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When Push Comes To Shove

Bulls are tough. They must be to withstand the abuse they can give each other when fighting. Though they're durable, bulls do occasionally get injured, and it can be frustrating to have a good bull out of action when there's work to be done. You can't prevent all the accidents, but you can minimize the risk.Bulls that exist reasonably well together in winter become competitive when there are cows

Bulls are tough. They must be to withstand the abuse they can give each other when fighting. Though they're durable, bulls do occasionally get injured, and it can be frustrating to have a good bull out of action when there's work to be done. You can't prevent all the accidents, but you can minimize the risk.

Bulls that exist reasonably well together in winter become competitive when there are cows to breed. Len McIrvin, who runs horned Herefords near the Canadian border at Laurier, WA, raises some purebred bulls for his operation and turns out 130 bulls on range. He says he sees a few broken legs. Most of the injuries, however, are stifled bulls and bulls with broken penises.

"We try to use younger, lighter bulls on heifers," McIrvin says. "This reduces the risk of broken penises. You get more injuries with bigger, heavier bulls trying to breed heifers."

McIrvin says injuries due to fighting can be minimized if bulls that will be turned out together for breeding can be wintered together first.

"The pecking order's already established and they're not likely to fight so much or so hard," McIrvin says. "If you keep bulls separated during the off season, they spend more time fighting when you finally put them together. An older bull, especially, has trouble if he's been kept separate."

Another problem McIrvin sees during breeding season is bulls with eye problems.

"With our dry desert range conditions we have dust, cheatgrass seeds and pinkeye problems. A bull with a blind eye is at a disadvantage when fighting and may become injured. Management to control flies and pinkeye can prevent some of these problems," he says.

If a rancher doesn't have to breed on range with all the bulls running together, there are more options to prevent the kind of fighting that results in injuries, McIrvin points out. On his ranch in Idaho, the cows are bred in April in small breeding groups of one to three bulls per group before going to the range.

"We select closely related bulls that are compatible, with a pecking order already established, such as bulls of different ages. The younger ones rarely challenge the older ones. By contrast, evenly matched bulls spend most of their time fighting or trying to keep each other from breeding.

Make Sure Bulls Are Fit Greg Shaw, Shaw Cattle Co., Caldwell, ID, says they have few injuries with their purebreds since they only turn out one bull to a pasture. "When turning out bulls for breeding, make sure they're in proper condition, physically fit and not overweight," he says. "And when possible, have a short breeding season and don't leave bulls with cows all summer."

Once the breeding activity slows down, bulls have nothing better to do than spar and look for trouble. Fighting tends to increase when bulls are "unemployed."

Last fall, Sam McKinney, a Salmon, ID, rancher who runs Angus cows bred to Limousin bulls, had two bulls break a hind leg in separate accidents. He had to butcher both of the three-year-olds. The injuries happened after the breeding season when the bulls were isolated from the cows.

"We had 14 bulls," McKinney says, "some yearlings and six, three-year-olds that were always sparring. I suspect two bulls were fighting, head to head with legs braced, and a third bull rammed one of them. I've never seen a broken leg occur from just normal fighting, but if a third bull hit them full force while that leg was braced, it can snap."

McKinney also says bulls may be coexisting peacefully until they're moved. "Then they always fight, using the disruption to take advantage of one another," he says.

Lynn Thomas has seen the same problem moving groups of bulls on his Salmon, ID, ranch. "We no longer trail them because of the continual fighting. It's a danger to the bulls, the horsemen and the fences along the way. So we now haul them."

Paul Marinoni, Jr., runs 250 commercial cows in a spring and fall calving cycle on his Fayetteville, AR, ranch. In his 12-bull battery, he says that he loses one or two bulls each year due to fighting injuries.

"Keeping the bulls in individual pens would help, but maintaining 12 separate pens would be quite a task," Marinoni says. "I'd like to see someone develop some type of electric shock device to be worn on the bulls' foreheads and secured by a halter that would be triggered by the compression of the bull's head against another bull or object," he says.

"A halter with cups over the bull's eyes to act as blinders so that he could only see in the direction of his nose might help as well. But, whatever the answer is, a solution would save cattlement a lot of money," he says.

Preventing Injuries To avoid freak off-season accidents remove hazards and obstacles in bull lots, says Duane Mickelsen, a bovine reproduction specialist at Washington State University. That means old fences, fallen trees, feeders in bad locations, etc., he says. In addition, dirt is always better than concrete in a bull lot, even though concrete is nice for cleaning.

"Concrete gives poor footing and contributes to a lot of injuries. Deep mud can be a problem but can be beneficial when bulls are fighting because they wear out quicker and will quit fighting sooner," Mickelsen says.

Mickelsen recommends that bulls be as physically fit as possible to avoid injuries due to fighting.

"Young bulls just coming off test may look great but they're pampered, fat and more apt to be injured," Mickelsen says. "Keep them separate for a time from other bulls and in an area where they're forced to do some walking. Young bulls are like young football players - they're easily injured until they get in shape."

McIrvin says fitness and experience are crucial. "It's important for young bulls to live together and learn how to fight and protect themselves. A bull that hasn't experienced the rough and tumble of sparring for pecking order is a prime candidate for injury."

Mickelsen advises producers not to put one new bull in with a group. "If bulls must be mixed, it's better to add several at once, so no one individual has to bear the whole brunt of fighting."

He also says horned bulls confined together in small areas can be big trouble. A cornered bull can be seriously hurt. Horned and polled bulls can be together without problems if the bulls have room to get away from one another.

McIrvin suggests sawing off part of the horn (about half) when bulls are yearlings so they're not as apt to break a horn later. "Broken horns can really set bulls back," he says. There is also danger of a bull bleeding to death when a horn is broken off while fighting.

The worst injury McKinney has seen was an older bull trying to fight a younger, stronger one. "The older bull had been whipped before and wouldn't quit. He apparently just stood there braced and pushing until he snapped both stifles. He was totally crippled."

To avoid this kind of problem (muscles stronger than bones), Mickelsen recommends good nutrition for bulls and adequate minerals in the diet to build and keep bones strong.

He also emphasizes the importance of good conformation and soundness. More injuries occur when bulls have poor hind leg conformation, especially post-legged (hind legs too straight, no angulation in stifles and hocks). Sickle-hocked bulls with too much angle in their hind legs also tend to break down, he says.

Greg Shaw, of Shaw Cattle Co., agrees. "The first criteria for reducing risk of injury is to select bulls that are structurally sound," he says. "That means strong, well-formed legs and joints, proper leg angles and adequate bones. They're as important in a bull as muscling and feed efficiency."