by: Heather Smith Thomas

General Management Of Bulls

Unless you are breeding all your cows by AI artificial insemination you need a good bull, or several. The number of bulls needed for your herd will depend on the number of cows, length of breeding season, age of the bulls, and the pasture size and terrain. A yearling bull may not be able to service as many cows in a short time as a more experienced bull. A yearling also may not hold up through a long breeding season. Some ranchers change bulls partway through a long season, taking the tired bulls out of the herd and putting in new ones.

A herd with a long breeding season may get by with fewer bulls in relation to total cow numbers than a herd with a short breeding season, since a cow might have a second chance to be bred if she gets missed during the first part of the longer season. Cattle spread over a large, rugged area like mountainous rangeland may not be as readily found by a bull; it may take more bulls to cover the territory than if breeding takes place in a small pasture. A mature bull in a field or pasture may be able to service 50 cows during the season, whereas the usual rule of thumb on rangeland is to use 1 bull for every 25 cows. A yearling bull can generally handle 18 to 20 cows.

Even if you breed AI it pays to have a good clean-up bull since conception rate with AI is never 100 percent. It's actually closer to 70-80 percent. Unless you calve year-round, which is an impractical way to manage cows — except in some dairies — making it impossible to market calves at uniform size, bulls should be kept separate from other cattle when not being used for breeding. You don't want cows bred out of season or heifers bred too young. A young bull will also do much better if kept separate from cows, especially after breeding season is over. He's still growing and needs time off from chasing after cows so he can regain lost weight and grow better — and be in better condition for next year.

Thus you need a separate pen or pasture for bulls, with good fences. It's always healthier for bulls to have room to exercise, and to be out of the mud in wet seasons; a pasture is better than a corral, if you have the room. Electric wire, if it's always working, can augment a pasture fence to make sure bulls don't try to go through the fence. It also helps if you can have a buffer field or pen between the bull pasture and any females. If bulls can't get nose to nose with females they are not as tempted to crash the fence.

Bulls need good feed but this doesn't mean grain. If a bull needs grain to stay in good body condition, he's not going to sire feed-efficient offspring and is not the kind of animal you want — especially if you're running a grass based operation or using range pastures. Since most bulls are now sold as yearlings rather than two year olds, many seedstock producers overfeed young beef bulls to get them big enough fast enough, and to have them look good by sale time. Fat young bulls often “fall apart” when turned out with cows; they are not in strong athletic condition and tire more readily. They also lose weight rapidly due to the sudden drop in nutrition levels coupled with the increase in exertion. Overfeeding leads to fertility problems due to too much insulating fat in the scrotum, keeping it too warm for optimum sperm production and viability. Overfeeding on grain may also cause founder and other feet and leg problems.

A yearling bull needs adequate nutrition for growth but this can be provided with good pasture or good quality hay with high protein level. Mature bulls should do fine on pasture or good grass hay or a grass-alfalfa mix. Watch body condition closely and adjust the feed accordingly. If older bulls get too fat this not only hinders fertility but can also impair athletic ability, stamina and sex drive. If bulls start losing weight, increase the quantity or quality of feed. A good mineral supplement is also important for optimum fertility, if your feeds are deficient.

Bulls Are Bulls

Handle bulls with firmness and respect. Never forget they are bulls and that their instinct and nature is to dominate other animals. Don't make a pet of any bull, even if you raised him from calfhood. If he looks upon you as an equal and has no fear and very little respect, he will eventually become dangerous as he gets older and more aggressive.

In his mind you must always be the dominant member of the herd, never to be challenged. Carry a weapon such as a stick or stock whip when handling bulls on foot, such as working or sorting them in a corral, but also keep a very confident attitude. If a bull respects you, you generally don't need to use your weapon; it's enough to just have it with you and to dominate the bull with your confidence. If a bull knows you are afraid, you should not be handling him.

Some bulls become very aggressive at a young age, especially dairy bulls. Others become aggressive as they get older. Most bulls will start questioning your authority by the time they are four or five years old, though a few remain mellow and manageable longer. If a bull starts challenging you, get rid of him.

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