Value and Evaluate Herd Sire In Cow-Calf Operation

By: John Grimes and Stan Smith, OSU Extension
Previously published by the Ohio Farmer online

Perhaps to the inexperienced, or uninformed, it sounds simple enough. Purchase bull; put bull with cows; calves appear in about 283 days; collect calves 205 days later; sell calves for good prices. Well, maybe it should be that simple, but I think most Ohio cattlemen will agree it is not.

When considering all of the traits of importance to today’s cattle producer, a primary focus of any cow-calf producer must be getting a live calf on the ground. That starts with fertility. While both the male and female contribute to the herd’s level of fertility and its ultimate productivity, the herd sire is the more important component. An individual cow with poor fertility will certainly affect one potential calf a year. However, the bull affects every potential calf in most Ohio beef herds or breeding pastures.

Veterinary exam for bulls
A breeding soundness examination (BSE) performed by an accredited veterinarian is a necessary management tool for improving herd fertility levels. Through a BSE, a bull is given a physical and a semen evaluation to determine his status as a satisfactory potential breeder on the date the procedure is done. 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, percentage of normal cells, and percentage of primary and secondary abnormalities. The typical cost for a BSE may fall in the $50 to $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 USDA 2007-08 National Animal Health Monitoring System study indicated that semen tests were used by only 44.1% of all operations surveyed. The survey results varied greatly, depending on herd size, as 21.1% of the herds with between 1 and 49 cows used a semen check. The percentage using a semen check increased steadily as cow numbers increased, yet the final group of 200 cows or more still only used the check in 62.3% of the herds. For the operations that did not use a semen check, the top two reasons for not using this technology were labor and time, at 34.4%; and cost, at 25.2%. The validity of this reasoning is questionable at best.

Have mature bulls examined, too
While virgin bulls may be obvious candidates for a BSE, 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 — much like Ohio has experienced since last fall — can result in a change in status as a potential breeder.

Regardless of age and source of a potential herd sire, make sure a bull has been tested prior to use in a breeding season to be certain he has the ability to settle the females he is exposed to in a timely fashion.

Tight breeding season a plus
Oftentimes, during past editions of Ohio Beef Cattle Schools or as written in the weekly Ohio Beef Cattle newsletter, 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 (plus or minus) 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. When assuming feeder calves might be valued at $1.30 per pound, one missed breeding cycle could easily cost $50 to $65 for each calf that is born only one cycle late. For a cow that is two cycles late, double those numbers.

Many factors contribute
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 2020 calf crop.

It is 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.

Grimes is the Ohio State University Extension beef coordinator. Smith is a program assistant in the Fairfield County OSU Extension office. Both are members of the OSU Extension Beef Team. The Beef Team publishes the weekly Ohio BEEF Cattle letter which can be received via email or found at


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