Today we have the farm vet out to look at the calves, dehorn if necessary and castrate those bull calves destined to become family steers.
I am often asked why we choose not to disbud and castrate calves ourselves, so this is a good opportunity to explain our practices.
Simply put, a badly dehorned/disbudded calf is both unattractive and a concern. They often develop ‘ scurs’ –remaining bits of horn that are unsightly and often grow in odd ways that impair or threaten the adult bovine and require regular trimmings, which must be done by a vet anyhow.
Disbudding / Dehorning
I have a badly dehorned cow whose scurs grow twisted and often threaten to grow right into her eye socket. She has to be trimmed annually at her check ups and pregnancy checks. This requires light sedation due to the proximity to her eye, we don’t want to put her eye out !
We have a few others who have scurs that pose no substantial threat which are just trimmed when they develop an issue such as overgrowth, peeling or severe cracks. This is a problem with scurs as , like fingernails on a human, scurs continue to grow and because they are damaged at the root by bad dehorn attempts, they do not grow as hard or as properly and can develop deep splits or cracks that are uncomfortable and even dangerous for the cow.
A vet performed disbudding is clean and thorough, if the vet knows what she is doing and performs the procedure often. The horn is often trimmed back and then the root cauterized. Trimming is not necessary if you do the disbudding in the first few weeks as is our habit. The horn buds are slight and soft at that stage and can be easily removed with a disbudding tool or cauterization. We do authorize the vet to use light sedation and pain meds at the time of the procedure to minimize stress and discomfort to the calf.
Castration is typically accomplished with a practice called ‘ banding’ where a very tight and thick rubber band is applied to the testicles with a tool called an ‘ elastrator’.
It is very effective in cutting circulation to the testicles , which eventually just fall off.
We do not practice this method, preferring veterinary surgical castration for two reasons , the climate here is typically hot and sub tropical, which means we deal with wet , humid, unusually warm weather year round. This encourages and promotes issues that threaten the health of a calf who is banded, risking fly strike, infection of all manner of bacterium and just general discomfort. Surgical removal is fast and efficient. A small cut is made with a scalpel , the testicles are pulled through the cut and removed. The wound is glued and sprayed with a aluminum sealant and it is over. We don’t have to watch for infection as the tissue dies back and wait with baited breath for the testicles to dry and fall off. It’s done. Quick and clean.
Banding should be done shortly after the birth of a bull. It is widely believed that the earlier the better for all sorts of reasons such as lessened discomfort and lesser chance of infection. Tetanus is among common infections related to banding and the older and tougher a calf hide gets, the longer it takes for bacding to be complete and the greater the opportunity for infection as the layers of flesh die off.
This is another aspect we appreciate about surgical castration; it affords us the opportunity to safely wait as long as we like to watch a bull calf grow out if we think he may be desirable as a herd sire in the future. I have had them castrated as early as 48 hours old and up to 8 months old with no discernible differences in their recovery or comfort levels.
I am often messaged or called with the questions about bulls. Primarily, ‘ Should I keep a bull ? ‘
People often get irritated with me when I tell them there is no easy answer to whether one should keep a bull or not, just tons of questions and concerns. I then begin to help them navigate all the considerations and options of having a bull on the property and not having one.
Let me begin by stating that I have kept up to three mature bulls at once: A miniature Hereford and two miniature Jerseys. I generally keep two.
We operate from two pieces of land consisting of a total of about 80 acres: the house land and the beef land, we call them. Two of the aforementioned bulls were kept at the beef land in a huge pasture all to themselves unless we separate them out and add cows for breeding. The two kept at the beef land have that arrangement because they were both a credible and immediate danger to humans. The one kept at the house land was milder, but still a bull, being very destructive and moody at times with flipping troughs and throwing dirt and testing fence lines, but not outright threatening.
Things to consider when considering a bull are myriad:
Safety is number one:
Bulls are dangerous. Inherently dangerous. Even the most mild or ‘ tame ‘ bull will have days that his hormones or attitude get the best of him and he turns on you. If you’re lucky, you have an escape or just get hurt. If luck is not on your side, you are dead where you stand.
There is no such thing as a ‘ pet ‘ bull.
I don’t care what anyone tells you. I have heard horror stories of seasoned keepers being killed without warning by ‘ pet ‘ bulls they had raised from birth; some had even been bottle raised, which I believe to be the number one, most dangerous bull of all. A pet is comfortable in your space, even in invading your space. Frankly, you want to know when your bull is coming after you to do harm and not just seeking attention or a treat.
Often, a bull gives no warning whatsoever before attacking: no scraping the ground, no snorting, no throwing dirt in the air, he just decides he’s done with you and you are then done for. I have been told three separate stories from three separate farmers of bulls that ‘ waited and / or watched ‘ for the opportunity to attack. The results ranged from mildly debilitating to temporarily crippling, to devastating.
