Bull purchases represent a significant investment in a beef herd. Whether that investment results in a “nest egg” or a “goose egg” depends highly on a bull buyer’s preparation. Let’s discuss some basics.
Step 1: Don’t buy a new disease. While I’ve never had a producer intentionally bring a new cattle disease onto the premises, in reality this is how most new diseases enter a herd. Be sure the bull is a virgin or is tested for trichomoniasis if you live in a “trich” area. Bear in mind that trich is a devastating disease that is spreading into areas where it once was either absent or rare.
What about Johne’s disease, persistent infection with bovine viral diarrhea (BVD) and campylobacter? Ask the supplier if he’s ever had a positive diagnosis and, most importantly, get permission for your herd health veterinarian to call the seller’s veterinarian to discuss the health of the seller’s herd.
Be sure to ask specific questions about diseases you want to avoid buying. If the seller doesn’t allow this communication, I’d look elsewhere for genetics.
Step 2: Buy genetics that fit your herd goals. If you’re using bulls on virgin heifers, calving ease is a high priority. Using across-breed EPDs (Angus base), select a bull below +1 for BW EPD for a high likelihood of unassisted calvings.
For bulls to be used on cows, you should buy a bull with growth, maternal and carcass traits that fit your goals. I see many producers still looking primarily at calving ease when selecting a bull for cows. This is counterproductive as you’re likely limiting the growth of the calves and decreasing pounds sold.
As a general rule, low-birthweight EPD bulls tend to be lower in weaning and yearling EPD. Buy a bull for cows that will improve hybrid vigor (which improves health), growth and carcass.
We all want cattle that will thrive in their given environment; a calf with poor vigor at birth starts life with a huge black mark. Calves should be born quickly and stand to nurse on their own within 30 minutes. Anything less isn’t acceptable, and such calves have a greater chance of morbidity, which can be a tremendous labor issue. Ask about calf vigor before you buy.
Step 3: Quarantine for 30 days. Every farm or ranch has pathogen exposure and most animals never show clinical signs of sickness. Their immune system fights off the disease and you never even know they were exposed.
However, take that “normal” animal, stress him, and put him right in with your cows with their normal pathogen load and the new bull gets sick. Thus, 30 days of quarantine is a small price to pay for improved health.
Your herd health veterinarian will likely recommend a vaccination and parasite-control protocol during quarantine based on the bull’s health history and diseases common in your locale. Call your herd health veterinarian to get advice on these preventive health procedures.
Step 4: Breeding Soundness Examination (BSE). If you’re purchasing bulls, they should have all passed a BSE before sale day. If you have other bulls in your battery, they all need to be tested before turn-out.
The cost-effectiveness of doing a BSE on every bull before every breeding season has never been higher. Nationally, about 10% of bulls fail their BSE; in my 28 years of being a beef herd health veterinarian, I’ve yet to go a year without seeing the devastating effect of having a sterile or sub-fertile bull in the herd where a BSE was not performed prior to the breeding season.
Investing in the genetic future of your beef cowherd is a critical step in your herd’s health and profitability. Be sure to spend adequate time analyzing your options before signing the check.
W. Mark Hilton, DVM, is a clinical professor of beef production medicine in the Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine, West Lafayette, IN.
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