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Idaho Enterprise

Bull health

Mar 07, 2024 10:30AM ● By By Allison Eliason

If you come up on a cattle rancher and he has that haggard, hollow-eyed, tired to the bone look about him, you can be confident that he is knee deep into calving season.  Worrying day and night about the health and condition of his new calves and their mothers, he has earned those dark circles, exhausted shuffle, and, hopefully sooner than later, a good long nap.

The condition of this year’s calf crop is a rancher’s number one priority right now as there is never more potential for his herd than when the calves are being born.  Every day is spent making sure calves have an attentive mother, all  the nutrition they need, and a clean and dry space to be.  In order to maintain the calves’ health and nutrition, ensuring that the mother cows also have all the feed and supplements they need to produce sufficient milk while they are trying to maintain their condition is a very close second in priority for ranchers.

With that sort of list to keep their up and coming herd alive and well, it would seem mental to try and add to it.  But while the calves and cows do take precedence over all other tasks on the ranch, there is another concern that if neglected, will lead to a highly disappointing calving season the following year.

Herd bulls play an incredibly crucial part to any cattle operation, but could easily be overlooked.  Carrying out their duties for only a few months out of the year before being put out to pasture before their services are needed again, herd bulls are in the forefront of production for only a fraction of the time cows do.  Sending them out to work without ensuring they are up to the task is a surefire way to make for less work in the upcoming calving year because there will be fewer calves to worry over.

Even though ranchers are rightly involved in the current calving year, giving attention to the upcoming breeding season will insure a calving season to come.  With spring bull turnout just a few short months away, it’s not too late to focus on the paternal side of things.

When considering the future performance of any herd bull, several matters should be considered, beginning with the animal’s overall health and condition.  A bull in poor physical condition will hardly stand on his own feet or leave the watering hole and will surely not be traveling across the range to cover his share of the cows.  

Grouped together, bulls often fight and suffer injuries that could leave them lame.  Other physical ailments such as foot rot or hoof injuries will limit the performance, not only because of their lameness but also by decreasing sperm production.  Stress, pain, and illness of any kind will lend to lower sperm production.  

It may be all about sniffing the pheromones when it comes to detecting what cows are in heat, but the eyes still play a pretty important part when it comes to reproduction.  A herd bull plagued with pink eye, or any other condition affecting their vision, will struggle to find any cows to sniff on, covering far fewer than they would have otherwise.  And again, any illness leads to low sperm numbers
and quality.

With the confidence that a bull is physically able to cover the wide open range in search of a female in heat and with the proper equipment in ready condition, the next step is to ensure that he isn’t going to share anything beyond his necessary genetics.  Herd bulls carrying infectious diseases such as bovine viral diarrhea (BVD), trichomoniasis (trich), leptospirosis, and infectious bovine rhinotracheitis (IBR) among others are nothing short of bad news to a herd’s health.  Not only do these diseases most often end in sloughed calves, but are easily spread as bulls carry out their duty from cow to cow.

Treatments or practices to carry out to correct any matter that is ailing a down herd bull widely range.  Boosting health with added supplements or high quality feed will help maintain sufficient condition for the upcoming breeding season.  Keeping younger and smaller bulls sorted off from the larger, older, more domineering bulls might help to avoid injuries and help them get them to the feed bunk as often as they should.  Simple injuries or illnesses can easily be cared for on the ranch while more intense infections or diseases will need to be seen and cared for by a trusted vet.  

While most of the health checks and care are up to a keen rancher, scheduling an annual breeding soundness exam (BSE) with the local vet will be necessary to catch any reproductive shortcomings a herd bull may have.  After getting up close and personal with each bull, the vet will know his sperm count and motility, find pus that could be a result of inflamed vesicles, notice any physical issues that will hinder performance and detect any of those pesky infectious diseases.

Focusing on the incoming calf crop is never a wrong priority, but to make sure there is another crop coming on the horizon, taking time to monitor and keep up with herd bull health isn’t something that should be overlooked.  Bulls may only get out to work for a few short months and are more hassle than what they may be worth, but without them, there wouldn’t really be much of a herd.  Keeping them happy is guaranteed to keep a rancher happy.

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