Placing winter bull management in proper perspective |

Placing winter bull management in proper perspective

Heather Smith Thomas

A producer’s calf crop depends on the bulls they put with their cows. Bulls are half the equation, in terms of genetic quality and how early in the calving season calves are born. If bulls are not optimally fertile there may be more late calves. Care and management of bulls during their off season – when they are not with the cows – can make a big difference in whether or not they can do their job.

Larry Mehlhoff of 5L Red Angus, Sheridan, MT, says bull management will vary with each operation, partly depending on facilities available for keeping bulls separate from the cows. Many ranches try to utilize a pen or pasture located away from the cows.

“We encourage people to take yearling bulls out of the cows and make sure they regain any lost weight,” says Mehlhoff. “They need to catch up a bit if they’ve worked hard. Sometimes people leave all their bulls together, but this can be hard on the yearlings and sometimes even two-year-olds if they are still losing their teeth. Many people never feed their bulls any extra, so the older bulls do very well and the young ones may take a beating.”

The yearlings and two-year-olds do better through winter if they are in a group by themselves.

“We have our older bulls in a 250 acre hillside pasture and they do fine – and the exercise is good for them,” says Mehlhoff. “They are like dry cows, once they’re mature. It’s the young bulls that need a little help; they should be fed like young cows.”

If bulls are purchased as yearlings, their development phase is very important. Seedstock producers must condition young bulls to be physically fit with hard muscle, not fat.

“They should be developed in big pens with adequate exercise, so they don’t have to go directly from very soft condition to breeding cows in big pastures,” adds Mehlhoff.

The transition should be as smooth as possible.

“In the 1970’s and 80’s producers were performance oriented, trying to get as much daily gain as possible on young bulls and it became a race. We went past what was optimal for these bulls,” says Mehlhoff.

It’s better to allow a minimal transition in nutrient levels when bulls have to go out and work. This makes it much easier for the bull, and he won’t fall apart by the time he is picked up out of the cows.

“About 10 years ago we didn’t have very large pens for our bull development,” says Mehlhoff. “We were out of room, so I made a quarter-mile lot at the edge of a field, and put 50 young bulls in there. It was a sacrifice to take a chunk out of a hay meadow for a bull run but we needed the room. It had water at one end and a feed bunk at the other end, with a quarter mile walking distance in between. It worked very well so we added another run.

“Now we can handle about 400 bulls in several quarter-mile runs, with feed and water at opposite ends. It has made a big difference.”

Bulls are like young athletes; if they are physically fit, they have fewer injuries.

“We found that in the larger pens, we have some bull injuries as they grow and develop; the extra room and exercise sorts out the ones that have structure issues or foot problems,” says Mehlhoff. “We’re finding those at home (and take them out of the program) before they go to our customers, and that’s the way it ought to be.

“We hear back from our customers that bulls developed to be athletic and fit go out and do their job and bounce right back. These bulls are more accustomed to traveling. The worst thing you can do is put them on good feed with no exercise.”

What makes the commercial cattleman’s job easier in bull management is how well the seedstock producer develops the bulls. This is the crucial starting point.

“We’d prefer to be able to give these young bulls more challenges than just the quarter mile pen, in more varied terrain, but even just the extra walking has made a big difference,” says Mehlhoff.

Just as important as exercise is proper nutrition and mineral management. Every geographic region has challenges, in deficiencies of certain trace minerals or overabundance of something that interferes with utilization of other minerals. Iron or molybdenum, for instance, can hinder copper absorption.

“It pays to check forage samples and see what kind of mineral program would be best for your ranch,” says Mehlhoff. “A lot of producers have their cows on a good mineral program but sometimes neglect the bulls, and they need just as much attention. It’s especially crucial for young bulls. We try to use a Multimin injection for our bulls, at least 30 days prior to turnout. This seems to boost the immune system and we feel it’s made a difference.”

If bulls are kept on a good program they stay healthier and last longer – with better fertility. Mineral nutrition has a lot to do with how they semen test, and hold together joint-wise, feet and leg soundness, etc. Vaccination programs are also important. Sometimes the bulls are neglected and their vaccinations are not as timely as that of the cow herd.

It’s just good business to take care of the bulls.

“It’s like having a proper maintenance program on your vehicles. They last longer,” says Mehlhoff. “If a person doesn’t take care of a young bull, it’s like running a vehicle 100,000 miles without an oil change. On some ranches the bulls are just assumed to work under any conditions; people don’t intentionally neglect them, but it happens. It’s natural to try harder to take care of the larger group – the cows – especially when you are really busy and trying to deal with the bigger issues. But it pays large dividends to pay attention to bulls and their needs.”

Some challenges are due to the constraints of each operation. Not everyone has a good place to put bulls or make divisions so young bulls can be managed separately. Each operation has to make their own adjustments.

The investment in young bulls is usually large, however, so it pays to try to protect that investment with proper off-season care.

“Ranchers have become good at making assessments about what they need in a bull, to fit their cow herd and environment,” says Mehlhoff. “They’ve studied EPDs and know how to feed cattle right, but even after they’ve done the homework and paid substantial capital for the bulls, some don’t follow through and take good care of that investment.”

Some young bulls get injured or don’t get a chance to regain condition after breeding season, and even if they don’t end up washing out of the program it hurts them for the rest of their productive life.

“In most other things, people protect a capital investment with pride and care, such as maintaining a tractor or a vehicle, and this is no different,” says Mehlhoff. “Some people forget about the value of these young bulls; they are the essence of the breeding program. Sometimes it’s just a matter of putting it in proper perspective.”