Farm Ireland

Wednesday 24 January 2018

Quality genetics is the key when buying the stock bull

Aidan Murray

It is very hard when you are in the thick of calving to start thinking about looking for a new stock bull. However, the reality is that the breeding season is only weeks away so having a new bull in the yard on time will improve your chances of things going well.

Purchasing a bull has many implications for your herd. There is the obvious initial cost and the new genetics that you are bringing in. Get the genetics wrong and the initial cost will be small compared to the overall cost of making the wrong choice.

Select superior genetics and you will permanently improve your herd and increase your income.

As the old saying goes, the bull is half your herd. So buying a bull is a decision that needs careful consideration. Here are some points to bear in mind before you make a purchase.

What do you really want from a bull?

The key trait is that the bull is fertile and able to get cows in calf. After that you can assign your own criteria on desired traits, such as improved muscle, growth rate, easy calving, improved milk in daughters and so on. Let's be realistic here. A bull won't deliver on all these traits, so get it straight in your own mind and identify the one or two key traits that need to be improved in your herd.

What information is available on a young pedigree bull?

You probably have three main types of information available on young pedigree bulls that, if used cumulatively, can prove useful. These are:

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a)Visual assessment or phenotypic information;


c)Eurostar Breeding Index.

a)Visual assessment for many people is still their main method of choosing a stock bull. But if you use this method in isolation it really is a case of caveat emptor (buyer beware).

The visual assessment will allow you to check the bull for conformation, soundness of legs and feet, locomotion, temperament and testicle size where scrotal circumference will indicate a bull's capacity. Bulls of over 15 months should have a scrotal circumference of greater than 30cm.

But remember pedigree breeders are very good feeders. They are also pretty useful with clippers, driers and curry combs which can hide a multitude. If you decide to buy at a sale, get there early before all the washing and combing up begins.

b)Armed with the pedigree name or tag number of a young bull, you can look up the pedigree of any young bull on the bull search.

This can be important to check out the consistency of the back breeding in the animal.

Even though you may not be familiar with bloodlines within a breed, the breed societies are usually very helpful at pointing you in the right direction of bloodlines that deliver on individual traits. So put the effort into getting this type of information.

c) Although still in its infancy, the Eurostar Breeding Index has huge potential for both pedigree and commercial farmers. It shows what the genetics of the animal can return to you if you bring progeny through to slaughter (terminal index) or if the intention is to keep all the daughters as replacements (maternal index).

To me, the index is like stripping away the body work on a car. It is not until you can see what you have under the bonnet that you can determine the real potential.

The ICBF bull search will show you the ranking of the bull for traits such as conformation, carcass weight, calving difficulty, daughter milk, daughter fertility and so on.

Reliabilities on the accuracy of the index information will vary between traits but where reliabilities are high they will reduce the gamble associated with buying a young bull either at a society sale or a private farm sale.

Use the potential of the index to select the top genetics available for the traits you want.

What is the health status of the bull?

Many farmers operate a closed herd. So the purchase of a new stock bull exposes your herd to a bio-security risk. Ideally, you need to enquire about the health status of the herd you are buying from. Diseases such as BVD, IBR, Leptospirosis and Johne's are things you can do without.

The bulls may already be tested or vaccinated against these diseases but you need to know where you stand. Knowing the status will ultimately determine how you handle the bull once he joins your herd.

With the guidance of your vet you can draw up a vaccination protocol.

After-purchase care

After you have made your purchase and you bring the bull home you need to prime the bull for the breeding season.

If he has to be tested or vaccinated he should be kept isolated from the main herd for 3-4 weeks.


These animals will have been pampered, so don't make any sudden changes to the diet. Ease back their feeding over a number of weeks.

If a bull has been bought in show condition they will be too fat to work and possibly prone to laminitis. It will take a month or longer to get them in the right condition.

The key is to have them fit, not fat. This adjustment is part of the reason why it is so important to have a young bull bought on time before he is required for breeding.


In Ireland many of the pedigree bulls that we see advertised are only 13-15 months old at the time of sale. This differs from Britain where bulls are usually stronger and more mature at 18 months or older.

The implication here for you as a purchaser is the number of cows you can put these young bulls within their first season. A young bull running with 15-20 cows is probably sufficient.

You need to watch a young bull very carefully once breeding begins. Is he active and serving cows?

Record the numbers of the first few cows that he serves. Check these cows again three weeks later to make sure there isn't a high number of repeats which can signal fertility problems.

Too many farmers have been caught out by not following up on how a young bull is performing.

Aidan Murrray is Teagasc's beef specialist and manager of the BETTER farm programme

Irish Independent