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A word about bulls: a few facts and tips.

General management

Unless you are breeding all your cows by AI, you need a good bull, or several, relevant to the number of 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 (an impractical way to manage cows--except in some dairies--and 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.

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) so a pasture is better than a small 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. Many seedstock producers overfeed young beef bulls to get them big enough fast enough (since most bulls are now sold as yearlings rather than two-year-olds) 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, as well as lose weight rapidly due to the sudden drop in nutrition levels coupled with the drastic increase in exertion. Overfeeding leads to fertility problems (too much insulating fat in the scrotum, keeping it too warm for optimum sperm production and viability), 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. 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 and never forget they are bulls; their instinct is to dominate other animals. Don't make a pet of any bull. If he looks upon you as an equal and has no fear/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 team, never to be challenged. Carry a weapon (stick, 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) and others become more 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.

Selecting a bull

A bull provides half the genetics for any calves you sell or keep as future cows, so you want a good bull that suits your goals. If he's a purebred, check his performance records and those of his sire and dam, to know what to expect from his calves regarding birth weight, weaning weight, etc. If he'll be breeding heifers, make sure he isn't too large and heavy (or he may injure them during breeding) and check his projected birth weights to make sure he'll sire small calves that are easy born but grow fast. Birth weight is partly a result of gestation length, which is a heritable trait.

Evaluate him visually to make sure he has good conformation and will stay sound, and likely to sire daughters with good conformation. He should have strong feet and legs (good bone and strong hoofs), not crooked or weak, and should travel well--with legs moving straight forward instead of crookedly. If he has too much angle in his hind legs (sickle hocks) or not enough angle in hocks and stifles (post-legged) he may suffer strain and injury when trying to breed cows. He should have a strong back (not sway-backed nor humped up) and be long in body and not pot-bellied.

If you'll be keeping daughters as future cows, always look at the bull's mother--especially her udder shape, milking ability, etc. His daughters will be a lot like his mother and if she has serious faults (big teats at calving time, fertility problems, bad disposition), they likely will, too.

Make sure he has a good disposition and is easy to handle. Temperament is partly inherited. You want a bull that not only sires easy-born, fast-growing calves and good-milking daughters, but also passes on calm, intelligent behavior. How you handle and train your cattle can make a big difference in tractability, but it helps if they have good intelligence and an easy-going nature to begin with. An aggressive/mean or wild/flighty bull will sire calves with the same bad attitude. They will be difficult to handle, more easily stressed, and won't gain weight as readily as calmer individuals. Never use a bull that has traits you wouldn't want to see in your calves or in his daughters you might keep as cows.

Before you buy or borrow a bull, always have a breeding soundness exam to check his semen and any other factors that might affect his fertility or breeding ability. Unless he's a virgin bull, he should also be tested for trichomoniasis and any other sexually transmitted diseases that might be prevalent in your region.


Before the breeding season Vaccinate bulls annually (or semi-annually, for some diseases) and make sure vaccinations are current ahead of breeding season (at least three weeks ahead). Have your vet do a breeding soundness exam and semen check, even if the bull was fine last year. The bull may have suffered injury or infection between then and now; you want to make sure he'll be fertile and able to breed cows.

Reproductive behavior

When a cow comes into heat she will seek a bull and start mounting him and other cows, but it may still be a few hours before she will stand for the bull to mount and breed her. She will generally stand for cows to mount before she will be in a strong standing heat for the bull to breed her.

Bulls are continually traveling through the herd, checking cows to detect the ones that are in heat or coming into heat. A bull smells the vulva of a cow and also smells her urine. During heat a cow urinates frequently and the bull samples the odor and taste of her urine. The in-heat cow releases pheromones in body fluids (especially urine and sweat glands in the flank area) and he can detect those. He may be able to smell an in-heat cow some distance away if a breeze brings odors his direction. Bulls can often identify a cow in pre-heat up to two days before she comes into heat. A bull may keep close track of her (staying near and guarding her from other bulls) until she does.

He makes tentative attempts to mount the cow but if it's still early in her heat period she may not stand. He keeps checking her by resting his chin on her back or rump, and only mounts and breeds her when she is ready and holds her back rigid. When the bull mounts a cow to breed, he finds his proper position to enter the vulva (which may take a few seconds or may be immediate) then gives a strong thrust as he ejaculates. This is usually a leap, with hind legs leaving the ground. If he actually breeds her, the cow will then stand humped up, with her tail raised, after he dismounts. If the bull did not thrust (merely mounting and dismounting without giving his leap) and the cow does not hold her tail out afterward, he did not ejaculate; she was not bred. If a bull is tired, he may mount a cow repeatedly but not actually breed her. A close observation of the herd, or even a good look at the cows several times a day can give a clue as to which ones were bred, enabling you to have projected calving dates on those cows for next calving season.


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Article Details
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Author:Thomas, Heather Smith
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2008
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