On a typical cow-calf operation, the most-ignored animals are usually the herd bulls during the off-season. Sometimes even the barn cats get more attention, especially if there are little kids around; and at first glance, focusing most of our attention on the females makes sense. After all, they are the ones that will be calving before we know it, and they also generate the income required for the business to function. All the bulls do when they’re not breeding cows is eat, fight, and bust stuff.
But if you think about the role the bulls play, I’d argue that they should move up a bit in the list of priorities. The bulls in the back pen or pasture represent one-half of the genetic makeup of the future calf crop. Also, as anybody that has been to a bull sale recently can testify, replacing bulls has become a much more expensive proposition. Finally, making sure that the bull battery is capable of breeding and settling a majority of the cows in the first cycle could be the difference between success and a train wreck.
Ideally the bulls should be sorted into two or three groups:
- Mature bulls that need to maintain or slightly gain condition.
- Thin and young bulls that need to gain more weight.
- Salvage bulls that will either be marketed immediately or fed for a time before being sold.
The second group of bulls is typically the group that needs the most attention. Most likely they are the yearling bulls that were bought last winter and spring. They’re still growing and require additional nutrients. Plus they haven’t sired enough calves to recoup their purchase price, so it’s a sound business strategy to invest some extra feed in the yearlings to extend their useful life.
Bull nutrition is not particularly complicated. The objective is to feed the bulls well enough so that they are in a Body Condition Score of 6 at the start of the breeding season. Mature bulls will generally do just fine on an all-roughage diet, very similar to what cows would require in late gestation. Coming two-year-old bulls will most likely require some additional grain to meet their growth requirements. Feeding young bulls 2% of body weight as good-quality forage plus an additional 5-to-7 pounds of a concentrate should allow these bulls to complete growing plus build up sufficient body reserves. For all cattle, a high-quality mineral and vitamin supplement should be available at all times.
Providing weather protection is also important, especially for producers in Northern climates. Extreme cold conditions can lead to frostbite of the scrotum. Since it requires 60 days for sperm cells to mature, injuries such as frostbite can impact fertility for an extended time after the cold exposure occurs. Providing wind protection and bedding will help reduce the risk of fertility losses due to weather conditions.
Allowing bulls as much space as is practical is also a valuable bull management strategy. Increased exercise helps keep the bulls sound and in shape for the upcoming breeding season. A larger area also allows bulls that are lower in the pecking order some space to get away from the dominant bulls. It is also important to provide enough feeder space so that all the bulls can eat at the same time.
Bulls represent both a significant dollar investment and play a huge role in the production and profits of a cow-calf operation. Providing these cattle a bit of attention and management can help extend their productive life span. For more information, please contact SDSU Extension Cow-Calf Field Specialist Warren Rusche.
Related SDSU Extension Publications
- Bull Nutriton by Julie Walker, George Perry, and Ken Olson
- Basics of Body Condition Scoring by Kalyn Waters