Cattle production: Get the best from your new bull

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As the saying goes, a bull is 50% of the herd, so it’s crucial that it is well managed before, during and after the breeding season. Highly respected and experienced Bonsmara breeder, Arthur de Villiers, offers practical advice.

Bulls are the most important animals on your cattle farm. They may make up only 3% to 4% of your herd, but genetically contribute 50% to every calf they produce. A single bull can sire more than 40 calves per year. Bulls are aggressive but don’t let that deter you. It is possible to prevent aggression, injuries and diseases if you handle them correctly.

THE NEW BULL ON YOUR FARM

If your new bull is going to be transported with other unfamiliar bulls, they should preferably not be loaded into the same compartment on the truck. They could fight and the subordinate bull won’t be able to get away from the dominant bull.

It is preferable to load bulls who don’t know each other in separate compartments. In fact, it is better to even transport bulls who are familiar with each other in separate compartments.

Check that the bull did not sustain any injuries while being transported to the farm. If so, treat it immediately.

It is important that new, strange animals are kept in separate camps from other animals for about a month to quarantine them. The new animals should be treated against ticks with a compound that contains Amitraz and an injectable macrocyclic lactone. The former paralyses the mouthparts of certain ticks and kills them, while the latter combats blue ticks and roundworms. This helps to combat susceptible parasites that the bull may have brought with it and prevents parasites from other farms and environments taking hold on your farm.

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Arthur de Villiers of Vrede in South Africa received the South African Agricultural Research Council’s National Beef Herd Improvement Award for his Arcadia Bonsmara stud in 2014.

Make sure the bull, especially if there’s only one, is placed in a secure enclosure with good fencing. Give it another animal or two, like a weaner or a bull calf, for company. These animals must be treated beforehand with the same anti-tick compounds.

Clean water and good grazing will immediately put the bull at ease. Make sure the bull drinks some water and leave it in peace for at least two days.

Take out limited or comprehensive insurance on your bull and collect semen if it is genetically superior breeding material. It’s better to take out comprehensive insurance on the bull for a year if it was brought from a disease-free area into an area where diseases such as heartwater, redwater and gall sickness are endemic.

You must include the bull immediately in your usual dipping, dosing and vaccination programme, regardless of what the previous owner did.

Systematically deprive the bull of concentrates if it is overweight. In the first week give it 8kg a day, in the second week 4kg a day and in the third week 1kg a day with its future lick. In the fourth week only give it the normal lick.

Until the bull is put to the cows, you must keep it away from other bulls. The bull should therefore only work for one breeding season before being placed in the larger herd of bulls.

Remember that a bull will cut teeth when it is between two years old and two-and-a-half years old. They may, therefore, lose weight if they have to adapt to a new environment, browse in average grazing and still breed.

It’s best to have the bull on your farm at least two months before the breeding season starts so that it can adapt to its new environment and adjust to its new feeding conditions.

BEFORE THE BREEDING SEASON

Three to six weeks before the breeding season starts, it’s important to do a fertility test as well as a sheath wash for trichomoniasis and vibriosis.

Approximately 20% of the 10 940 bulls which were tested for breeding readiness in America were unfit for use. Normally you would ‘lose’ at least 10% of your bulls before the breeding season. Identify them before the breeding season starts because the cost of doing so is much less than the calves you lose’ because the bull couldn’t do its job.

Even new bulls that are sold with fertility certificates must be tested. Stress experienced during the auction and while being transported can affect its fertility in the short term.

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After the breeding season, starve the bulls for three to four days in separate, sturdy camps. Then take them one by one to the bull camp where good grazing and clean water is freely available.

It is essential to evaluate the bull’s semen, even in multi-bull breeding systems. Dominant bulls with poor semen may keep younger bulls with good quality semen away from the cows.

Check bulls before the breeding season and take note of the following:

  • Make sure that they are structurally sound and that their gait is not awkward or abnormal in any way.
  • Inject them two months before the breeding season with vitamin A and minerals (a combination of Multimin, selenium and copper). Other reliable brands are Bovimin, Embamin and Embavit (which is given orally). Repeat this treatment after about two months.
  • Your bull’s condition should always be 2.5–3.5 out of 5. Overfeeding can cause bulls to be heavy, unfit and clumsy with sub-standard semen. Fatty deposits in the neck of the scrotum are dangerous and result in poor temperature control, with subsequent poor semen. Undernourishment can also be a problem, but libido usually diminishes before semen quality is affected. If the bulls are a bit thin, start providing supplementary feeds two months before the breeding season. This can range from a production lick to 5kg–10kg of concentrates per bull per day.
  • About two months before the breeding season begins, you must vaccinate bulls against three-day stiff-sickness (bovine ephemeral fever) and vibriosis.

