Veterinarian James Gober shares steps for ensuring bull health and reproductive success this breeding season.
Thousands of dollars are spent yearly on the purchase of elite livestock by operations large and small. Whether it be a seedstock producer or a commercial cow-calf operator, both know the investment a herd bull is. His ability to produce high-value calves is mandatory for long-term business success.
While many considerations affect a bull’s success at producing calves of that caliber, one thing serves as the foundation — his health.
“Healthy, productive herd bulls are vital to the success of any cattle operation, not to mention one of the more expensive input costs,” says James Gober. “It is important that we have the bulls functioning and peak performance during the breeding season. Proper vaccination and health programs will help ensure longevity of the bulls and maximize profits for the producer.”
Gober knows this truth all too well after 16 years as a veterinarian and 12 years consulting for numerous seedstock producers across Texas. The Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences graduate owns and practices at Haskell Veterinary Clinic. His tenure has led him to develop some steps he says producers should take to ensure bulls stay healthy and productive.
1. Annual vaccinations
Annual vaccinations top the list of attaining a sound health protocol for bulls. These vaccines work to protect animals against diseases they could potentially be exposed to throughout the year, so it is imperative to select the vaccines which combat diseases common in the region.
“Environmental pathogens and exposure can vary from one region of the state to the next,” Gober explains. “A vaccine program that works for one operation may not work for the next. Vaccine programs should be tailored to each operation individually to cover their specific risks and to align with that operation’s management capabilities.”
While this is true, there are some common vaccinations given to bulls regardless of their region. They include: clostridial vaccines, commonly referred to as “7-way;” modified live or killed viral vaccines for respiratory illness; trichomoniasis vaccine; and leptospirosis and vibriosis bacterial vaccines to protect against abortions.
Gober notes the need for other vaccines may arise depending on location and exposure of a herd, so a rule of the wise is to consult a local veterinarian to provide guidance. Regardless of the individualized vaccination protocol, it is important to remember vaccinations are most effective when given to healthy animals with good immune systems.
This can be achieved by maintaining a solid nutritional plan along with mineral supplementation.
“Specific nutritional requirements vary from season to season and region to region,” he notes. “Mineral supplementation is one important way that we can increase immune health. It is also very helpful in increasing reproductive efficiency within a herd. Stress, whether it be environmental or other, is one of the factors that negatively affect immune health.”
2. Routine deworming
Deworming bulls, and the whole cow herd for that matter, keeps the immune system healthy and helps animals maintain body condition. Like vaccines, Gober says different deworming protocols are needed for different environments. For example, Gober points to East Texas versus West Texas. The increased rainfall in East Texas leads to more forage, which also leads to more parasites. In that environment, producers may have to deworm more frequently throughout the year.
In contrast, Gober notes producers in the more arid West Texas climate can get by utilizing a yearly injectable dewormer with a pour-on product, as needed. He says there are also feed-based or liquid-drench options that can assist in immediate kill of the parasites and can be implemented in certain protocols.
In his experience, regardless of the choice on product type, name-brand dewormers prove more valuable regardless of region. “It is more costly, but the efficacy is more reliable,” he notes.
The key term as it relates to this step is “strategic deworming.” Gober says consulting a veterinarian in the region to advise how to deworm through different seasons is the way to go and can make a big difference in parasite control.
3. Breeding Soundness Exam
Because bulls can become infertile at any point in their life for various reasons, it is important to check fertility annually before turning bulls out with cows. Lameness, fever and injury are all factors which can play a role in bull fertility.
A breeding soundness exam, or BSE, evaluates several components to determine a bull’s ability to cover cows. A BSE requires two parts— a physical examination and a semen examination. During the physical examination, a veterinarian will evaluate the animal’s feet and legs, eyes and reproductive organs.
“We will evaluate the bull’s ability to travel effectively and to see effectively,” Gober explains. “Body condition of bulls is another important piece when discussing libido and fertility. Evaluating body condition and adjusting nutritional needs accordingly to have bulls in shape for breeding season is important for successful breed ups.”
The semen examination evaluates sperm motility, and the percentage of normal cells, primary abnormalities and secondary abnormalities. At completion, all these components come together for the veterinarian to determine if the bull is a satisfactory potential breeder, an unsatisfactory potential breeder, or if the classification is deferred to test again.
“The semen evaluation is a gross examination of the semen to make sure there is good concentration of sperm and to make sure there is an adequate number of live sperm,” he adds. “The second component is morphology, where we make sure the live sperm are normal and do not have morphological abnormalities that would prevent fertilizing an egg.”
4. Test annually
Trichomoniasis is a venereal disease that can undoubtedly be costly to producers if it ever infects a herd. According to Gober, “Surveillance is key to protecting producers from this disease.”
Surveillance of this disease is achieved by requesting a test on each breeding season. For herds calving in both seasons, that means bi-annually. For herds calving once a year, a trichomoniasis test can be included in the protocol when bulls are receiving annual vaccines, deworming and their BSE.
5. Fly control
The last step in breeding success is taking a stand against fly problems. “By controlling flies, a producer is decreasing stress, increasing weight gain and productivity,” Gober explains.
There are a few different options as it relates to controlling a fly problem. Those include: fly tags; pour-on; and insect growth regulators, or IGR.
Fly tags and pour-on methods both have lasting durations of effect. Depending on the product and label, this could be anywhere from four to 12 weeks. As for IGR, it is a product included in feed or mineral to target the fly larvae in manure and, therefore, allow less flies in the environment. IGR can be used as part of a long-term control strategy.
Collectively, these steps provide cattle producers a place to begin developing a bull health protocol which increases reproductive success and overall profitability on their operation. One size does not fit all, but many of these steps can be utilized in all ranches to some degree.
“Producers should educate themselves, whether thru Extension meetings, publications, or other avenues, to become familiar with diseases in their area,” Gober advises. “Learn how to evaluate body condition score and implement a nutrition program that is effective. Discuss your operation with a veterinarian familiar with your area and work together to decide how to best implement vaccination protocols within different aspects of your herd. The veterinarian should be able to assess the risk of your herd to specific diseases and make economical decisions accordingly.”
This story originally appeared in the October 2020 issue of The Cattleman magazine, Texas & Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association’s flagship publication. Join today to start your subscription.