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

Part 1

While it is unlikely that any cattle producer has not recognized that the beef cattle industry is enjoying exceptional cattle prices, I'll point out something that should be obvious if you've sold any cattle over the last several months: The cattle markets are pretty unbelievable¸ having reached unprecedented high points. And as with any market, it is difficult to predict how long this up trend will last, it is important to take advantage of the opportunities while they do.

Many producers are recognizing that these prices provide exceptional opportunity to recoup some of the losses incurred over the last few years as a result of drought and low forage availabilities. This caused many producers to reach heavily into savings in order to pay for feed and forage supplies. In some cases it caused the partial or complete liquidation of many herds. This has been a significant reason for the prices we are seeing now, that cattle numbers are the lowest they have been since the later 1950's. Where at one time, not many years ago we saw the US cattle herd at 105-110 million head, this number now is under 90 million head. A significant decrease. In some areas these numbers are more significant than others. There are still areas in Texas where the herd reduction is believed to exceed 30 percent. Given the slowness of improvements in ground moisture status and related forage supplies, these cattle numbers have not rebounded significantly. Thus the overall cow herd numbers are slow to redevelop.

Another related delay in rebuilding the cow herd numbers is the fact that in addition to the financial beating the cattle producers have taken over recent years, the strong current prices give them an opportunity to put some money back in their pockets. As such in situations where they might consider keeping more heifers back to aid in rebuilding the herds, these producers are selling more if not all of these young females to help recoup some of their losses. This keeps retained female numbers down so rebuilding is delayed.

Still another factor hindering herd rebuilding is the cattle prices themselves. With both heifer and cow prices at historic levels, many producers are unwilling to purchase females that might otherwise go into the herd.

These market dynamics are having a significant slowing effect on rebuilding numbers. This means the number of calves that will be sold into feed yards will be depressed for some time into the future. This also means beef prices will be strong for some time into the future.

OK, Cattle Prices are High. That's Great! So What's Your Point??

The point is this: With cattle prices at unprecedented highs it makes sense for producers to take enhanced management steps to produce more, healthier calves with better weaning weights to take more advantage of this market. This can take form in a variety of ways including:

1) Purchase of new bulls with better genetics

2) Improve health and nutrition programs for cow herds to improve breeding percentages and reduce dystocia.

a. Improve protein and energy supplementation

b. Improve mineral supplementation

c. Make use of better nutritional and feed/supplement delivered “tools”

d. Improve fly control methods

e. Improve internal and external parasite control

f. Consult your veterinarian to develop or improve your herd health and reproduction program

3) Take steps to improve the quality of farm produced forages (pastures, hay, silage/haylage).

4) Cull unproductive animals aggressively and replace with better genetics.

5) Improve health and nutrition programs for calves to reduce death loss, sickness and increase weaning weights.

a. Improve nutrient supplementation – evaluate creep feeding programs

b. Make use of nutritional tools

c. Fly control

d. Parasite control

e. Detailed health programs

f. Evaluate pre-and post-weaning management strategies (preconditioning)

6) Consider marketing methods that may increase animal value opportunities.

This is by no means an all-inclusive list. But it does give us a place to start the discussion. The first place for us to start is insuring the existing bulls being used in your herd are prepared for the breeding season. Many operations are already breeding (especially heifers) are soon to begin. Many producers will be purchasing bulls over the next few weeks and will need to insure these new bulls are ready to go. In part 1 of this series we'll begin by making sure the necessary components are in place to insure bull performance in the breeding herd.

Start with Insuring Fertility

Fertility in the cow herd, for both male and female animals is absolutely critical. Insuring fertility in the herd means having ALL the necessary components or factors in place that allow for the fertilization/impregnation process to occur on either the male or female side of the equation. In all mammals this is a factor of nutrition, age, health, stress, environment, endocrinology, temperament, etc.

Fertility in a livestock enterprise is 5 to 10 times more important economically than any other production measure. While factors such as average daily gain, yearling weights and milking ability are all important, they are irrelevant if cows aren't bred and calves aren't born. Cows bred to high-fertility bulls bear more calves earlier in the season, resulting in more pounds of beef weaned and marketed per cow, which is a direct measure of profit, especially at this point in time.

A. Breeding Soundness Evaluation

A very important but underused tool to producers is the Breeding Soundness Evaluation (BSE). Considerations include:

1) A BSE is the best assurance of satisfactory bull fertility.

2) A bull should have a BSE done every year. It is good, inexpensive insurance.

3) Utilization of a BSE has the potential to return at least $20 for each $1 invested in the procedure. A BSE provides the best evaluation of the bull's reproductive potential. Normally, a BSE should be done at least 45 to 60 days before the start of the breeding season. For the breeding season starting May 1, the BSE should be done between March1 and March 15. The time is now!

4) Bull fertility affects the pregnancy rate, average calving date, average weaning weight, uniformity of calf crop and age of puberty in replacement heifers — all of which have a significant effect on economic importance.

5) Bull scrotal circumference is positively related to both bull and heifer puberty as well as semen quality.

6) Research indicates that 15-20 percent of bulls have problems which adversely affect fertility.

Detecting high fertility bulls (or identifying low fertility animals) is the key to increasing livestock production and thus profitability. Working with your veterinarian to properly evaluate your bull or bulls is a valuable tool and insures that your overall breeding program will not be diminished or delayed, both of which are extremely expensive.

B. Evaluating Stress, Nutrition and Exercise

1) Stress. Fertility issues don't necessarily mean that bulls with these types of problems are sterile. They just have poorer calf crops than should be. Bull infertility can result from stress, caused by the weather, transport, handling, and so on as well as nutrition. This is very important this year as we SLOWLY work out of a very challenging winter. Many areas of the country have experienced ongoing extreme combinations of cold temperatures and blizzard conditions. Winters such as the one we are currently experiencing can be especially hard on bulls.

