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The Bull...and his function

People have always asked....What makes a good bull? Are they dangerous? Can I have more than one? Do I need a bull? Well one way or another you will need a bull, whether you decide to physically keep a bull on your farm or in a semen tank that's up to you.

Throughout my 4H years showing and judging dairy goats, I always had to train my eyes to see past the "pretty." There's more to judging livestock than how pretty they are or how tame they are. You might be drawn in to buy the pretty bull or the tame, but let's face it, tame ones can be ugly too.

When I went off to college and started diving head first into the livestock industry. There are a couple of key things that were harped on:

Structure. Structure.... oh and structure.

Maybe a little pedigree or in the case of when I was at MSU, EBVs (estimated breeding values) and EDPs (estimated progeny difference). We don't use those to things in the Dexter breed as there aren't enough of them around (unlike Angus and Herefords) to have statistical values like that. We do like to look at things that go into those EPDs though like calving ease, birth weight, milking ability, weaning weights and so on.

BUT... it always came back to structure. Form=function. So now this is when I get to do my own harping.

When are you trying to decide to keep a bull calf as a prospect, evaluate your own herd sire or my favorite... bull shopping :) ... you need to look for the things that would possibly be in those EPDs that I spoke of earlier.

Let's start with what holds the boy up- legs

Legs in general are a huge part of your bull's soundness. If his legs aren't strong enough to hold his weight, we've got a problem. If they cannot get up on those back feet and support that weight to breed, you might as well run a steer with the cows. No breeding will get done. Structure. Form=Function. Too much angle to those rear legs=weak. However on the flip side of that, super straight legs are almost equally as bad. Straight legged cattle are more prone to arthritis, ligament damage, and poorer balance.

Rear leg angulation
Walking foot placement

How can you tell if that bull's rear legs are correct? Watch him walk. Do his feet pick up and put down in almost the same location? That's the goal.

Along with the legs, you want to look at those pasterns, What's the pastern? That space between the heel and the dewclaws. Are those pasterns strong or are those dewclaws nearly touching the ground? Weak pasterns is a sign that those legs feet and legs won't hold up over time. Another form=function.

Pastern angles

Whether it is the front or the back legs, angles matter. Remember geometry class working with angles and how you thought you wouldn't actually need to know it in real life? Sometimes life likes to laugh at you. Angles are important.

The Shoulders~

Enough about legs for now. Well kinda.

Have your cows ever experienced calving problems? Your bull could be the cause. While you want a bull to have those muscular shoulders, you also don't want them to look like a bulldog. Prominent shoulders, as shown in the picture to your left, are what I would call bulldog shoulders. Shoulders like that=calving problems.

You would be much better off with smooth shoulders, unless you like to fork out the money for a C-Section, then more power to you... If your calves are too large or have those big shoulders, they are going to have an awfully hard time getting through that birth canal and past those pelvic bones on your cow. Times like those are when you end up calling the vet so he can bring out the calf jack to get that calf out, dead or alive, without too much damage to the cow.

The Sheath~

First off, to get a calf your bull needs to be able to perform. To do that he needs to have a sheath that helps prevent injury. A tight sheath will protect him from infections from random grass seeds or other foreign objects. Tight=good. Slack=bad.

The Back~

No one wants a sway backed bull...or a roached back bull. I've seen both and both should have been in the freezer. Ideal would be a straight topline all the way to the tail head. Nice and straight from the hooks (hip bones) to the pin bones with adequate muscling from the shoulders to the rump.

I could write and harp on structural correctness all day long, but the long and short of it is this: you want bulls that can get the job done for many years without the pain of injury because their body is giving out underneath their weight.

Because there is so much to write about when it comes to bulls, there will be a few posts on the big boys of the herd.

Until next time

P.S. those wonderful diagrams came from here-

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