Calves Are Valuable, Good Bulls Are Priceless

A veterinarian's time and buying a sound beef bull both have costs, but getting live calves on the ground in a timely manner is priceless.
calendar icon 21 April 2015
clock icon 4 minute read

Beef expert John Grimes is urging producers to perform Breeding Soundness Examinations (BSE).

His opening gambit in a recent extension article was that cattle farming is rarely as simple as it should work out.

For Ohio cow/calf producers, fertility should be number one on the list, he says. A bull has a great deal more impact than one cow does on a herd. 

Breeding Soundness Evaluation: The Test

A Breeding Soundness Examination (BSE) performed by an accredited veterinarian is a necessary management tool for improving herd fertility levels, writes Mr Grimes.

Through a BSE, a bull is given a physical and semen evaluation to determine his status as a satisfactory potential breeder on the test date.

The physical examination portion of the test can include the evaluation of body condition, feet and legs, eyes, and the organs of the reproductive system. The semen evaluation looks at characteristics such as sperm motility, per cent normal cells, and per cent primary and secondary abnormalities. The typical cost for a BSE falls in the $50-$60 range.

In spite of the obvious benefits of a BSE, a minority of producers actually semen check their bulls prior to use. Results from the U.S.D.A.'s 2007-08 National Animal Health Monitoring System study indicated that semen tests were used by 44.1 per cent of all operations surveyed. The results varied greatly depending on herd size as 21.1 per cent of the herds with 1-49 cows used a semen check.

The percentage using a semen check increased steadily as cow numbers increased and the final group (200 cows or more) used the check in 62.3 per cent of the herds. For the operations that did not use a semen check, the top two reasons for not using this technology were Labour/Time at 34.4 per cent and Cost at 25.2 per cent. These reasons are questionable at best.

One requirement of bulls which are offered annually at the Ohio Cattlemen's Association's Seedstock Improvement Sales (SIS) is that they be examined for breeding soundness and meet the requirements to be deemed "Satisfactory Potential Breeders." During preparations for this year's SIS in Hillsboro, 5 of the 38 bulls that were originally consigned failed their Breeding Soundness Examination (BSE) and as a result did not participate in the sale.

Which Bulls Might Need It

Virgin bulls are obvious candidates for a BSE. However, many producers mistakenly assume a mature bull that has previously sired calves will remain a satisfactory breeder throughout his lifetime. This is simply not true as illness, injuries or perhaps even extreme winter weather can result in a change in status as a potential breeder.

In fact, one of the five bulls that failed the BSE prior to the SIS was a two year old. Regardless of age and source of a potential herd sire, make sure a bull has been tested prior to use in a breeding season. Be certain a sire has the ability to settle the females he's exposed to in a timely fashion.

Merits of Compact Calving

In past editions of the Ohio Beef Cattle Schools held around the state, there has been much discussion about the importance of short breeding seasons where most of the cows and heifers conceive on the first service.

Certainly a number of issues can affect how long it takes to get the entire herd settled. Regardless, one obvious advantage of a tight breeding season is the opportunity to manage and market the resulting calves as one consistent group. However, have you ever considered the direct 'economic' benefit of cows that conceive on the first cycle?

Assuming adequate nutrition is available, a good calf is likely gaining about 2.25+/- pounds a day at weaning time. As a result, if he was born 21 days later than his counterpart, he could easily weigh 40 to 50 pounds less when he goes to market as a feeder calf in the fall of 2016. If feeder calves are worth only $2 per pound next fall, one missed breeding cycle could easily cost $80 to $100 for each calf that is born only one cycle late. For a cow that's two cycles late - double those numbers.

Herd health (vaccinations, etc.), cow body condition (nutrition), bull (breeding) power, bull breeding soundness and estrus synchronization programs are all factors that equate to getting cows settled early in the breeding season. Now is the time to consider the economic impact of each of these management opportunities as it relates to the harvest of your 2016 calf crop.

It's not too late to have your veterinarian evaluate your bulls for soundness before breeding season. The cost may be as little as the amount gained from settling one cow, one cycle earlier. Considering the value of feeder calves, sound beef bulls are a valuable commodity but, getting live calves on the ground in a timely fashion next spring will likely still be priceless.

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