31 January 2013

Managing Bulls

Principal references:
Bull Management, Department of Primary Industries, New South Wales.
Bull Purchasing and Management, Mississippi State University.
Beef cow conception rates and influences, R&D Brief, Meat & Wool, New Zealand.

The following is a summary of key points in the above references and can be used as a guide for new bull buyers.

Bringing your new bull home

When you buy a new bull or bulls for your herd, you can reduce problems by getting them home and settling them in properly.

Bulls of all breeds can become upset and excited during the delivery process. They are subjected to different noises, loss of their mates, different people, different handling methods, trucking, loading and unloading, new paddocks, and different water and feed. This can be enough to upset even quiet animals.


Temperament is a major characteristic to check when you buy bulls. Most stud cattle breeders will identify and cull any bulls that are of inappropriate temperament. However, bulls can also be too quiet. New Zealand research found, unexpectedly, that conception rates in herds that cull bulls for temperament are lower than in herds that do not.


Continued careful treatment of bulls is important. Insurance against loss in transit, accidental loss of use, or infertility, is recommended.

If you take the bull home yourself:

  • Treat and handle him quietly at all times - no dogs, no buzzers. Give him time and room to make up his mind.
  • Make sure that the truck floor is covered to prevent bulls from slipping. A floor grid will prevent bulls from being damaged by going down in transit.
  • If you can arrange it, put a few quiet cows or steers on the truck with the bull. Let them down into a yard with the bulls for a while before loading and after unloading.
  • Unload and reload during the trip as little as possible. If necessary, rest with water and feed. Treat bulls kindly - your impatience or nervousness is easily transmitted to an animal unfamiliar to you and unsure of his environment.

If you use a professional carrier:

  • Discuss resting procedures for long trips, expected delivery time, truck condition and quiet handling.
  • Give ear tag and brand numbers to the carrier and make sure you have the carrier's phone number.
  • When buying bulls from far away you may often have to fit in with other delivery arrangements to reduce cost. You should make it clear how you want your bulls handled.


When the bull or bulls arrive home, unload them at the yards into a group of house cows, steers or herd cows. Bulls from different sources should be put into separate yards with other cattle for company.

Provide hay and water, then leave them alone until the next morning.

The next day, bulls should receive routine health treatments and vaccinations.

Consult with your veterinarian and draw up a policy for treating bulls on arrival and then annually.

Leave the bulls in the yards for the next day or two on feed and water to allow them to settle down with other stock for company. A bull's behaviour will decide how quickly he can be moved out to paddocks.

Mating young bulls

Newly purchased young bulls should not be placed with older herd bulls for multiple-sire joining. The older, dominant bull will not allow the young bulls to work much, and will knock them around while keeping them away from the cows.

Use new bulls in either single-sire groups or with young bulls their own age. If a number of young bulls are to be used together, run them together for a few weeks before joining starts. They sort out their pecking order quickly and have few problems later.

When the young bulls are working, inspect them regularly and closely.

The number of females a bull can handle depends upon bull maturity, soundness, fertility and condition, as well as paddock size and length of the breeding season. Less sexually mature bulls should be placed with fewer females than their older counterparts. In general, do not expose young bulls to more than 15 - 30 cows or heifers during breeding time, and then spell them for at least three months. A “rule-of-thumb” for the bull-to-female ratio is one cow or heifer per month of age of the bull up to 30 months of age. For example, an 18-month-old bull could run with 18 females, and a two-year-old bull (24 months of age) could be exposed to 24 females.

New Zealand research involving 978 farms found that conception rates after a nine week joining period varied from about 83% to 95%, averaging 90%. Also, research from the dairy industry found that only about 70% of eggs produced at oestrus are viable. Maximum conception rates after a three week joining period should thus be about 70%, after a six week joining period 91%, and after nine weeks just over 97%. These figures are consistent with the New Zealand findings.

Managing older herd bulls

Older working bulls also need special care and attention before mating starts.

They should be tested or checked every year for physical soundness, testicle tone, and serving capacity or ability. All bulls to be used must be free-moving, active and in good store condition. Working bulls may need supplementary feeding before the joining season to bring up condition.

All bulls should be drenched, treated for lice, and annually receive other health treatments recommended for your area.

During mating

Check bulls at least twice each week for the first two months. Get up close to them and watch each bull walk; check for swellings around the sheath and for lameness.

Have a spare bull or bulls available to replace any that break down. Replace any suspect bull immediately.

Rotate bulls in single-sire groups to make sure that any bull infertility is covered. Single-sire joining works well but it has risks. The bulls must be checked regularly and carefully, or the bulls should be rotated every one or two cycles.

Bulls are a large investment for breeding herds and they have a major effect on herd fertility. A little time and attention to make sure they are fit, free from disease and actively working, is well worthwhile.


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