DURING THE BREEDING SEASON

Keep a close eye on your bulls, especially younger bulls. Make sure they are adept at mating with a female and whether that libido (breeding urge) is present. Young bulls are initially inexperienced but within a few days they should be adept at mating. Usually, 10% of the bulls will have no libido or a weak libido. Identify these bulls and replace them.

Put older and younger bulls together in multi-sire breeding herds. Don’t put bulls of equal strength together. There must be at least three to four bulls for every 100 cows. On my farm, a system of one adult bull and two young bulls for every 75 cows works well.

In single-bull breeding herds, one mature bull should be allocated to 30 to 40 cows for three months. Young bulls with good potential should rather be used alone in the group, otherwise you run the risk of getting too few calves from them.

If a bull gets a feverish reaction as a result of redwater, anaplasmosis, lumpy skin disease or three-day stiff-sickness, for example, its semen will probably be infertile and it might need two months or even longer to recover.

Keep a close eye on the bulls during the breeding season so you know immediately when they are sick or injured. Replace those bulls.

Foot-rot is a very painful condition and should be treated immediately during the breeding season. The bull will not be able to breed until it is fully recovered. You can treat your bull with a long-term antibiotic prescribed by your veterinarian.

Make sure your bulls are in peak health during the breeding season. Any injury sustained during the breeding season can put the bull out of contention, especially hip, leg and hoof injuries. It is advisable to keep one bull out of every 10 in reserve in the event that they will fall ill or get injured during the breeding season.

Keep a record of the cows that were serviced. Approximately 60% of cows fall pregnant in their first cycle. If more cows return to oestrus, there’s a problem. It should be identified as soon as possible and rectified. If you act quickly, you’ll still have time to combat the problem. If the problem occurs during a specific single-bull breeding herd, replace the bull immediately.

Because males are more aggressive, they need more “personal space”, so allow for sufficient feeding room at the lick troughs or when limited supplements are fed.

In multi-bull breeding herds, it may be possible that the dominant bull is less fertile or completely infertile. Try to identify that bull and replace it immediately.

Different breeding herds must not be kept in adjacent camps. The bulls will become aggressive with each other through the fence. A bull with a strong libido will break through an ordinary fence to get to a cow on heat.

If you have a sturdy fence, you can still take a chance with bulls two years old and younger.

AFTER THE BREEDING SEASON

After the breeding season, starve the bulls for three to four days in separate, sturdy camps. They may not receive any food or water. Then take them one by one to the bull camp where good grazing and clean water is freely available. This should ensure that the bulls will forget about the cows and be more interested in eating than fighting.

The bull camp must be secure and not have too many rocks, ditches and holes. There must also be enough space for the bulls to move around without getting in each other’s way.

Ideally, bulls should be kept in pairs (one older and one younger bull) and not all together in one camp. Keep valuable bulls, especially, separate from the others, although this may not always be possible because bulls are often thrown together between breeding seasons. The farmer can’t do much else than hold thumbs and hope for the best.

Secure the bull camp by erecting double fences on the side where other cattle are kept – these fences must be placed 3m apart. Electric fences will also help, but they require more maintenance.

Because males are more aggressive, they need more “personal space”, so allow for sufficient feeding room at the lick troughs or when limited supplements are fed. Between 0.5m and 1m per bull should be sufficient.

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If you buy a bull on auction that comes from a disease-free area and transport it to a farm where diseases such as heartwater, redwater and gall sickness are endemic, it is advisable to take out comprehensive insurance on your bull for a year.

Truck or tractor tyres turned inside-out make effective lick troughs because they are indestructible and won’t injure the bulls if they fight.

Adult medium-frame Sanga or Bos indicus-type bulls can weigh between 800kg to 1 000kg, in other words, at least 1.5 to 2 large livestock units. Keep this in mind when it comes the size and capacity of the bull camp.

When you work with the herd, make sure the bulls are not forced into a tight group. They will get aggressive very quickly under those circumstances. Bulls that accepted each other months ago may suddenly start fighting if they are moved around. The term for this “displacement behaviour”.

Between breeding seasons, the bulls must not be allowed to graze with dairy cows or any other cows. Bulls may infect each other with venereal diseases by servicing the same cow.

Finally, enjoy your bulls because you shouldn’t have any problems most of the time.

ENQUIRIES: Arthur de Villiers, amdev@zippnorth.co.za.

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