Bulls are smart. Bulls are unpredictable in their violence. Bulls, even the ones with the calmest demeanor, can and will eventually be aggressive in some form. Bulls, as a group, of any breed, are not to be trusted. Ever.
Some suffer the idea that halter training or hand raising a bull is the way to ensure he is a ‘ pet ‘ and not a threat. Poppycock. There is a news story available online of a family whose hand raised bull, which was used in 4H by their child, turned without warning on the man of the family while he was in the field and killed him. The poor farmer managed to call his wife on his cell phone to tell her the bull had him cornered. He was stomped and battered to death by his ‘ pet ‘ bull before his wife could get to him from their house.
Our own small mini Hereford bull, halter trained and petted prior to our bringing him home, turned on my husband one day as he worked in the pasture. That bull came out of the trees and attacked my husband and his truck, head bashing both. My husband called me at the house for help. Frankly, I took a gun and the gator. I found my husband against the side of his truck with the bull repeatedly pressing him and butting him with some force. I managed to push the bull away with the gator so my husband could jump in the truck. We decided to move that bull on that day. My husband’s entire torso was badly bruised and inflamed. His ribs looked broken and black all along one side. He was lucky. He recovered.
I once had someone remark to me when I told them I thought it unsafe to let their children in the pen with a 6 month old bull, ‘ well, he’s a pet , like a dog.’ Uh…no. He’s not. Even if he acted like a pet, he’s not a pet. Would you allow your small child to be in a pen with an unpredictable, mentally unstable dog ? Much less, a dog that weighs 600 lbs and could severely damage the child just being playful?
All it takes to set off a bull is a heifer he can’t get at or a notion that you think you are in charge and he knows better.
In my article titled ‘ The erroneous romanticizing of cows ‘ I lay out the facts, briefly but bluntly. At the end of this argument is a sampling of news articles to reinforce the fact that even seasoned, careful farmers and herdsmen are not safe around their bulls.
‘ Oh, but he’s so sweet and cute.’ Look, I get it. Bull calves can be adorable and lovable and curious little guys. I talk to mine regularly in lovey , dovey voices, but at a respectful distance and I never , ever pet or even touch them unless absolutely necessary. I want to know where I stand with my bulls and frankly, if you look at the tragedies of bull attacks and kills, the farmer was generally too comfortable in the bull’s space, even in open fields or had handled the bull regularly and did not see the threat when the bull approached him.
Totally hands off is the way a bull should be raised, without fear of you, but with a respectful ‘ flight zone’, the term comes from association with the ‘ fight or flight’ response of all animals, human included, and means when you are approaching , he gives you space. As with any animal, if you start leading them around with a lead rope or harness, scratching their heads and petting them and hand feeding them treats, they gravitate to you. I would rather hand feed an elephant than a bull. I’d be safer doing so in the long run.
You also have to realize that psychologically speaking, a ‘ pet’ believes itself to be a part of your herd or family, You run the risk of the bull, at maturity , considering himself your equal and becoming an entitled, dangerous nuisance, pushing into spaces you don’t want him to be and finding yourself in closed quarters with an animal that outweighs you by several hundred pounds and which has the potential to kill you, even if by accident.
There is also the possibility that the bull will figure out he’s bigger and stronger than you and he’s going to do and take what he wants. As with males of many animals, he may decide to ‘ challenge ‘ you for dominance in the herd. It is simple psychology to understand that if you are regularly in the herd, taking charge and giving orders, the bull will view you as first an Alpha and later an intruder. It only takes once to find yourself in these situations that you could garner devastating results from your ‘ sweet pet’.
What is a safe and stable bull? There isn’t one. There is only Safer and more stable.
What to look for in a bull for the small farm or homestead:
Your best bet in a bull is one who has been raised ‘ hands off’ and as part of the herd. He should also be dam raised and not bottled . Temple Grandin is quoted as saying, ” The most dangerous dairy bull is the bull not adequately socialized with his own kind.” Sadly, most large dairies must ‘ pull’ their calves and bottle them. This is a recipe for disaster in a dairy bull, especially a Jersey bull as they are already known for being one of the utmost dangerous bovines.
He should have a respectful ‘ flight zone ‘ , but should not be afraid or run from your presence. As a vet tech, we used the term ‘ fear biter’ to mark a dog that was so nervous, he would likely bite anyone attending him. They are the worst. Those animals who naturally react with nervousness and fears, instilled or inherited, are the most unpredictable and unstable. Like a dog, a frightened and skittish bull is more likely to attack when in a situation that makes him uncomfortable or startles him.
