Try if you can to avoid having a bull.

Here are some reasons:

  • They are generally expensive to buy - if you buy a decent one.
  • They eat more than a cow - sometimes nearer what two small-breed cows would eat.
  • Bulls are dangerous - they regularly injure and kill people. Put them on your OSH hazard list near the top!
  • They break fences and gates and visit neighbours’ cows when not invited.
  • They love digging holes to mark their territory - and as soon as you fill them up they dig them out again.
  • They love to fight with strange bulls belonging to neighbours.
  • They get very territorial with age too.
  • They can be very musical and roar all night at other cattle in adjoining paddocks.
  • You will need to change him before he comes round to mate his daughters.
  • As bulls age, they often get arthritis and may need hoof treatment
  • They can spread venereal diseases through the herd.
  • You will always need to be sure he is fertile, as well as retaining his libido (sex drive). These may not be related and both can decline with age and may need checking by a vet. This will cost you money.

What are the alternatives to a bull? 

  • Artificial insemination (AI) or Artificial Breeding (AB) - they are both the same. Here you’ll need good yard facilities and be skilled at heat detection so cows are mated at the right time in their cycles. You’ll have an enormous choice of types of semen - both fresh and frozen through the AB organisation you choose.
  • Borrow or lease a bull. Leasing a bull is very common with dairy farmers, and there are plenty of people who supply a wide range of dairy and beef bulls for lease. These bulls must have been tested for Tb and EBL, and now vets are recommending that they be BVD-free as well. Tb is tuberculosis, EBL is enzootic bovine leucosis and BVD is bovine viral diarrhoea. Do not take any animal on to your property without clear evidence of freedom from all of these. Check with AgrQuality New Zealand about these disease threats.
  • Take your cows to the neighbour’s bull. You will have to pay a grazing and service fee. The cost could be say $12/week for grazing, and the price of the bull divided by the number of calves he produces. There are a few ways to work out these charges. But again, make sure the bull and the herd your cows are going to for mating are disease-free.
  • Share the bull, week by week about with a neighbour. Remember when sharing, that a cow cycles every three weeks so if you are second in the queue for the bull, your calving dates will be later by these intervals.

Where can you buy a bull?

  • Go to a bull breeder and buy privately. A good option is to ask the breeder about bulls that have been used in the stud and may now be available for lease for a season.
  • Ask a Stock and Station Agent to buy a bull privately from a breeder for you.
    Get an Agent to buy a bull for you at an auction. Bull breeders regularly have their own auctions or may combine and have a sale at an established sale yard.

How much will a bull cost?

This depends on many things such as the genetic merit of the bull, its age and the scarcity of the breed at the moment. For outright purchase, a decent 18-month or 2 year-old Angus or Hereford bull will cost you around $2000. If you want to buy a more rare breed, such as one of the miniature breeds at present, then you’ll have to pay much more. Top bulls with performance records at public auctions will make anything up to $10,000 or beyond. Check prices with a stock agent as markets change.

Which breed?

  • There is a very wide choice of dairy and beef breeds, and some dual-purpose breeds that provide both meat and milk.
  • You can use the same breed of the bull as your cows which is so-called pure breeding or straight breeding.
  • Here things are simple and you can keep any female calves for replacements to build up numbers. Surplus stock can be sold to other breeders.
  • Or you can use a different bull breed on your cows to crossbreed. This will provide crossbred offspring, which will show some extra performance called “hybrid vigour”. This is when the performance of the offspring is better (10-13%) than the average of both parents. It can of course be worse than the average. The main concern then is what to mate the crossbred offspring to. You can sell them all or mate them back to each parent breed in a cycle. This is called cyclical crossbreeding.

What age of bull?

  • It’s best to buy a young bull, as there are less risks with health and physical problems like feet and overweight in older bulls. A yearling bull can be ideal, provided you put him with experienced older cows. It’s a good idea to put an older experienced bull with young heifers, provided he is not too heavy and may damage them when mating.
  • It’s important to realise that the age of the bull will not affect the size of the calf at birth. It’s the bull’s genetics that dictates this and the size and feeding of the cow. Using a yearling bull on heifers to avoid calving troubles may not work. He may have the genes for high growth rate, which he will pass on to his calves, starting at birth, regarding his age when he is used.
  • If you use a good bull as a yearling, he will retain a lot of his value as a two-year-old if you want to sell him the next season. An older bull after use is more likely to be valued at work price.

