls aren't going to work everywhere. They work well for me because I can run them on pretty sandy country with good feed right next to the ocean. I have one ranch that is pretty rough and I have to buy two-year-old bulls for that particular place.”

“The challenge most producers face, is not to have a long breeding season with the yearling bulls. Use them together with other yearling bulls and manage them well. Some cattlemen turn them out prior to the mature bulls for a short season. If you turn out the young bulls with mature bulls, you are just asking to get them beat up,” Hall says. “I think the length of the breeding season, no more than 60 days for a yearling, is more important than the number of cows exposed.”

Finding ways to adapt these young bulls to the current management system could be the difference in success or failure. Cattlemen who have been utilizing yearlings for multiple seasons, through trial and error, learn the warning signs and know how to manage this up and coming part of the bull battery.

“Body condition score (BCS) is an excellent barometer to evaluate nutritional status. We use this tool a lot with the cow herd and we need to do more of this with the bull battery,” Hall says. “Depending on his age, a BCS 4 is getting to the point where that bull needs a rest. The rest period protects that bull's fertility and if they lose too much condition they may never recover. When these younger bulls get too thin, it makes them more susceptible to internal and external parasites, so producers have to make sure they are properly cared for.”

“Since we raise our own replacements, easy-fleshing cattle really work for us. When a bull holds together and is easy-fleshing, his daughters usually breed up a little better,” Minetti says. “We monitor these young bulls pretty close. We feed that group of second calf heifers in a long line first thing in the morning. Even the yearling bulls get smart at some point and service a lot of those females right there at feeding time.”

While extra management and a certain degree of know-how pose challenges with using younger bulls, there are some distinct advantages. Producers looking to upgrade the genetic base of their herd could get there faster with these sires.

“By purchasing these yearlings off test, we get the first shot at the best seedstock from reputable breeders. Cal Poly has a good test. I can see how they gain, what they look like and it's close to home,” Minetti says. “I get fresh genetics and fresh data behind these bulls, which is important. That extra year of use is also pretty important. We have had some problems with trich in our area and we try not to use a bull after he's five. Yearlings help that bull battery get younger.”

“Buying young bulls allows producers to get an extra year of service out of properly maintained yearlings. Fresh genetics are very important to the commercial cow/calf man. The seedstock suppliers should be moving forward and that gives the commercial guy a chance to add better genetics through yearling bulls,” Hall says. “Current data plays a role in helping improve the herd. In some of these calf sales we're seeing producers get rewarded for better genetics and good health programs.”

The physiological nature of that yearling bull demands attention not only through the breeding season, but also in the time frame after bulls are taken off the cows. Nutritional requirements are still high for this growing animal.

“After breeding season, bulls should be maintained on good hay or pasture. In some cases, they need extra supplement or grain could be the most cost-effective way to maintain these bulls,” Hall says. “Dry pasture needs to be matched with a protein source to keep bulls growing and meet their needs. Another good rule to live by is to fertility test these bulls before and after they are with the cows.”

“When we pull these yearlings we make sure they run on better feed until the following fall,” Minettis says. “I like to feed them 60 days prior to breeding season so they are ready to go.”

Turning out a yearling bull may not be the answer for every commercial cow man. These peculiar individuals come with their own unique set of operating instructions. For each difference in management, that set of guidelines may have to be altered a bit based on the situation. Skilled operators with the right tools can take advantage of the benefits offered from a genetics standpoint, but certain criteria must be met to make this younger alternative part of the breeding program.

“Yearling bulls probably aren't for everybody,” Minetti says. “In our case, because we have the resources and the right place to run them, it has worked well and I am very happy with the yearling bulls.”

“Commercial cattlemen wanting to take advantage of the benefits yearling bulls bring to their program have to have the facilities to be able to pull bulls,” Hall says. “They also have to have the mindset to be willing to manage these young bulls correctly, before, during and after breeding season.”


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