by: Lee Jones DVM, MS
University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine

Gathering bulls at the end of breeding season is pretty straightforward. Of course, on some operations this can take several days and trips to gather and bring bulls from different pastures while smaller operations might be able to accomplish the chore in one or two days. Once gathered, it's time to sort through and decide who needs to go and who is staying. Bulls that are old, lame or have bad hooves or have some other physical problem like a bad eye or injury need to be culled. After that, then it's important to decide how to care for the bulls in the off season.

Maintaining bulls is just as important, and maybe even more so, than maintaining farm equipment. Bulls need optimum off-season management so they perform best the next season. Operations that don't care for their bulls take a chance that the bull might not be fit for the next breeding season. The bull needs to be ready to breed cows the first day they are returned to the herd, so a good off-season plan is essential for top performance. This plan needs to take into account the age of the bulls, behavior, condition, space, nutrition and health program.

It's natural for bulls to fight. They are always trying to establish who's boss. Taking them out of a structured herd situation and reintroducing them together is bound to cause some fighting. It's better to keep young bulls separate from older, bigger bulls. If collecting bulls from pastures is going to take a few days, it is better to put all bulls that will share an off-season pasture in their off-season pasture at the same time. Continually introducing bulls over the course of days or weeks increases the amount of time the bulls will be fighting and increases the odds one will get hurt. Murphy's Law says that it will be the most valuable one.

Making sure bulls have plenty of space to avoid each other also helps reduce fighting as bulls kept in close quarters have a tendency to fight more often. While we often think of low-stress handling, low-stress housing or environment are important too. Adequate space will reduce stress and agitation, and bulls will remain calmer if they have adequate area to avoid each other.

Keeping younger and smaller bulls separate also provides an opportunity to feed any young bulls that might have lost a lot of condition during their first breeding season. Young bulls are still growing and don't need to compete with older bulls for feed. If space allows, separate pastures facilitate more optimum management.

Young, growing bulls need more nutrition, but the older bulls don't need to get too fat. Optimal condition is a body condition score 5 or 6, but over-conditioned bulls could develop fertility or lameness problems. A good nutrition program includes adequate mineral. One bag of mineral typically provides 200 feedings (4 oz/head/day). If there aren't enough bulls in a pasture to consume the mineral to keep it fresh or from getting wet, it is better to only put enough in the mineral feeder for two weeks at the time. A high-quality mineral is crucial for optimum future fertility. Access to clean, fresh water is also important.

Bulls are destructive. They can tear up anything, sometimes out of shear boredom. Hay feeders or bunks, mineral feeders or anything else in the pen or pasture needs to be tough enough for bulls. If bulls bend or break metal feeders, the pieces or edges could possibly injure a bull. It is important to make sure all the equipment in their pasture is bull proof and inspect it often.

Bulls need to be on the same health program as the cows. While older bulls may be resistant to internal parasites, they do need lice and fly control. If bulls are scratching due to lice, they can be very destructive on fence posts, buildings or equipment. Feed-through fly control or fly tags and pour-ons for lice control are important.

Some farmers prefer to use the projectors and caps that burst on impact to control flies and periodically apply insecticide as needed. These have an advantage of not having to gather and run the big guys through a chute or alley to apply the insecticide. Bulls can attract a lot of flies, so control is important. There have been past articles that suggested some pour-on products may reduce bull fertility. Trials have been done that show no detrimental effect of the currently approved pour-on or injectable products on bull fertility when used at their label dose.

They also need to be on the same vaccination program as the cow herd. It is more convenient to vaccinate at the time breeding soundness tests are done, but some owners prefer to vaccinate the bulls after bringing them home. Either way is fine. It is important the vaccine contain the viruses (Bovine viral diarrhea virus 1 and 2, Infection Bovine Rhinotracheitis, Bovine respiratory syncytial virus are essential) and leptospirosis. Vibrio (Camplylobacter fetus) may also be important if vibrio is known to cause abortions on the farm. Cows are exposed to vibrio when bred by infected bulls.

If the ranch is an endemic area for trichomoniasis, testing bulls for trich is best done after they have been out of the herd for at least three weeks. Trich testing can also be done at the same time as the breeding soundness evaluation (BSE).

BSE is a thorough evaluation for the potential breeding soundness of bulls. Research has shown that bulls that pass a thorough BSE checklist are able to breed more cows in a shorter amount of time than bulls that don't. In my experience 1 in every 8 to 10 bulls, three years and older, do not pass a BSE. The BSE examination includes a physical exam as well as thorough examination of his reproductive organs and semen analysis.

Evaluation of hooves and legs is also important. While bulls with hoof problems can be trimmed, some hoof problems are hereditary and it might be a good idea to either cull the bull or use him as a terminal breeder and not keep his daughters as replacements. Inspecting for corns or other hoof problems and correcting those issues in the off season helps ensure the bull will be functional for the next season. A thorough examination of hoof conformation is also part of the BSE.

While bulls are tough and can be an aggravation to deal with, they are essential for reproductive efficiency of our cow herds. Proper care and maintenance in the off season is crucial for best performance when the bull pen is called to get their job done.

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