Does my bull need to be pure bred to assure soundness and stability? No. Not at all. In fact, the two bulls regarded as the worst for unpredictability and aggression are the Jersey bull for dairy and the Brahman bull for beef. Adding the genetic influence of another breed to the mix may actually have the pleasing effect of ‘ watering down’ the innate aggression and instability factors. Just as many psychological imbalances such as depression , schizophrenia and anxiety disorders have the capability of being inherited in humans, so are bad temperaments and unpredictable natures at maturity possible to convey to the offspring of a bull.
If you’re going to keep a bull, you better invest in some good fencing and figure out how you will separate him effectively from heifers that cannot be bred and dams nursing young. A bull should not be left with calving moms or new babies. A randy bull will attempt to breed any female bovine displaying hormonal surges. Sometimes he will attempt to breed a heifer just because she’s present, whether in estrus or not. A heifer calf can have multiple hormonal surges and even display hormonal discharges similar to those present in the latter stage of heat while very young. It is not uncommon for a newborn heifer calf to pass a little blood tinged mucus from the vulva due to the hormones passed from her dam in the delivery process. Always separate your bull from the cows and heifers prior to the delivery of calves.
I have always had a specific area set up just for bulls, but large enough that I can let any female I want to be exposed to them in with no worry about space or comfort. It is not advisable to keep a bull alone, so always have a breeding female or some steer calves with him for company. A lonely, bored bull will become destructive and challenge the most sturdy, well planned fencing, especially if there are other bovines on the property that he can see or hear.
I owned a particularly ornery bull who made me cringe every time I walked past his perimeter, knowing if he really wanted to, he’d bust through that fence after me, hot wire and all. . Fencing for a bull is not the same as fencing that will contain the average cow. We never needed hot wire, only cattle panels and wooden posts, until we got our first mini Jersey bull. He bested every fence we had in that first month . Two strands of hot wire and paneled reinforcements went up farm wide on both pieces of land we own. That was a major endeavor and expense.
A fence meant for retaining a bull of any size should be constructed with at the very least, wooden fence posts. Wood posts set properly and not too far apart with T-stakes between each run are less likely to loosen and fall than metal stakes and the like alone. Fencing is a primary concern and a regular expenditure of time and funds. Fence chargers have to be checked every day and maintained every week as when weeds or debris are against the strands of hot wire, they don’t work. We spend more time maintaining and repairing fencing than anything else.
Expenses you may not have considered:
One must also consider the cost of owning and keeping a bull year round when the average small farmer uses him to service the eligible bovines in a herd once of twice a year. There are as many financial responsibilities to own a bull as there are for cows. He must be fed, vetted, inoculated, etc. He might also cause damage to farm implements and fences. I kept a smallish mini Jersey bull who tore through wooden fence rails and destroyed several troughs pitching his fits, which , of course, had to be regularly replaced due to his shenanigans. Which brings me to another point and issue, the cost of your peace.
Even if you have a small bull of sound temperament there will be times it is best not to be in his space. Working a field or pasture when a bull is with a cow in heat or he senses a heifer in estrus nearby puts you at risk of him becoming agitated and threatening. My most docile bull once chased me across a field because he was actively ‘ courting’ a girl in estrus and I interrupted his amorous process by walking in the yards. Thankfully, I wasn’t far from the gate when I heard him barreling toward me from behind. I learned a hard lesson that day; never , never, ever turn your back on a bull.
Apathy to the inherent danger of ANY bull and an over developed sense of comfort in a herd within which a bull resides is the primary cause of bull related deaths world wide. People think their bull would never hurt them because he’s sweet and mild and has been with them all his life. This is profoundly untrue of a bull. Bulls cannot and should never be trusted. Treated kindly , yes. Petted through the fence, if you like and insist, but never ever openly trusted.
Knowing there is a bull on your farm will cause you to be hyper aware when in or near pastures, at least if you have any sense of care for your well – being. This is especially true is you have small children around the farm. Kids are curious and often feel invincible, believing that nothing bad will ever happen to them. You will have to be super vigilant of your kids and the children of visitors when keeping a bull, whereas if a child disobediently wanders into a pasture of cows while you have your back in your work, it will likely lead to a time out for the kid, but not a moment of heart failure for you as you laser focus look for the bull and determine his distance from the child.
Herd plans and Breeding:
Breeding considerations when using a bull are varied depending on your herd plan and practices. The average farmer keeps a bull in service only two to three seasons, so the genetic lines stay varied and fresh and to avoid inbreeding and add to the most desired traits. Most do not inbreed: generational breeding of closely related bovines and line breed , breeding a bull of some relation , only when there is some distance in relation and the traits to be gained are highly desirable. this essentially means that you will replace your bull regularly, especially if you wish to retain heifers from his breeding.
