Primed For Performance


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As many as 50 percent of beef producers don’t get an annual breeding soundness exam (BSE) performed on their bulls, estimates Joe Paschal, Ph.D., professor and Extension livestock specialist for Texas A&M AgriLife Extension.

It just makes sense to get an annual checkup when an entire cow/calf operation rests on a bull’s ability to breed cows, he notes. It’s also a good time to vaccinate, treat for internal and external parasites, and test for key diseases, especially if the bull’s ownership recently changed hands.

“I recommend a breeding soundness exam for any bull that’s going to be used on cows,” Paschal says. “Most producers don’t have large numbers of bulls so if any one of them goes bad, that means we’re depending on fewer bulls to cover more cows and possibly cows aren’t getting bred as early as they should be.”

It’s estimated the cost of infertility for U.S. beef producers exceeds $4.7 billion annually.1 Some of these losses could be mitigated by conducting an annual BSE.

Producers should schedule a BSE at least 60 days prior to the start of breeding season, recommends A. Jacques Fuselier, DVM, DACT, DABVP (food animal), manager, cattle technical services for Merck Animal Health. This timeframe allows producers to treat any problems or find a new bull to fit herd goals.

“All too often, producers test the day they turn out the bull. If something’s wrong, you’re in a mad rush,” Fuselier says.

Even if producers don’t suspect an issue, it’s still important to get a BSE. There are a range of potential problems that can affect fertility – from frostbite on the scrotum to ingesting a toxic plant.

“Some people call it a fertility test. It is not a fertility test. A fertility test requires extensive testing of the sperm to determine fertility. Also, the sample received at the time of a BSE is just that – a sample; it is not a complete ejaculate. A complete ejaculate is required for fertility testing,” he notes. “A BSE looks at whether that bull is truly sound enough to go out and breed cows.”

Results of a BSE may vary depending on the age of the bull, Fuselier cautions. There are documented breed differences in sexual maturity. For example, Brahman mature later compared to most Bos taurus breeds.

“When you buy a bull at a yearling bull sale, it’s been my experience that you should have your own vet perform a BSE before turnout with your cow herd,” Fuselier says. “Most bulls purchased at a young age have inconsistent BSE results. It’s important to have him checked by a vet that knows the goals of your operation.”
A complete BSE evaluates both physical characteristics of the bull and tests the semen for motility and normality. Both these factors affect a bull’s ability to breed.

“A bull with skeletal or muscular issues won’t be able to travel very far to mount a cow,” Fuselier notes. “His sperm could be the best sperm in the world, and he still won’t be able to successfully breed a cow.”

The BSE should also consider body condition and evaluation of the teeth and eyes. A bull must be able to see a cow and eat well enough to maintain adequate nutrition for fertility.

A complete BSE must examine both internal and external reproductive organs, including rectal palpitation of the accessory and vesicular glands. The veterinarian should extend the bull’s penis and check for abnormalities, including looking for any defects or lesions, Paschal recommends.

Finally, a semen sample should be evaluated for motility and morphology. Total results of the exam can also gauge fertility over time to help producers plan for future replacements.

“A BSE is pass/fail, but you can also get an indication of his fertility. If you have a bull that’s just ‘fair’ do you even want to keep him?” Paschal says. “A complete exam is really important. Even something as small as a scrape or abrasion can affect a bull’s willingness to breed cows. Remember all it takes is one bull failure in a one-bull herd to have a real problem.”
Other testing
While performing a BSE, producers should also consider testing bulls for trichomoniasis and vibriosis. Both are venereal diseases caused that can result in low pregnancy rates in the herd.

“Any time you buy cows or bring in replacements, you want to test your breeding bulls for Campylobacter(vibrio). Just because the bull was negative last year doesn’t mean he didn’t contract it from the cow this year,” Fuselier says.

A BSE also makes a good time for revaccinating bulls. Fuselier recommends putting bulls on the same vaccination program as the cow herd.

While the bull is in the chute, this is an opportune time for vitamin injections, if necessary and to administer parasite control, Paschal says.

“It’s important to have the veterinarian involved when making additional management decisions and even nutritional advice,” he says. “Everyone thinks their bulls are in great shape, but it’s good to have another set of eyes on body condition and overall health. We’ve known for a long time that nutrition can lower body condition, which can result in suboptimal fertility.”

Fuselier cautions producers not to skimp on BSE exams – be sure to have a complete exam performed annually by a veterinarian who can detect subtle problems.

“If your bull is not performing the way he should, the potential for reproduction goes down,” Fuselier says. “You may end up having a smaller calf crop than you would expect. If the producer did a BSE and knew there was an issue, you could correct it or get another bull to ensure they have the calf crop they are looking for.”

The typical range for a BSE can be between $50 and $100, depending on the number of bulls to test. However, Fuselier cautions against trying to save money in this critical area.

“If they have a terrible calf crop because they tried to save $100, they’ve lost a lot more money in late calving – or failed calving – than paying for a BSE,” he says. “The price of a BSE is equal to less than one calf.”

Key Points:

  • Conduct a BSE 60 days prior to the start of the breeding season
  • A complete BSE includes a physical examination, reproductive evaluation and semen evaluation

Failures after a BSE
A breeding soundness exam is insurance against breeding problems, but it’s not a failsafe measure. There are key limitations to consider, including:2

  • Results are most valid at the time of examination only
  • The exam works best to identify infertile bulls
  • It is not designed to predict the precise fertility of individual bulls
  • It does not routinely include assessment of bull libido and mating ability
  • It does not routinely include testing for infertility diseases

1 Lamb GC, Dahlen C, Mercadante VTG, Bischoff K. What Is the Impact of Infertility in Beef Cattle? University of Flordia IFAS Extension.

2 Chenoweth PJ. Bull Breeding Soundness Exams and Beyond. Proceedings, The Applied Reproductive Strategies in Beef Cattle Workshop, Sept. 5-6, 2002, Manhattan, Kansas.