By Dr Clive Dalton
Can you do without a bull?
It’s a good idea to try avoid keeping a bull for these reasons:
- Bulls are dangerous and regularly injure and kill people. Include them on your OSH hazard list near the top.
- They are generally expensive if you buy a decent one.
- They eat more than a cow - sometimes nearer what two small-breed cows would eat.
- They break fences and gates and visit neighbours’ cows when not invited.
- They love digging holes to mark their territory - and as soon as you fill them in they dig them out again. Then other bulls come and enlarge the holes which fill with water.
- They love to fight with other bulls, especially strange bulls belonging to neighbours.
- They get very territorial and dangerous as they get older.
- They can be very musical and roar all night at other cattle in adjoining paddocks.
- You’ll need to change a bull before he comes round to mate his daughters.
- As bulls age they often get arthritis and feet problems, and these can be a major job to treat and need special facilities and vet bills.
- Bulls can spread venereal diseases through the herd.
- There is always some concern about a bull’s fertility and sex drive – both can vary over time.
What are the alternatives?
- Use Artificial Insemination (AI) or Artificial Breeding (AB).
- Borrow or lease a bull. Leasing a bull is now common with dairy farmers, and there are plenty of people who supply a wide range of dairy and beef bulls for lease. These bulls must have been tested for Tb and EBL, and now vets are recommending that they be BVD free as well.
- Do not take any animal on to your property without clear evidence of freedom from all of these diseases. Check with your veterinarian about these disease threats.
- Take your cows to the neighbour’s bull. You will have to pay a grazing and service fee. The cost could be about $12/week for grazing, and the price of the bull divided by the number of calves he produces.
- There are a few ways to work out these charges. But again, make sure the bull and the herd your cows are going to for mating are disease free - especially their Tb status.
- Share the bull, week-by-week-about with a neighbour. Remember that a cow cycles every 21 days so if you are second in the queue for the bull, your calving dates will be later by these intervals.
What age of bull to buy?
- Generally it’s best to buy a young bull, as there are generally fewer risks with health and physical problems like feet and being overweight.
- A yearling bull can be ideal, provided you put him with experienced older cows as he may have to learn a few tricks of the trade. It won’t take him long.
- It’s a good idea to put an older experienced bull with young heifers, provided he is not too heavy and may damage them when mating.
- It’s important to realise that the age of the bull will not affect the size of the calf at birth. It’s the bull’s genetics that dictate this, and the size and feeding of the cow during pregnancy.
- Using a yearling bull on heifers to avoid calving troubles may not work. He may have the genes for high growth rate, which he will pass on to his calves, starting at birth, regardless of his age when he is used.
- If you use a good bull as a yearling, he will retain a lot of his value as a two-year-old if you want to sell him the next season for breeding. An older bull after use is more likely to be valued at works price as a potter bull which will be good because he’ll be heavy.
Horned or polled bulls?
- Horns are pre-historic appendages not needed on modern cattle. They bruise meat, damage hides, and injure people. They are certainly weapons you don’t want to have on a bull.
- Give high priority to breeds that are polled, and if you need to use a horned breed, get your veterinarian to dehorn him properly as soon as he arrives on your property. This will be a messy operation that will cost you money.
- Cutting the tips off a bull’s horns is not proper dehorning and can make them more damaging.
- Don’t lease horned bulls as the risks are too great.
Bulls reach puberty around 9-12 months old but young bull calves from 4 months old sucking their mothers can become sexually active so it pays to watch them. It’s only their lack of reach that prevents them doing the job!
Libido and fertility
- “Fertility” is the bull’s ability to produce viable sperm, and to measure it you need to check a sample of his semen.
- Only bulls at AI centres are trained to serve into an artificial vagina (AV) so on the farm a semen sample is obtained by electrical ejaculation.
- This is not always reliable as you only get a trickle out of the bull and not a good ejaculation as with an AV.
- You can also check fertility by seeing how many cows return to oestrus after the first 18-24 days of him joining the herd. But if he’s infertile you will have lost time on calving next year.
- “Libido” is the bull’s sex drive. He may have plenty of it but be infertile, so the two may not go together. His sex drive for females may take time to develop if he has been reared in a homosexual group of young bulls. He may need time to learn his trade.
- Some beef breeders now offer bulls after having a libido test done before sale. This “serving capacity” test indicates how many times the bull will mount and correctly serve a female held in a headbail in a certain time. It has to be done under veterinary supervision as the restrained females can get knocked about and injured.
- If your newly-purchased bull has libido or fertility problems, contact the vendor or your vet immediately, as you should be able to claim money back or get a replacement animal.
- Top breeders will always replace defective bulls, but you will have lost time finding out and next year’s calving will be delayed.
- Bulls will mate all year round and do not show a “rut” like sheep, goats and deer.
- Mounting and ejaculation are very quick by a bull where he grasps the cow with his front legs and his whole weight is propelled forward on the cow on his final thrust. This can be a tonne of beef in a large bull and can damage a heifer if she goes down risking breaking her legs and pelvis.
Physical traits should you look for in a bull
- Feet - the bull should stand evenly on all claws of all feet. There should be no misshapen claws or crossed toe nails.
- Walking - he is going to have to do a lot of this, as well as mounting on his hind legs. Make sure he can walk freely and his back legs don’t look too straight or stiff (called post legged). He should have flexible pasterns and hocks. Give him a “hurry-up” and see if he can move easily. The owner may not like this but it’s your money you are spending.
