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Protect your herd sire investments with these helpful tips

Herd sires account for half of the genetic makeup of the calf crop and depending on how many years they are in use, it's easy to see the impact of a bull on a cow-calf operation. However, bull management can easily be overlooked this time of year as producers are busy calving and working in the fields.

With turnout just 30-90 days away for many beef producers, now is the time to protect your herd bull investment, asses health and nutrition and take the appropriate steps needed for having a successful summer breeding season.

Breeding Soundness Examinations

"I always tell folks that you spend so much money on these bulls, so you want to make sure they are good before turnout," said David Thompson, DVM, owner of Creekside Veterinary Clinic in Mitchell, S.D. "A breeding soundness examination is the cheapest insurance on a bull that you can find. Although it doesn't tell us anything about libido or whether he'll actually go out and find the cows in heat, it does tell us that they are physically able to do the job."

A typical breeding soundness examination looks at three components — physical condition, scrotal circumference and semen quality.

"We first look at the bull's body condition score, feet, legs and scrotum," Thompson said. "We'll then use an electric probe to look at the semen quality and how well the semen is moving. We'll look at individual cells, counting 100 of them, and if 70 percent or more of the sperm cells are normal, the bull passes. The entire breeding soundness examination takes 5-15 minutes depending on how the bull behaves."

A yearling bull should have a scrotal circumference of at least 30 cm.

If the bull doesn't pass one or more elements of the breeding soundness examination on the first try, Thompson recommends retesting in a month.

"If a bull has been sitting around all winter away from cows, things tend to get a little stale," Thompson said. "As a result, we might find some dead semen in his reproductive tract. We recommend restesting to see what's going on. If they still fail after 30 days have passed, then we decline that bull and recommend the producer get a new one. The challenge is if the rancher waits until May or June to test his bulls before turnout, it gets more difficult to find bulls for sale that are adequate for his breeding needs."

Thompson recommends testing bulls as soon as possible to allow time for retesting and purchasing new herd sires, if needed. Once the bulls have passed the examination and are out on pasture, he says it's important to observe the sires to make sure they are actually breeding cows.

"Some bulls are day breeders, or night breeders, or they may be bashful, so it's sometimes difficult to observe which bull is breeding the cows," said Thompson. "In a multi-sire pasture, the only way to know for sure is to do a parentage test on the baby calves after they've been weaned to know which bull is working and which one isn't."

Another job to get done while the bull is in the chute for the breeding soundness examination is to administer his pre-breeding shots.

"This is a great time to give vaccinations as the label for pre-breeding shots recommends 30 days before breeding," Thompson said. "Although rare, giving shots now allows you to observe if the bull has any reactions to the shots before he goes out to pasture. I would, however, reserve pouring the bulls until they actually go to grass and get closer to fly season."

Positive Plane of Nutrition

A bull's body condition score (BCS) may fluctuate throughout the year, but with turnout time drawing closer, Julie Walker, South Dakota State University Extension beef specialist and associate professor, recommends a bull have a BCS of six, especially in yearling and two-year old bulls.

"In a typical breeding season, a bull will lose approximately 100-200 pounds, so we want to make sure the bulls are on a positive plane of nutrition, but not too fat either. Depending on the condition, it may be a good idea to supplement bulls with grain if they are on the thin side."

On the flip side, if bulls are overly conditioned or have been on a relatively high-grain diet, Walker recommends titrating the diet down slowly.

"Take out 10 percent of the concentrate and replace it will a bulky forage to slowly step the bulls down from the high concentrate diet," Walker said. "When you buy a bull, visit with the seller about the bull's diet and try to mimic it to the best of your ability and reduce it down from there. We want our bulls to have a high rumen capacity for the grazing season, but with a high concentrate diet, the rumen isn't as stretched. An ideal diet would be 70-80 percent forage with a little bit of concentrate in it."

Walker recommends managing bulls separately, if possible, based on BCS and paired together as they might be during the breeding season.

"Young or thin bulls will need to be managed differently than older mature bulls, and if it's possible, grouping the bulls for how they are going to be sorted into pastures will reduce fighting at turnout and bulls won't have to re-establish pecking order when they get to their summer grazing spot," Walker said. "The bigger the pen, the better, too, because it promotes physical activity and prepare them for the marathon they'll be experiencing in the breeding season."

For additional tips on bull nutrition and daily requirements for growing bulls, check out Walker's article, "Bull Nutrition," available at http://igrow.org/up/resources/02-2049-2012.pdf.

Insurance For Bull Injury, Death

Bulls can be a costly investment and it's important to protect these herd sires in case of injury or death during transportation or out on the range. Calli Williams, Fischer Rounds and Associates account manager and licensed agent in farm, ranch, life and health, offers some tips for insuring bulls.

"You've invested in the genetics and future of your operation, now it's time to make sure your investment is protected," said Williams. "As an agent for Fischer Rounds and Associates, I offer two forms of coverage on bulls. The first policy is a basic mortality policy which covers your bull for accident, sickness and disease. The policy holder will receive 100 percent of the value of the bull in the event of death or a life-threatening injury. The second policy we offer has been, by far, the most popular. This policy includes your basic mortality coverage plus 'loss of use.' In the event of loss of use (tool breakage, fertility issues, etc.) that is total and permanent due to accident, illness or disease that can clearly be identified, you will receive 80 percent of the value of your bull returned to you."

Williams said for a basic mortality policy, the cost is 5.5 percent of the purchase price, and the mortality and loss of use policy is 10 percent of the purchase price. Policies are available for bulls purchased at an auction sale or through private treaty, and Williams said whole herd and pasture policies are available, as well.

"One crucial benefit to these policies is your bull is covered for an entire year, a full twelve months, rather than your 60-90 day breeding season most producers guarantee," Williams said. "The bull mortality policies protect both the buyer and the seller. The buyer has coverage not only during the breeding season, but through the heat of summer months and stress of a hard winter. The seller is protected in the case that if a high amount of claims were made due to accidents or natural disasters, or bulls just being bulls, they don't have to supply as many replacement bulls or credit on their sale the following year."

In the event of injury or death, Williams said the first step toward filing a claim is to contact a veterinarian and then the insurance office.

"We need a veterinarian to diagnose and/or identify the injury or illness that caused the death or life-threatening injury of your insured bull," said Williams, who has traveled 6,000 miles in the last eight weeks promoting these policies at bull sales. "The comment made most often to me by producers is, 'I wish I had that on my bull last year!' Bull mortality and loss of use policies are a fairly new product known to cattlemen across the Midwest. My top goal for my first year on the road is to educate cattlemen on the coverage available for the investments they make for their cattle operation. The most common applicants I have had this year are cattlemen who purchased a large amount of bulls, rather than someone who spent a high dollar amount on an individual bull. I have noticed a trend that cattlemen are purchasing more bulls because of the low cattle markets rather than investing in one, high-dollar bull."

To learn more about the bull mortality and loss of use policies, contact Williams at 605-695-1990 or cwilliams@fischerrounds.com. F