Buying a new bull is a huge financial investment but it is also a genetic investment that you hope will propel your herd to the next level.
With this in mind, it is not something that should be rushed into or done without serious consideration. Even for herds that are thinking they will need a bull for next summer’s breeding season, you should be doing your homework now. I would prefer to purchase a bull as early as possible prior to being needed. While it might be an extra hassle having him on farm for the winter, at least you have full control of how he is fed and looked after.
1. Have your research done
You should have your research done long before you attend any sale or visit any farm to buy a bull. Ask yourself, what does your herd need? Do you need a maternal type bull to produce replacement heifers of superior quality to those currently coming into the system? Do you need to improve milk yield in the cows? Perhaps overall cow size needs to be brought down? Or are you looking for a more terminal sire to produce quality beef stock?
Whatever it is you decide you need, you then need to look at what aspects you need to improve in your herd and how a bull can provide these. Deciding on a breed alone is like sitting in a restaurant and deciding to have a main course when you're feel hungry – there are still plenty of options on the menu to choose from, some that you will like, others not so much. There is as much variation within a breed as there is across the breeds at this stage. Hone in on the individual traits you want from your new arrival.
If purchasing at a bull sale it is a good idea to be there to see the bull walking. Waiting until he’s in the ring is not the time to judge him on his feet and also can be quite misleading as they are constantly circling and not walking in a straight line
2. Study the form
Buying a bull from a catalogue page or website photo isn’t the road to go down. Just because a bull has the figures on the page that you want doesn’t mean he will be fit for purpose. It’s important you give the bull a full physical examination before you make the purchase. If buying at a bull sale, it is a good idea to be there to see the bull walking. Waiting until he’s in the ring is not the time to judge him on his feet and also can be quite misleading as they are constantly circling and not walking in a straight line.
Look at the bull’s overall conformation to make sure you are happy. Look for length and a clean body.
Make sure the bull has good feet and stay away from bulls whose feet have been pared or trimmed as this will have to be continued later in life. Make sure the bull stands up straight with his back legs (these are the legs that will be under the most pressure when serving) and make sure the bull walks well, with no limps or stiffness.
Obviously, one of the most important parts of a bull is his testicles, so make sure all is OK in this department – good size and free from deformities.
Talk to the breeder about the bull and his pre-sale feed and health management.
3. Post-purchase management – breeding and fertility
Most bulls will be sold between 16 and 22 months of age. Having paid a large amount of money for him and being excited to see what the bull will put on the ground, sometimes farmers can over-burden young bulls in their first breeding season.
As a rule of thumb, a young bull should only have as many cows as he is in months of age. Meaning an 18-month-old bull would serve no more than 18 cows in his first breeding season. If you have cull cows on farm, it can be useful to let the bull in to these a few weeks prior to the main breeding season so you know he is up for the job.
After the breeding season, we need to look after the bull. He has worked hard for maybe 12 to 14 weeks. A lot of herds will require him again in six months for an autumn herd. Do not place him in a faraway paddock by himself and forget about him. He needs access to top-quality grazing to recover condition and perhaps some concentrate if needed coming into the winter.
Like it or not, the majority of bulls will be on high concentrate diets prior to sales and until commercial farmers start to demand something different, this is how it will remain
4. Post-purchase management – feeding and health
As stated earlier, it is important to talk to the breeder about your new purchase. Find out the feeding regime of the bull prior to the sale. Like it or not, the majority of bulls will be on high concentrate diets prior to sales and until commercial farmers start to demand something different, this is how it will remain.
Therefore, we need to manage bulls correctly when we bring them home. There is no point bringing them home and feeding them average quality silage. You need to start slightly lower than the level they were on prior to the sale and gradually reduce this level of feeding over a number of weeks. The bugs in the rumen that break down concentrates are completely different to those that break down forage, so the population of the bugs in the rumen needs to change – and this takes time. It is important that you feed a balanced ration here and not simply barley alone. Feeding high levels of starch can have a detrimental effect on rumen pH, leading to acidosis. Feeds should be split in two and fed morning and evening.
Again, it is important to ascertain what health programme the bull is on, vaccination and dosing protocol, etc. If there is anything missing from your own programme, make sure the bull is treated prior to coming into contact with your herd.
5. Have a budget and stick to it
When purchasing at a bull sale, it is quite easy to get carried away. This is why it is important to have a budget agreed prior to the sale and stick to it. Do not put your business under pressure by going over budget on a bull meaning you have to make sacrifices in other areas of the business to make up for it. Have a list of potential bulls made out that you would be happy with and buy accordingly.