Don’t forget the bull in a herd health plan

It’s often easy to overlook the bulls when evaluating a cowherd’s overall health since more often than not they are only with the cow herd several months of the year.

Ashland, Kansas, veterinarian Randall Spare spoke recently during an Angus University webinar about considerations to keeping bulls healthy and performing.

“We want to begin with the end in mind when I think about bulls, in the many different systems that are involved, that they might go to,” Spare said.

Ranchers who raise bulls for seedstock or commercial cattle producers must take into consideration where these animals will end up, and that plays a part in their overall health and well-being.

“I just want to want to lay the framework of raising these bulls. I say easy does it,” he said. “We used to see people push these bulls and use a lot of grain to do it.”

Now Spare believes those bulls can be raised on a forage-heavy diet that’s fairly highly digestible and accomplish what more grain used to do. Bulls only need to weigh 1,200 pounds by 12 to 13 months of age.

Spare has found that not all feeds are created equal even though they might have come out of the same piles. Nutrients vary tremendously, and “please don’t use the book values,” he said.

The highest cost producers have today is feed and they need to get the most out of that feed.

“Balance those rations,” he said. “One of the things that I learned a long time ago, there’s many other minerals that we need to concentrate also. But when we’re raising bulls, we need to make sure that there are those micronutrients, particularly zinc is really important.”

Physical stature

Moving on to feet and structure, Spare said when he can’t figure something out in the beef industry when it comes to feet, he looks to those in the dairy segment.

In dairy heifers, subacute ruminal acidosis creates some feeding issues, and it’s been seen in beef cattle—whether it’s in the feedyard, bull or heifer development. It most often leads to feet problems in the animal and has to do with how the animals are presented feed. Producers also need to make sure there’s plenty of places for the cattle to lay down too.

“The dairy industry—they work tremendously hard at making sure those dairy cows have a place to lay down and get off their feet,” Spare said. “That’s not just so they can rest to ruminate, but so they can physically get off their feet.”

Same goes for bulls. Bedding needs to be available to them, not just when it’s cold but hot as well to dissipate some of the heat in their environment. Movement is important too and producers need to be sure to give them enough room to do so.

“We see that all breeds have feet issues, but we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater and say they’re (all) bad,” Spare said. “Let’s work at that collaboratively to figure that problem, or challenge, out.”

Fertility testing

Spare believes fertility testing is important for both the commercial producer and the seedstock producer, but each needs to understand the quantification of the test. That it means the bull is passible when it comes to fertility on the day of the test. When he performs a test, he does three things—measures the scrotum, collects a semen sample and performs a physical exam.

As a veterinarian, Spare takes the physical breeding soundness exam seriously. He likes to watch the bulls walk before going into the chute as well as walk out amongst them to check for lameness.

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He also recommends checking for the presence of worms in the bulls, especially if they came from a different area than where they’ll be with cows. Several of Spare’s interns spent a summer collecting fecal samples and testing for worms.

“We have to understand when you’re buying or selling an animal, where is it from? What disease pressures are present in that herd,” he said.

Spare said cattle producers have the most opportunity to help their animals succeed.

Other considerations

Anaplasmosis is a growing concern for Spare and when measuring fertility in bulls it’s important to see what they have going on prior to the breeding season—14 to 20 days prior.

“And if they happen to become transiently infertile at the beginning of the breeding season, that’s a problem,” he said. “Ask yourself and ask your veterinarian, ask those people that are there involved. What is the consequences of them being exposed?”

Single sire pastures can be concerning when anaplasmosis is suspected. An animal with it will remain a carrier for the rest of their life. Other concerns are leptospirosis when feral pigs are in the area and trichomonosis in some areas.

“Trichomonisis generally is not a problem in virgin bulls, and I’ve tested 1,000s of virgin bulls and they’re all negative,” he said. “But not too long ago I sent him some bulls to Texas and this manager sent me a letter back that fall and said, ‘Can you prove that this bull was trich negative because we have trich in our herd?’”

There are a couple things to do to keep trich out of the herd. Spare strongly suggests not buying unknown origin animals from the sale barn and feels the same about leasing bulls.


Spare said bull producers need to produce a bull that’s ready to go when breeding season comes around. Delivering a bull to a purchaser is a good way to see what their animal husbandry looks like and how the animal will be cared for.

Make sure as a producer the line of communication is open and build the relationship at the same time.

“I think that as seedstock producers, that’s a great opportunity to see—it takes time, it takes effort. But that’s how your products can be successful,” he said. “They’re a long-term investment. They’re very expensive today. But we want to get the most value out of those bulls.”

Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-227-1804 or [email protected]