Farm Ireland

Sunday 17 December 2017

Get bull selection right and the rest will fall into line


Peadar O Scanaill

Our attention switches this month from the young calf to the preparation of next year's crop. Any cows more than 90 days calved will be in the bulling period by now.

Most suckler farms have their own stock bull and his quality ranges from excellent right down the range to quite poor. What I mean by this is that some less-motivated suckler farms will have a cross-bred, home-reared bull of unproven quality as its stock animal. Obviously, the better the quality of the bull, then the better the quality of the calf.

Each mother produces 50pc of the quality traits of any one calf. The bull produces 50pc of the quality traits of every calf born on the farm. Therefore, we must place more emphasis on bull selection to improve the quality of the calves rather than attempting to change every cow on the farm to up the quality of the offspring. In summary, as we strive to improve the beef calves produced each year our primary focus is on bull selection. Everything else falls into line after that, as a good bull will leave good home-reared replacements when his time has come to move on.

A conversation about the stock bull will often glean the comment "he's a great bull; he gets all the cows in calf for me". It's not too often we hear "he's a great bull because he has good feet or excellent top-line or perfect bone and muscle structure to give a frame on which to hang good beef."


Poor feet and cracked hooves are commonly seen on stock bulls and this will pass on to the offspring produced. As vets, we may get asked to sedate a bull for hoof trimming. Nothing amiss with that, but if we find the feet to be particularly bad then one wonders, why produce more animals with that genetic fault?

Another consideration this month is the heifer or cow before she returns to the bull. BVD and leptospirosis are diseases endemic on Irish farms. By that, I mean that most farms have the disease or have come in contact with one or both in the recent past. A vaccination programme must be put in place between the vet and the farmer to deal with these diseases. This forms an integral part of a veterinary health plan.

You should aim to have maximum protection against BVD and leptospirosis before the cow goes to the bull. These two diseases cause most havoc during pregnancy.

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The greatest loss is seen when the disease strikes an unprotected herd when the cows are in calf. It leads to abortion, early embryonic loss, infertility and the birth of the life-long affected calves. Hence the urgency to cover these two troublesome diseases this month. Get started now on vaccinations.

The heifer or cow preparing for the bull will also need her feet checked and pared where appropriate. Lame cows won't cycle and we should all strive to have as few as possible of these chronically lame cows.

Lift the legs. Pare the hooves. Remove the dirt and stones from between the toes and treat any infections between the cleats. Ensure the cows are in good body condition and cover any mineral imbalances on your farm. Body condition should ensure the ribs can be palpated but not obviously visible. More effort and expertise can be placed on body condition scoring as our dairy cousins have already demonstrated.

Copper deficiency is common in the north-east of the country as well as elsewhere. A low copper level in the body greatly affects fertility as well as general growth.

If copper is required then administration at this stage will reap great benefits with getting the cows back in calf. Other mineral deficiencies and toxicities will exist depending on the soil type in your area. Rectify now as appropriate as the entire diet at present consists of grass grown on that mineral-deficient soil.

Peadar O Scanaill is a Meath-based vet and member of the food animal group of Veterinary Ireland. Email: or call 01 457 7976

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