13th May 2014

Cattle Farmers Urged to Arrange Bull “MOT” Checks

As the spring calving period comes to an end on suckler farms throughout the country farmers are being urged to think now about arranging a “Bull MOT” check to ensure cows get back in calf for next year.

Quality Meat Scotland’s “Guide to Improving Suckler Herd Fertility” reveals that in excess of one quarter of all working bulls are sub-fertile or infertile. By asking their vet to undertake an annual Pre-breeding Soundness check (PBS), problems can be identified in good time to prevent their bottom lines, and business efficiency, being hit as a result of cows not getting into calf.

Graeme Richardson, Director and senior vet at Thrums Veterinary Group has been carrying out PBS checks for over ten years and believes they are an important management tool to ensure a compact calving period and to improve herd efficiency.

Thrums is a mixed large and small animal practice comprising ten vets based at Kirriemuir. Thrums vets work in a 25 mile radius of the practice taking in the Angus Glens, part of Perthshire and east to the coast towards Arbroath. Within this area they have a large number of beef farmer clients.

Mr Richardson said a large percentage of Thrums’ beef farmer clients are now making use of the check-up and are enjoying the improved results and peace of mind which it brings.

"Our customers fall into three categories: those who have had a problem with a bull; those who carry out the checks routinely; and those who get new purchases checked. Unfortunately many farmers come to us because they have had a problem but hopefully we can reduce the chances of the same thing happening again."

Ideally bulls should be checked four to eight weeks before being turned out which allows enough time to re-test if necessary and also to source a replacement if a bull is found to be sub-fertile.

Graeme has found that generally one in every five bulls tested by his practice is sub-fertile, but because many farmers only usually contact him in the first place because of a problem, his sample contains a high proportion of suspect bulls. For farms testing all bulls annually, the sub-fertile rate drops to one in ten.

The PBS examination checks the bulls general health, condition and locomotion, internal and external genitalia and a sample of semen is collected and analysed for volume, density, motility and abnormalities.

Mr Richardson said: "Testicle size and quality of semen are obvious indicators of fertility.  However, sometimes a bull with good fertility is not getting cows in calve because of a lameness issue. The end results are the same - a reduction in conception rate, leading to more empty cows and a protracted calving period." He said that it is crucial that bulls are not allowed to become overweight and that, if possible, they are exercised before turning out with the cows.

Unfortunately the only thing that cannot be checked by the PBS examination is a bull’s libido, however most stockmen should be able to observe that bulls are showing libido and mating correctly in the first week of bulling.

It is generally accepted that a bull will run with a maximum of 30 to 40 cows. However, Mr Richardson said that one of the benefits of identifying fertility is that sometimes he will recommend that a bull can run with 50 cows and still achieve the 95% conception target in nine weeks.

As the use of PBS checks continues to increase in the Thrums practice area, Graeme and the other two vets who carry out the examinations have noticed a definite improvement in herd fertility and in efficiency. Mr Richardson said: "A compact calving period makes management easier and improves efficiency and hence profitability, with a more even batch of calves to sell at the end of the day."

One Forfar farmer who makes use of the PBS examination on an annual basis is James Osborne, Mains of Balmadies. He has 250 spring calving Limousin cross cows and uses 10 Limousin bulls.

He believes it is a useful management tool as Thrums give him a report on each bull and a recommendation of how many cows each bull should be capable of serving within a ten week period.

Mr Osborne said: "The PBS examination is worthwhile and cost effective and most importantly gives us peace of mind when bulls are turned out far away from the farm and we cannot watch them all the time."

Generally Mr Osborne’s herd achieves 60% of cows calving in the first three weeks of the calving period, although this year James said the calving had been slightly more protracted due to the cold, late spring last year. He is looking forward to going back to a tight calving period next year as he said the cows are looking better and should be ready for mating when the bulls go out on June 2nd.

A tight calving period is important to Mr Osborne because he only sells calves at three store sales each year and it is critical to have good, even batches to sell. Mains of Balmadies stockman Gordon Smith said: "Tight calving and larger batches mean less time spent on routine jobs."

To download a copy of QMS’s “Guide to Improving Suckler Herd Fertility” visit https://qmscotland.co.uk/breeding or call Kirsty on 0131 472 4040 to request a free copy by post.

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