Bull market: Tips for buying and maintaining bulls

Apr 16, 2021

Many spring calving herds are deep into calving season, but now is also a busy time for bull sales. Listen to Jill Peine discuss tips for selecting new bulls and nutritional advice on how best to maintain those bulls before and during breeding season.


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Tom:    I'm Tom Martin, and we're joined by Ridley nutritionist Jill Peine to talk about bulls. Greetings, Jill.

Jill:       Hi, Tom.

Tom:    Many spring calving operations are deep into the calving season this time of year, but we also know it's a busy time for bull sales. What should producers keep in mind when they're selecting their new bulls?

Jill:       Yeah. Absolutely. Bull buying season is in full swing. I'm sure many cattlemen have been or currently are spending time flipping through the bull sale catalogs, really, to find which bull best fits their operation. You know, (a) new herd sire is a big investment in any operation — that’s both financially and genetically.

            So, when it comes to purchasing bulls, it is important to keep in mind that the priorities you place on your bulls may be different from the neighbors’, depending on what your goals are and what will have the most economic importance for your production and marketing system. So, if you're retaining ownership and keeping replacement heifers, a bull that will sire problem-free females that will thrive in your environment will be important. Or if you're looking for retaining ownership through the feed yard and finish out your calves, those carcass and growth traits may have more emphasis for you. But no matter the goals of a cow-calf operation, really, a bull that will successfully breed cows and get a calf on the ground for each cow is the main driver for overall profitability, and that is determined by how the bulls have been raised up until the point of purchase and, then, how they continue to be managed after they are purchased.

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Tom:    So, once the bulls have been purchased, what would be your advice for cattlemen? What should they do then?

Jill:       Yes. So, for most cow-calf producers, you know, the overall profitability starts with high pregnancy rates and a high percentage of calves being conceived early in the breeding season, and also, sound, highly fertile bulls are a critical component to that reproductive success. It's important to confirm that bulls are fertile and sound prior to the breeding season — and we would recommend at least 45 to 60 days prior to turnout, when the bulls are guaranteed to be sound at the time of purchase. You know, if there does end up being a problem, there will still be some time to work with the breeder or find (a) replacement. But keeping bulls in the proper plane of nutrition year-round will help alleviate some of those potential problems as well.

            But there are factors that could be outside of your own control that would keep the bull from performing at its full potential. You know, we recommend you doing a soundness exam. And that would include a general physical exam of the bull’s nutritional status, and that’s measured through the bull’s body condition — looking at any structural defects or disease conditions that would affect the feet and leg soundness, which can negatively impact the bull’s breeding performance, and really evaluating the eyesight and teeth of the bull, and then also (doing an) examination to ensure that the internal structures of the reproductive system are normal and, also, the external structures, including scrotal circumference and measurements, as well as human evaluation, including sperm motility and morphology. You know, we recommend contacting your veterinarian to set up this breeding soundness exam, and then also inquire about their recommendations for testing for potential infectious diseases as well.

Tom:    I think you just touched on this, but let's drill down into it just a bit. How about the condition of the bulls? How does that impact bull performance?

Jill:       Yeah. So, really, bulls should be treated like athletes. You know, we expect a lot out of them during the breeding season. Therefore, they need to prepare for that time during the offseason.

            Now, bulls need to be very athletic and have a lot of stamina once they are turned out until you take them off the cows in order to successfully do their jobs to get the cows bred — and, ideally, on the first cycle. So, most importantly, bulls need to remain sound and active during the duration of the breeding season. And to really help prepare for that, they need to be conditioned right. So, if bulls start off too thin when they’re turned out, they may not hold their condition and perform and, therefore, may not be getting the cows bred, and (they may) need to be replaced by another bull.

            At the same time, an over-conditioned bull may be just as detrimental, as excess weight can negatively affect the bull’s structure and soundness and, also, the bull’s ability to remain in active form. So, evaluating the condition of your bulls should start, really, as soon as possible. Mature bulls should be in a body condition score of 6. That's based on the 1 to 9 U.S. body condition score scale. But since those yearling bulls are typically more active during the breeding season compared to older bulls, they should carry a slightly more — a condition closer to a 6.5 body condition score. And these ideal conditions, around 6, should gradually be reached over time instead of drastic weight changes quickly, as it could impact the overall longevity and the performance of the bull.

            So, preparing the bull early also helps ensure that bulls have high-quality semen going into the breeding season, as sperm production takes 60 days to mature and is significantly impacted by the nutrition that the bull receives prior to turnout.

Tom:    Let's talk more about the nutritional aspect of — why should producers provide a supplement?

Jill:       Yeah. So, as you really sort through bulls looking for ways to maximize the genetic potential of your herd, you know, prioritizing proper nutritional needs should be sorted to the top. If demands and requirements aren't met, the genetic potential of your herd will, then, fall short, and the performance of the bull may be subpar.