Herd bulls, which are generally kept separate from the main cow herd in those with limited breeding seasons, may experience hardship if proper nutrition and shelter are neglected. The future reproductive success of the herd will suffer if bulls are not prepared for or protected from winter weather. Bulls need to be maintained in a body condition score of 5-6 in order to be in ideal breeding condition. Low temperature and windy conditions can easily increase feed requirements 25-30 percent above normal maintenance requirements. Also, lack of wind protection and proper bedding will increase the chance of frost damage to the scrotum and testicles. During normal winter conditions frostbite is not a common problem with breeding bulls, but prolonged exposure to extreme cold and wind increases the incidence of frostbite and is a problem that must be considered when planning for the breeding season. Evidence of frostbite to the scrotum is usually apparent a few days after freezing in the form of noticeable inflammation and swelling. The heat generated from the inflammation directly affects the sperm that are maturing and stored in the epididymis, which surrounds the testicle at the lower end of the scrotum. The resulting damage may cause temporary or, in more severe cases, permanent sterility in the bull.

Likewise, external heat or internal heat can be detrimental to bull fertility. Here are some ways to manage this problem. Bulls depend on a number of mechanisms to keep the testicles in optimal operating temperature. The important thing for producers to realize is when a heat related insult occurs, it is important to consider several things, including the severity of an insult, prognosis and what processes, whether pathologic or management-induced, are involved. These factors can affect the efficiency at which any of these reproductive related processes function, resulting in higher testicular temperature that can lead to increased problems with sperm formation and function. Increases in testicular temperature have resulted in reduced semen quality.

2) Nutrition. Nutrition can have a profound affect on fertility. Recently, the cattle industry has dealt with two significant factors that subsequently have affected the nutritional programs for many operations. One has been the droughts that have been experienced. The availability of forages, the base of any herd's nutritional program, is severely affected by drought, causing producers to have to find alternative sources of forage. This has been coupled with high feed prices meaning that not only have forages been hard to source in some areas, they have been extremely expensive in some areas as well. In many cases the forage sources that have been available have also been of very low quality thus requiring additional supplementation to meet the animal's needs. Supplemental feeds that would be needed have also been very expensive. For many producers this meant feeding poorer forages than they would have preferred as well as lower amounts or quality of supplements simply because they had limited dollars to spend. This results in a less than optimal nutrition program and potential problems with fertility. Fortunately in many areas, forage supplies have improved and feed prices have decreased.

Energy intake has a great deal of effect on the breeding soundness of bulls. Ideally, a bull should be in a body-condition score of 6 to 7 prior to the beginning of the breeding season. In many cases young bulls purchased at production sales are in excessive body condition. Despite what many bull-buying producers say, fat bulls are often the bulls that sell the best. If this is the case, it is recommended that young bulls carrying excess flesh should be "let down" from the time of purchase until they are turned out with the cow herd, slowly stepping down the amount of feed/supplement they have been receiving and increase the percentage of forage over a period of 60 days. Avoid major feeding changes.

Good management practices and providing balanced nutrients are critical for maintaining cow and bull fertility. In addition to protein and energy, adequate mineral intake and absorption is required for reproduction especially trace minerals. Reproductive performance may be greatly affected if zinc, copper, manganese or selenium levels are marginal to deficient. In bulls, zinc deficiency causes lower fertility due to poor sperm quality and reduced scrotal circumference. Likewise, male reproductive performance is affected by low manganese status which can inhibit libido and lowers spermatozoa numbers. Another consideration for bull fertility is bone soundness and the ability to travel. In addition to proper calcium, phosphorus and magnesium, zinc, copper and manganese are needed for skeletal development and maintenance as well as hoof integrity. Selenium deficiency in bulls decreases spermatogenesis, the development and maturation process for sperm. Feeding beef cattle complexed/chelated copper, zinc, manganese and selenium has been shown to enhance reproductive performance early in the breeding season. Additionally, use of an injectable trace mineral such as MultiMin® two to three times per year (or at least 45 to days prior to the breeding season) can help overcome absorption issues and stimulate trace mineral-dependent reproductive processes.

Fertility can be negatively affected by feeding certain materials such as excessive gossypol, the pigment in cotton products (cottonseed meal, cottonseed hulls, etc.). This does not mean that cottonseed by-products cannot be fed to bulls, only that they should be fed at moderate levels – no more than three to four pounds of cottonseed by-product feeds per head per day. The good news about this situation is that it is reversible. Research has shown that bulls with poor fertility due to the consumption of excessive gossypol will regain normal fertility several weeks after the gossypol is removed from their diet.

3. Exercise. Finally, exercise is important for bulls. Bulls have to be able to potentially walk miles in a given day. Plus during breeding, the energy level required can quickly wear a bull down if they are not is adequate physical condition. To increase the exercise level of these bulls feed them on a hill and provide water at the bottom of the hill. This type of exercise not only pulls any excess weight off these bulls, but it also strengthens the feet, legs and back.


Bull management to insure fertility and maximum productivity requires a considerable amount of understanding and input. The benefits are significant, however, when bulls perform optimally and provide the maximum genetic influence. This is a first step to improving herd performance, increasing calving rates and the quality of calves born. All important to taking advantage of the strong cattle markets. Part 2 will continue the discussion on improving profitability.

Copyright 2014 – Dr. Stephen B. Blezinger

Dr. Steve Blezinger is a management and nutritional consultant with an office in Sulphur Springs, TX. He can be reached at sblez@verizon. net or at (903) 352-3475. For more information please visit us on at www.facebook at Reveille Livestock Concepts.

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