by: Clifford Mitchell

Cattlemen have always been interested in one number; in particular with their financial reports, the bottom line. Speculation quickly turns to fact if it is in red or black ink, but how that figure came to be has been a mystery for some. Financials often tell a simple direct story, where the operation was successful and where the operation failed. By nature, the word failure is not in most veteran cowboy's vocabulary. Sure most will accept bumps in the road, but will not settle for mediocrity.

Studying these statements is often the first step in the planning process for the upcoming year. These figures give way to the preparation of a budget, which is nothing more than a plan as to how the operation is going to function. At the same time, ranchers, through careful evaluation, may find ways not to cut corners, but to invoke practical management aspects to trimming the budget to add profit to the bottom line.

Bull power is often one of the most debated topics a management team discusses. Each operation has a certain amount earmarked for purchase or maintenance of herd bulls that can “walk the walk and talk the talk.” For some, the plan is to replace these calf producers at a certain age; others evaluate each sire in hopes to extend the useful life of top bulls.

“The advantage to keeping a mature bull rather than introducing a new sire is you're dealing with a known quantity. There is a history and you know he's going to produce good calves and be able to cover more cows than a younger alternative,” says Dr. Matt Hersom, Beef Cattle Extension Specialist, University of Florida.

“Make sure your genetics are good enough to extend his productive life. If he's not meeting production goals, it's definitely time to trade him in. Data will help you decide how long to keep those bulls,” says Dr. Jane Parish, Beef Cattle Extension Specialist, Mississippi State University.

“A lot of people are keeping some older bulls. If you are trying to extend the productive lives of these bulls, they need to be taken care of in the off season,” says Eric Brast, Texas Christian University Ranch Management Program.

Many factors can fall into the decision to keep or cull bull power. Most operations have settled into a specific system rather than trying different breeds of bulls every time new sires are purchased. Firm's reactions to tighter margins and specific goals will also dictate when change is needed. Weighing these advantages and disadvantages helps the decision-making process.

“The main disadvantage for producers extending the productive life of a herd sire is you are deferring the opportunity for genetic progress for another year,” Hersom says. “Another advantage is you can afford to spend more on a bull if you can spread it out over a longer useful life. Mature bulls will service more cows. They already know how to go to work and get the job done.”

“If cows are getting settled and he is of superior genetics then you should extend his useful life,” Parish says. “There is no excuse with all the tools we have today for producers to be turning out inferior bulls.”

Much like it is for athletes in any sport, the off-season is a critical time for the ranch's sire power. Maintaining and preparing the bull battery for the next breeding season correctly, will not only increase useful life, but also pay other dividends.

“When you pull bulls at the end of the season, it's an excellent time for that first evaluation because you already have them up,” Parish says. “Go over those bulls and eliminate the bulls with noticeable injuries or problems. Preg check your cows within 30 to 60 days, if a particular pasture or group has low conception rates, it's time to get concerned. Some bulls just don't have the needed libido when they get older to get the job done.”

“If you are considering retaining that bull for another year of service, make sure he's sound and there are no visible structural problems,” Hersom says. “Make sure he's physically able to mount and service the cow herd.”

Management will also dictate that off-season conditioning program for this group of athletes. Additional supplementation may be required to get bulls ready to go to work and defined breeding seasons help plan this protocol.

“For most producers bulls are the most forgotten group from a nutritional standpoint. Quality forage, a little feed for a long time and a defined breeding season can help get them prepared for breeding season,” Hersom says. “We have to equip bulls with the necessary tools to be successful. Proper maintenance and spot evaluations need to be performed far enough in advance. You won't have a lot of feed issues with longer periods of supplementation, rather than short periods of a high energy ration.”

“Spring calving herds should think about supplementing bulls when we have some green grass in the off-season. A little heavier supplementation, earlier in the off season, before we get too far into winter will help add needed body condition prior to trying to maintain him in cold, wet weather,” Brast says. “Protein and energy values are important, but producers can get by with a few pounds of supplement while there still is some green forage around and save money long term, if they are willing to supplement these bulls for longer periods of time.”

“Operations with a controlled breeding and calving season have a better opportunity to get bulls conditioned and ready to work. Each bull has a minimum threshold from a condition and weight standpoint. Know your target weight and allow yourself enough time to reach that goal before breeding season,” Parish says. “Bulls need to be exercised and in good condition for turn out. Sudden diet shifts, a lot of feed in short periods of time, could hurt these bulls in the long run.”

Providing proper nutrition for bulls in the off-season does not have to break the bank. Correct supplementation can come in many forms.

“Producers can't skimp on nutrition. High quality winter forages could be the answer to adding weight and condition,” Parish says. “Find a feed resource that will fit your budget because there is some variation in price. Sometimes you can lock in a quality feed resource that will carry these bulls through the down time at a lower cost.”

“We want bulls to be focused on breeding cows when we turn him out. Paying attention to that bull and providing a long period of nutrition gives you time to adjust the plan,” Hersom says. “If you have access to high quality forages the less alternative feed you'll need. You can achieve great results with good quality forage and low cost by product feeds. We can ask bulls to work dual seasons, just realize you are working him harder and more maintenance is required.”

Pre-planning has often been associated with successful businesses. Knowing a timetable for exact management procedures will help map out the supervisory process and position bulls for success in the pasture.