            So, again, whether additional weight is needed to be put on your bulls or taken off, you know, it will take time. We recommend (that you) start preparing your bulls 3 to 5 months prior to turnout by providing a protein supplement in addition to forages, if that additional condition needs to be put on your bulls. And not only do those CRYSTALYX® supplements have the essential minerals and vitamins that are critical for fertility but, also, the added protein that is also needed to improve the overall digestibility of forages, and (that) gives them the ability to extract more energy out of those forages. And that specific protein level that’s needed is really determined by the quality of forages that they're being offered.

            We also look at mineral supplementation. It's an important part and an essential management tool for achieving the performance (you want) from your bulls. And even if bulls appear to be visibly healthy, there may be some clinical signs that may remain unseen, and (that could) result in production losses. Now, mineral supplementation is a key player here, including the trace minerals zinc, copper, manganese and selenium. They play a very important role in reproductive success. And so, for best results, we would recommend a year-round mineral supplementation. And as I said earlier, the process of spermatogenesis for the formation of the sperm cells actually begins 61 days prior to breeding. And research has confirmed that semen quality is directly impacted by mineral nutrition.

            So, if we look specifically at those trace minerals, if we first start with zinc — zinc, we know, plays an important role in immune function, as well as the synthesis of testosterone. And so, supplemental zinc has been shown to increase the ejaculate volume, sperm concentration and, also, the sperm motility in bulls. We also know that copper is a necessary mineral for enzyme function, and that includes protecting sperm cells from free radicals. And copper deficiencies may lead to a decrease in libido and, also, semen quality and may also delay the onset of puberty in young bulls.

            And then we have manganese. That's important for cholesterol synthesis and is required for hormones such as testosterone. And when there is insufficient hormonal production, that leads to abnormal sperm production in bulls. And then, lastly, thinking about selenium, research has shown that selenium may improve semen quality through an increase in volume motility and also concentration while decreasing the percent of dead or damaged sperm cells. So, there's a lot of research that backs the importance of mineral nutrition.

Tom:    What specific CRYSTALYX supplements would be recommended for bulls?

Jill:       So, if you're feeding a medium-quality forage, which we would classify around 7–11% crude protein and NDF levels at or below 63%, a CRYSTALYX supplement with at least 17–20% crude protein is recommended. And this could include the CRYSTALYX® Blueprint® 17 Mag if grass tetany may be a concern or the Blueprint® 20 All Natural or Blueprint® Breed-Up® 20 for the greatest trace mineral fortification and advanced technology.

            Now, bulls that are on a lower-quality forage, we recommend looking for CRYSTALYX supplements with 28% crude protein level or higher. If the bulls are under 2 years of age, the CRYSTALYX® Iono-lyx® could be a viable option as well, and that has 28% protein plus the added benefits of Bovatec®, which is the leading ionophore feed additive for pasture cows. 

            Now, if bulls are in good shape, a mineral supplement is still necessary and (is) critical to maximize the fertility of your bulls. Now, CRYSTALYX® Brigade® has been a popular supplement for bulls, and it delivers a high level of trace minerals and vitamins, with part of those trace minerals coming from Bioplex® organic trace minerals.

            Now, for the most advanced technology in a supplement, we would recommend the Blueprint line. Blueprint includes a total replacement of inorganic trace minerals with those Bioplex organic trace minerals. And those are more readily absorbed and used more efficiently by the animal. So, the Blueprint® 6% Phos or Blueprint® Breed-Up® Mag can provide the most advanced technology in trace mineral nutrition. Also, don't forget about the added fly control options that are available. Flies can not only be a nuisance to the bulls but (can) also take a lot of the nutrients away, (leading to your bulls) losing overall productivity.

Tom:    How about during the breeding season, after bulls are turned out — what would you recommend during that time?

Jill:       Having a supplement available during the breeding season is not only important for the bulls but, also, (for) the cowherd as well. We know mineral nutrition, in particular, has a big impact on fertility and also (on) conception rates in the female. So, Breed-Up and Blueprint supplements have these trace minerals that are readily absorbed and are specifically formulated to be supplemented leading up to and through the breeding season.

            Now, when additional protein is not needed, I would recommend the Blueprint® 6% Phos supplement, and there's an option there also with fly control to keep cows from bunching up and from under the shade when flies may be bothering (them). Having the added fly control in there will help keep them out grazing and the bull active.

Tom:    Jill, for those listening to us, where can they go to learn more about this?

Jill:       Yeah. Crystalyx.com has a lot of great resources, including specific product information, research that has been done and blogs that are timely and relevant. You can also locate your local dealer on the website to find out where you can purchase CRYSTALYX near you.

Tom:    That's Ridley nutritionist Jill Peine. Thanks for joining us, Jill.

Jill:       Thank you, Tom.