This winter, get to know your bull

Your bull is the key player in your herd. He’s an investment that sets the tone for your herd for years to come.

“These animals produce 25 to 30 calves yearly, whereas a cow produces one calf. They are the money makers and need some tender love and care, too,” says Jacques Fuselier, technical services veterinarian with Merck Animal Health. 

Winter is the perfect time to focus on your bull. After a successful breeding season, you’ve pulled him off the herd. During his winter break, you have a chance to assess his health. 

Schedule a physical exam

“The one thing I see where people get kind of lax on is doing breeding soundness exams,” Fuselier says. 

On most farms, breeding soundness exams are done at the beginning of a bull’s purchase, but evaluating them in the winter off-season can be beneficial. 

A bull with low fertility and poor physical soundness can lead to substandard conception rates in your herd. 

According to the University of Arkansas, one in five bulls fail a breeding soundness exam. Doing an exam two months or more in advance allows you to treat the bull for any health issues or to find a replacement. 

“It takes two months to find an appropriate replacement — that timeframe fits any program, so there’s no jeopardizing of the end product,” says Fuselier. 

An evaluation in the winter also allows the producer to observe a bull for injuries that could have occurred during the summer or fall breeding season. 

“It doesn’t take much of an injury or ingestion of something fairly toxic, whether it be a plant or grain, that could harm sperm production,” Fuselier says. 

If producers choose not to do a breeding soundness evaluation, it could lead to long-term consequences, such as sexually transmitted diseases like Trichomoniasis. Doing an exam also reduces the risk of having open cows, which can hurt your herd’s productivity and your farm’s profitability, says Patrick Davis, livestock specialist at the University of Missouri Extension. 

Bulk him up 

Winter can also be the ideal time to boost your bull’s energy level. According to research from the University of Florida, a bull can lose up to 400 pounds of his body weight in the breeding season, which is a low body condition score. 

With drought affecting most feed resources last summer and fall, cow-calf producers should monitor their bull’s energy level as he exits a breeding season.

“They’re in a negative energy balance,” says Fuselier.

A bull’s energy status is determined by the amount of fat cover the bull has and is ranked on the body condition score scale of 1 to 9, with one meaning emaciated and nine being obese. A bull with a lower energy status can affect fertility and the ability to breed cows. 

Cow-calf producers should aim to maintain their bulls at a score of six, which is a smooth appearance of fat cover, says Davis. 

Restoring your bull’s body weight and condition will depend on how much he is mobilized. For example, a 2,000-pound bull that loses 200 pounds could require up to 1,200 pounds or 65% of total digestible nutrients, says research from the University of Florida, which would allow him to regain all the body weight he lost. 

“One thing that shouldn’t happen is over-conditioning, which could hurt sperm quality and production,” says Fuselier. 

Heavy fat depositions decrease the effective cooling of the testes. Therefore, the goal is to have your bull on a low- to moderate-energy and roughage-based diet. Research has also shown that bulls fed medium-energy diets from weaning to two years old have more significant reserves of sperm cells and higher-quality semen than bulls on high-energy diets.

“You want to keep ’em lean and trim or in their work clothes,” Fuselier says.

Watch his gate, feet, and legs 

Exercise is crucial to keeping your bull in athletic shape. A bull will usually exercise on its own, especially if given copious amounts of space. 

Since a bull travels a great distance on pasture in the breeding season, observing him while he exercises in the winter off-season is the perfect time to assess the structural soundness of his hooves and legs. 

The angle at which the bull’s claw and foot are set will establish his overall hoof soundness. On a score scale from 1 to 9, 5 is ideal, but a bull with a score that ranges from 3 to 7 has good hoof soundness, according to the University of Missouri State Extension.  

Fuselier also believes that vaccinations are one of the best methods to ensure you deliver the most optimal care to your bull. 

“Many producers think of vaccines as an afterthought with their bulls,” he says. “But they need to be vaccinated and protected just like the cows. They are just as important.”