- Testicles - these should be large as sperm capacity is related to size. At some bull sales scrotum circumference is recorded in the catalogue. The testicles should be loose inside the scrotum if you’re brave enough to feel them. If in doubt get a vet to check them along with the health of the bull’s penis. Good vendors have all this done before sale time.
- You can spend a lot of time over the finer details of "conformation" but just make sure the meat is on the rear end (the expensive cuts) rather than the front end (the cheap cuts).
- And make sure that the bull looks like what a bull of that breed should look like, (in trade terms “true to type”).
- Use some experienced person who knows stock to help you assess this.
Breeders with performance records?
Buy from a breeder who has a sound breeding programme and is making genetic progress. The NZ Beef Council, PO Box 4025, Wellington, will give you advice on this.
What to do when you get a new bull home
- NEVER TRUST A BULL –and if in any doubt, always have someone and/or a good cattle dog with you when handling a bull.
- A hand-reared friendly pet bull is the most dangerous of all as one day he’ll want to play with you!
- Give a new bull a quiet journey home in his own pen in the truck.
- Unload him carefully to avoid injury.
- Put him in a well-fenced paddock within sight of other cattle or give him some steers for company and keep an eye them.
- Keep him away from other bulls - in both sight and sound if possible.
- Check that he has respect for electric fences and gates. If not, you’ll have to have a strategy to fix this problem quickly, or he’ll build on his experience and become an escapologist.
- Six metres is a bull’s “flight or fight” distance so keep out if it as much as you can.
How many cows per bull?
- A good rule is 3% + 1 bulls for cows, and 4% + 1 for heifers during the main mating season. Never have less than two bulls available.
- If you have not fertility-tested your bull, change him over with a different one every 7-10 days depending on how he looks. Veterinarians regularly find 10% of bulls are infertile which is far too high a figure.
- It takes 60 days for sperm to mature in the testicles so make sure all bulls are in top health long before mating.
- Fighting among bulls is common during mating, so watch for injuries to shoulders, legs, and penises. Change bulls more regularly if they are prone to fighting and you may have to find a combination of bulls that agree to get on together and share the work.
- For bulls to run with the cows after an AI programme is finished (called tailing up), then assume that about 60% of cows should be pregnant and then 3% +1 bulls should do the job. There should not be a lot of work left for them to do but keep a close eye on this just in case.
Management when the bull is with the cows.
- Let nature take its course but be vigilant and check the bull (or bulls) every day.
- Check that he is achieving a proper erection when mounting the cows and is serving into the cow's vagina correctly.
- Make sure that a bull actually has a good ejaculation with all four feet off the ground in the final thrust. If he just seems to “fiddle about” and doesn’t ejaculate with a cow on standing heat, then suspect a problem and have your veterinarian check him.
- A bull may serve a cow up to 3 times before she stops accepting him. Separating the bull from the cow is danger time for the handler, as the bull always wants one more service and will try to get back to the cow - perhaps with you in the way.
- Keep checking for injuries and exhaustion if he is losing interest and not working.
- He may be lying down a lot which should be viewed with suspicion. Give him a week off if you have another bull available.
- On a small block with few cows, boredom will be the bull’s main problem. Watch that he doesn’t start to pay too much interest in the neighbours’ cows or bulls – and start showing his dominance over you too.
Management after mating
- Work out when you want calving to finish and remove the bull 283 days before that date. There can be a 14 day spread either side of that pregnancy date.
- Take the bull out and put him in a separate paddock with some mates if you want to keep him. With a quiet bull he may be quite happy in a paddock on his own as long as he is within sight of other cattle.
- He may need to build up condition lost during mating, but make sure he doesn’t get too fat.
- If you are not worried about calving spread, then just leave him with the cows all the time. This is not a good idea.
- If you are not keeping him, book the truck to his next destination (sale or slaughter) the day he comes out from the cows unless he’s really skinny and you want to put some weight on him. It’s often wise to forget about adding value and bid him farewell!
A nose ring or not?
- If your bull does not have a ring in his nose, then forget about the idea.
- And if he does, then don’t ever think you can control him by hanging on to it, as bulls are far too strong. If you insist on a bull having a ring, then get your veterinarian to put it in using an anaesthetic for the nose and a shot to keep the rest of his bulk quiet. Never try to put one of those self-piercing rings in without a vet as you’ll get killed.
Farming bulls for beef
- This is a very specialist enterprise and is not for small farms or lifestyle blocks.
- Management needs to concentrate on keeping the bulls quiet and feeding them well to average 1kg/head/day over the 12 months they are on the farm, and then getting rid of them so you operate an annual programme.
- Any stress or disturbance in the system will be exploited by the bulls and they’ll waste time fighting, riding and injuring themselves – and not putting on weight.
- The love to dig holes to claim territory and strip and break young trees.
- The will wreck fences and gates and often dig holes below fences in confrontations with stock in the next paddock.
- Once an injured bull is taken out of a mob, unless he recovers within a few days, putting him back is a lost cause as he’ll be seen as a stranger and be ridden and injured again – and even killed.
- The best systems are either to set stock them with plenty or room to avoid conflict, or keep them intensively and move them on to new feed every one of two days.
- Get rid of them before they get territorial after 12 months old.
- Some bull beef farmers keep a Jack donkey with each mob to stop fighting. The Jack seems to act as part referee and part bouncer but donkey breeders hate this as the donkeys can get injured and they go lame with “founder” eating all the high-protein grass and bull farmers never trim their feet.
Disclaimer This material is provided in good faith for information purposes only, and the author does not accept any liability to any person for actions taken as a result of the information or advice (or the use of such information or advice) provided in these pages.