The stock bull is half your herd, so a fit, mobile and fertile herd sire is a must when breeding gets under way.
On suckler farms operating a 100% spring-calving setup, the stock bull is unlikely to have been top of list for management priority over the winter housing period.
So if the bull has been stored over winter on a maintenance diet, it is time to give the animal more attention.
This will ensure the bull is in tip-top shape when breeding starts.
In terms of pre-breeding checks, most tasks should begin around two months before turning the bull out to cows.
Outlined is a series of checks for the stock bull.
Is the bull sound on his feet or have the hooves become overgrown and in need of trimming?
If so, feet should be trimmed now. Do not leave foot trimming until the week before the bull goes out to cows.
The bull’s feet will be tender after trimming, limiting the animal’s mobility.
Handling and trimming too close to breeding can temporarily reduce the bull’s sperm count, thereby affecting the animal’s fertility.
Trimming feet now gives time for the animal’s feet to harden up again before breeding starts.
Housing bulls on straw bedding all winter can make feet soft, so giving access to a clean, hardcore standing area will harden feet before turnout.
To serve cows, the bull needs to be mobile. Bring the bull out of the shed to the handling pen and see if the animal is walking freely on all four feet.
If not, investigate to find the cause of the problem. Are feet overgrown? Is there an abscess or digital dermatitis causing lameness? Or has the bull an issue with leg joints?
As cattle filter out to grass, or stores are sold through the live ring or direct for slaughter, there will be more space left in sheds.
If possible, can the stock bull move to a larger pen to give more space for exercising?
The more exercise the bull gets before breeding, the better. This will improve muscle tone, particularly in the hind legs, which bear the animal’s weight when mounting cows.
While the bull be walking freely, look closely at the hind legs. Legs that are very straight are not ideal as are legs that are bowed inwards towards each other, outwards or bending below the animal.
If there is an issue with the hind legs, this will deter the bull from trying to mount cows, so a replacement sire may be required.
Run the bull up the handling race and restrain in the headlock. Once the bull is securely held, check that the animal’s testicles do not have abnormal lumps, any swelling, hardness or warts.
Both testicles should be evenly sized and symmetrical. When handled, the testicles should feel reasonably firm with some give when squeezed, similar to a flexed bicep.
The testicles should also hang freely with the bottom half of the scrotum being wider than the top half.
Testicles that are held close to the body in a tight, wedged shape scrotum can potentially cause fertility problems, as it is harder to regulate semen temperature.
Measuring the circumference of the testicles is also recommended as this is a good indicator of fertility.
A stock bull over 24 months old should have testicles with a minimum circumference of 34cm. A measurement higher than 34cm is desirable as it indicates a more fertile bull.
After checking the bull’s testicles, the next step should be to check the animal’s penis. Again, it should also be free of warts, lumps and not corkscrewed.
If the bull has been stored on silage over winter, run your hands over its ribs, loin and hindquarters to monitor body condition.
Bulls need to be carrying condition into the breeding season.
If the animal is lacking flesh or fat cover, supplementary feeding will be required to build condition over the next six to eight weeks.
Offer 2kg to 3kg of concentrate daily until turnout or condition improves.
If a new bull has been purchased at a society sale and is carrying too much flesh, then gradually reduce the animal’s body condition over the same time period.
Check the bull’s teeth are fine and the bottom jaw is not overshot. The animal’s eyes should also be clear and bright.
Take the bull’s body temperature as this is a good measure of any underlying infection or problem that could potentially cause the animal to become sub-fertile.
Make sure all vaccines given to breeding cows and replacements have been administered to the stock bull.
Give any booster shots in good time before breeding starts, or with a new bull, check the timing of applications for a two-shot vaccine.
Testing the bull’s semen now has advantages. But it only gives a snapshot of the animal’s fertility on the day that the sample is tested. It is not a guarantee the stock bull will be fertile in June and July.
A semen test will show if the bull is currently infertile, or sub-fertile. This gives time to source a replacement sire before breeding starts or consider using AI as an alternative.