A second reason for replacing the herd sire regularly is the substantiated belief that after a couple of years past maturity on the same farm a bull can get ‘ too comfortable ‘ and may begin to exhibit concerning character traits that he didn’t have early on. I have witnessed this in my own bull, the destructive one I mentioned previously. He began a mild and even tempered bull and left the farm an unpredictable, destructive and threatening beast that no one trusted as far as they could toss him. He was truly awful. His sire became the same way as he aged and I do believe it is in part due to genetics that a bull goes that bad, so start with a bull of sound genetic temperament and hope that his sire has passed that trait along to him.
Housing and care:
Bulls require their own space at least part of the calendar year. This requires a pasture or large yard set aside for the sole purpose of housing and maintaining a bull. If the bull is kept within the herd, you run the risk of his harming or attempting breed small calves and breeding the dams back before they have recovered from delivery and ‘ rested’. The typically observed ‘ resting period’ for a freshened dam is three months, but I generally wait to breed back until her calf is weaned at around 5 months but up to 7 months. This gives the calf time to nurse to a point they are maintaining weight and health well and the dam time to recover and regain what she lost while nursing and milking in the first stage of lactation.
That means, your bull will require the cost of setting up an adequate pasture with strong fencing and maintaining him there with the added chores and costs of cleaning, feeding and care every day for the months he is not in service. It takes valuable space from the land that could be used as rotational pasture or calf rearing areas for weaning young. It is an ongoing investment of time and extra work and added expenses.
A bull should also never be kept alone as this entices him to become angry and aggressive toward his keeper. Bovines are herd animals and it is ingrained in their DNA to be part of the daily life and activities of a group of like beings. I keep my bulls with the family steers when I am not using their services with the girls. When steers are not an option, I give him a couple of mature girls even if against my breeding schedule to keep him ‘ settled’. I have had absolutely no issues with bulls becoming violent toward steers, even calves. I believe that the castrated steer does not pose a threat to the bull’s senses and is therefore not viewed as a potential Alpha.
Taking a bull from his ladies is no easy feat. A bull will never be more agitated than when he knows you are attempting to remove him from his herd. A herd of mature bovines bond very tightly; they become ‘ family ‘ and the bull considers himself the patriarch and protector. Even after successfully transitioning him to another pasture, the bull may try to get back to the herd. He will pace the fence lines and call to the herd for days. Particularly if they are on the same property. Distance does not matter, he knows they are there. If possible, take a steer calf with him from the herd. It will help to have a bovine he has familiarity with.
Options to keeping a bull:
Occasionally you will run across a farmer who will lease her bull with proof of proper testing of your herd. I do not practice this, nor do my associates, as there are too many possible difficulties that arise from the prospect of moving and leaving your bull on another farm or homestead. The variables are too vast for me to be comfortable with this practice, but I have seen it done. Personally, I recommend strongly against it. You may not get the same bull back that you lent.
Borrow or co-own:
If you have friend with a proven bull of sound temperament you may work out a deal to borrow their bull for breeding purposes. I have a farm friend who regularly borrows her good friend’s bull for servicing her herd. They have worked out a deal wherein they essentially co-own the bull and have planned their breeding schedules to suit each having the bull half the year.
Leave your cow at another farm for service:
I know of locals who do this to have their cows serviced. They leave the cow at another farm to be bred and pay the farmer a fee for the care and board, plus the service.
This is likely the easiest option for breeding a cow, but it has it’s expenses and drawbacks. You must be able to store the frozen semen in a tank made for that purpose or have an AI tech who will receive and store it for you, usually for an additional fee.
Even the best AI tech has about a 70% success rate and NIH reports that the successful conception rate of AI can be as low as 10% in times of climate change, excessive heat or environmental stress, so one must consider the time and expense of repeated attempts . Between herd sires, I decided to have my girls Ai’d by my vet who trained at Georgia State University. Out of 9 girls inseminated, none settled. It cost me over a thousand dollars in semen procurement and tech fees and services and there was zero success. While these results are not typical, they do occur. Best case scenario, I would have had 6 or 7 of 9 pregnant. Still not ideal for me.
Temporary Herd Sires:
This is a controversial option , but a practical one. It ensures you have the services of a bull you like without the commitment to his ongoing care. Buy a bull you want for your herd, use his services on all your cows at once, sell him off. You’ll still need to care for and contain him during the service period of approximately three months, but you won’t be stressed, strained or worried with keeping him year round. Just being honest here, I have recommended it.
The caveat is you should never ask your seller to take him back unless she has expressed a desire to reacquire him. It isn’t fair to ask her to accommodate you as such. Generally , a farmer sells a bull because she has no use for him. It will be your responsibility to move him when you have no longer have need of him. Don’t assume someone else should help with that.