“When you pull bulls, if there is a problem, evaluate each bull and make a decision before resources are wasted if he's unfit for service. Test bulls for venereal diseases such as trich,” Brast says. “A breeding soundness exam at least 90 day before breeding season is a must. A bull has to have a certain quality and quantity of semen to get the job done. This also gives us another chance at a physical evaluation to make sure he's okay.”

“Producers have to realize even though he had passed a breeding soundness exam at purchase, it's not a one time deal. Invest money in your herd bulls with a breeding soundness exam in the off-season, make sure he's physically sound from a reproductive standpoint and can settle cows,” Parish says. “Even with a good fertility exam, it's no guarantee. Observe those bulls; watch if cows are coming back in heat, because there's always a risk. He could get hurt or have a reproductive injury that inhibits his ability to get cow bred. Go over those bulls 45 to 60 days prior to breeding season with a fine-tooth comb. There are some times of the year when more high quality bulls are available and this will help producers find good replacements.”

“Get a breeding soundness exam at least 60 days prior to breeding season. It's risky to fertility test right before you're going to turn out,” Hersom says. “This will give producers time to find an adequate replacement rather than having to purchase a less desirable alternative.”

Performing timely evaluations and fertility tests could also bring other benefits to the operation. Observing bulls during breeding and the off-season can also provide red flags for producers. Salvage value is often overlooked from a management standpoint, but increasing this value could provide a good nest egg for future purchases.

“If a bull has gotten to the point where he can't maintain condition and weight during the off-season it's time for him to go. He's not going to gain weight and condition when he's working,” Hersom says. “If he fails his breeding soundness exam and he's improved body condition, that bull will hopefully reward us for preparing him for the breeding season with increased salvage value.”

“If you can get through your cows on a regular basis and a bull is lying under a tree, letting other bulls do the work, he doesn't have the needed libido or is injured and probably needs to be replaced,” Brast says. “There are opportunities to get into better markets by doing tests and making culling decisions early. If you have a problem there is also time to go find replacements, get them bought and acclimated to the program.”

“Anywhere from 15 to 20 percent of a firm's income may be generated from salvage value of cull cows and bulls. Condition plays a role in market price and you may be able to capture a little more with some added weight,” Parish says. “These markets usually follow a trend, but sometimes that trend can be affected by some unusual happenings. Make sure you know your market. In our area, producers are getting together and marketing loads of cows and bulls direct, which will help increase salvage value.”

The most important evaluation may not come at the end of or during a bull's career as a herd sire, but at time of purchase. Appraising not only the value this genetic package would bring to the operation from a calf producing stand point, but also estimate the future benefits a sound relationship with a seedstock supplier could bring to the table.

“Buy bulls that have been developed correctly. Make sure these bulls come with documentation of good herd health and tested free of diseases like trich and BVD. Insist on a fertility test. Bulls that are sound and have been managed correctly are worth the investment,” Parish says. “Buy these bulls early to give them time to acclimate to your management program before you turn them out. There is a lot of data available today to help producers find bulls that will work in their herd and environment.”

“Matching a bull to your environment is paramount for longevity in your program, no matter how good you take care of him. Producers need to have some knowledge of the type and breed of bull that they're using,” Brast says. “Pay attention to things like how much hair he's carrying, libido and will he get out and travel, don't just be color blind. Bulls can last a long time when matched to their environment.”

“Some bulls are developed on high-powered, fast gaining rations. If you take them home and turn them out right away these bulls are going to look rough because they haven't been conditioned to handle nutritional changes and the workload,” Hersom says. “Adapting young bulls off that high energy ration is a challenge because you still have to give them enough energy to grow and maintain. Bulls need to be successful in a forage environment. Make sure you give yourself enough time to change their nutritional environment and acclimate them to your management style.”

Off-season maintenance for the herd bull battery is not much different than maintaining equipment or other essentials needed to successfully operate. Tradition, lack of time or thought process could explain some theories why bulls are often forgotten when the work is done. Genetic improvement has long been documented and quality bulls help firms accomplish production goals. Taking care of this asset will help produce positive results on that important figure most outfits cherish when financial statements arrive, the bottom line.

Extending the life of productive sires could be one answer to budget concerns in times of tight margins. One extra year of service could extend profitability figures well into the future.

“Most producers need to change their mentality. If you have 100 cows and two to five bulls how much management will those bulls need? Producers need to realize the value of that bull through his genetics,” Hersom says. “Invest in multiple calf crops through that herd sire. You wouldn't ignore the cow herd in the off-season, you definitely can't ignore that bull and he'll reward you for proper management.”

“A lot of people kind of look at bulls as being “bullet proof” and just assume he's okay,” Brast says. “We have to get away from the practice of just blooming him up right before we turn him out. Treat him on an animal unit basis and give him some groceries throughout the down time.”

“Most producers have 20 to 30 times as many cows as bulls from a numbers standpoint. Some think selecting for longevity is letting him fend for himself and whichever ones survive we'll turnout again. He's like an athlete that has all the potential in the world, but for him to reach it, he has to be managed and cared for,” Parish says. “Producers need to treat him as an investment in genetic improvement over the course of his productive life. If you do that, I think you'll take care of him.”

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