Horned or polled (no horns)?

Horns are pre-historic appendages not needed in modern cattle. They bruise meat, damage hides, and injure people. Give high priority to breeds that are polled, and if you need to use a horned breed, get your veterinarian to dehorn the bull as soon as it arrives on your property. Don’t lease horned bulls - the risks to you and your family are too great.

What about fertility and libido?

  • The bull producing viable sperm measures fertility, and to do this you need a semen sample. This can be obtained by electrical ejaculation but this is not always reliable. To check fertility, see how many cows return to the bull after the first 18-24 days after mating.
  • Libido is the bull’s sex drive. He may have plenty of it but be infertile so the two may not go together. His sex drive for females may take time to develop if he has been reared in a homosexual group of young bulls.
  • He may need time to learn his trade. Some beef breeders now give their bulls a libido test before sale. This “serving capacity” test has to be done under veterinary supervision.
  • If your bull has libido or fertility problems, contact the vendor or your vet, as you may be able to claim money back or get a replacement animal. Top breeders will always replace defective bulls, but you will have lost time finding out, and next year’s calving will be delayed.

What physical things should you look for?

  • Feet - the bull should be standing evenly on all claws of all feet. There should be no misshapen claws.
    Walking - he is going to have to do a lot of this, as well as mounting on his hind legs. Make sure he can walk freely and his back legs don’t look too straight or stiff (called post-legged). He should have flexible pasterns and hocks. Give him a “hurry-up” and see if he can move! Note the owner may not like this but it’s your money you are spending.
  • Testicles - these should be large as sperm capacity is related to size. The testicles should loose inside the scrotum if you’re brave enough to feel them. If in doubt get a vet to check them along with the health of the bull’s penis. Good breeders have all this done before sale time.
  • Where is the meat?. You can spend a lot of time over the details of conformation. Just make sure the meat is on the rear end rather than the front end, and that the bull looks like what a bull of that breed should be (ie true to type). Use some experienced helper if needed.

What about performance records?

  • Bull breeders in official performance recording schemes will be able to show you an extensive list of data. These are expressed in EBVs or Estimated Breeding Values. These show how much above (+EBVs) or below (-EBVs) the individual animal is, compared to the average of the herd or the breed.
  • The New Zealand Beef Council have an excellent booklet called “Bull Selection” which you can get from the National Coordinator, NZ Beef Council, PO Box 21, Wellington, Phone (04) 494-9503.
  • In simple terms, go for negative values for Birth Weight to avoid calving problems, and then go for large positive EBVs for subsequent weights so the bull’s offspring will grow fast. The breeder will give you guidance on understanding the records.
  • The main point is to buy from a breeder who has a sound breeding programme where they are making genetic gain. The NZ Beef Council will give you advice on this.

What to do when you get the bull home?

  • Give him a quiet journey home in his own pen in the truck.
  • Unload him carefully to avoid injury.
  • Put him in a well-fenced paddock within sight of other cattle and away from other bulls.
  • Give him some company and keep an eye on them to make sure they agree to get on.
  • Keep him away from other bulls - in both sight and sound if possible.
  • Check that he has respect for electric fences and gates. If not you’ll have to have a strategy to fix this problem.

Management when he is with the cows?

  • Let nature take its course but keep an eye on things.
  • Make sure he is serving into the vagina of the cows correctly.
  • Check that he is able to achieve an erection when mounting the cows.
  • Keep checking for lameness.
  • Check to see if he is not getting exhausted, losing interest and not working.
  • He may be lying down a lot which should be investigated - give him a week off if you have another bull available.
  • On a small block, boredom will be more likely. Watch that he doesn’t start to pay too much interest in the neighbour’s cows or bulls.

Management after mating?

  • Work out when you want calving to finish and remove the bull 283 days before that. There can be a 14-day spread on either side of that date.
  • Take the bull out and put him in a separate paddock with some mates.
  • He may need to build up the condition.
  • Avoid allowing him to get too fat.
  • If you are not worried about calving spread, then just leave him with the cows.

NEVER TRUST A BULL - always have someone with you when handling bulls.