Growing up I remember my gran (who worked in service as a young girl) talking about ‘an heir and a spare’. The first year (2009) that we were sitting down at the farm kitchen table with a hot cup of tea on a cold winter’s morning planning our spring joining program we only had 20 cows to join and we were discussing the merits of only needing one mop-up bull as we planned to carry out an embryo transfer program to fast track our genetics and establish solid foundation female lines. Our research showed statistically that by following industry best practice we could expect a 60% pregnancy rate with one round of embryo transfer (ET); rising to 80% if we resynched the cows and carried out a second round of embryo transfers. In numbers this would equate to 12 pregnant cows (60%) rising to 16 pregnant cows (80%) with a second round of ET. Therefore we needed a bull to get the remaining 4 girls pregnant.
Immediately I asked my husband “What about a spare bull? – a back-up bull for the mop-up bull?”
Economically with such a small herd it didn’t make sense but fast-foward seven years later and as our numbers have grown we always make sure that we have one or two back up bulls on stand-by for the duration of our joining program. Most years the back-up bull just gets to graze in his paddock and then at the end of the joining season we decide whether:
- We sell him
- Retain him for use in the following year’s joining program
- Keep him as the ‘back-up’ bull for another season
It is important to remember that your back-up bull needs to be of the same caliber as your original choice sire(s). He’s more than just a back-up if he gets the emergency call to work.
In addition to our HBR registered black angus stud cattle, we have a small black angus commercial herd with commercial females that we purchased from Andrew Dunkley of Yarram and this year -the one year we didn’t heed our own advice- we did indeed need a back-up bull!
Last weekend during our usual daily farm checks we noticed that one of our bull’s pizzle was swollen and appeared to be broken. We drafted him out and brought him up the yards for a closer inspection. Our vet happened to be on the farm that day looking at some females and he confirmed that yes indeed our bull had broken his pizzle – although as most farmers will agree, this is a relatively easy one to diagnose, once spotted. With the bull due to come out of the mob on Xmas eve we were in the last cycle of joining so we felt confident that +/-90% of the females would be pregnant. However as we allow our commercial girls to be joined for 3 cycles we wanted to give the remaining handful their full chance, so we opted to take one of our yearling stud bulls who was destined for our 2017 Inaugural Autumn Bull Sale and retain him for use in our herd. We are lucky that we had the luxury of walking down the paddocks and finding a suitable replacement; although that’s not normally how we like to do things. We prefer to have a plan in place so we can respond rather than react to all situations on the farm.
Why might you ask did we not have a back-up bull this year?
It was just one of those years – you know they say that things come in 3’s; well this year seemed to be that year for us.
In May of this year our top stud sire Irelands Heirloom H343 (AI)(ET) badly injured his back leg, followed by Merlewood Right Time G33 who lost his footings on the steep hills and severely injured his front right shoulder/leg and then last week during joining Merlewood Fletcher K30 (AI) broke his pizzle!
So when it came to the start of joining with not a back-up bull in sight, we thought to ourselves well we have never had an injured bull during joining in the whole seven years that we have been seedstock producers……….. so we took the Australian ‘she’ll be right’ attitude; which could have been a costly mistake if the incident had happened in the first week of the bull being with his mob of females. Like all farmers we learn from our mistakes and see them as learning opportunities and we will ensure that in the future we stick to our original plan and always have a back-up bull or two or three as the case may be on hand.
Now more than ever with steers selling for $1,200 – $1,500 this is a risk analysis that all farmers should carry out. Imagine your bull breaks down or gets injured during the first week of mating. Even an injury that doesn’t affect a bull from working physically can affect his sperm leading to what is known as ‘toxic sperm’ (due to an injury/illness the bull’s sperm is affected and his swimmers will take 10 weeks to recover!). With most commercial farmers joining for 6 – 9 weeks once a year this can mean a dramatic drop in or loss of income if none of his females get pregnant. This is why daily checks of working bulls during joining season are so important – especially during the first cycle when statistics show that 70% of the mob get impregnated; not only checking for the evident major injuries but the minor ones too.
If you do discover that one of your bulls is injured, what is your plan?
Do you have a back-up bull to replace him with?
Remember at joining time, most Seedstock Producers have already sold their best bulls and taking into account the time and attention to detail that you put into researching and purchasing your bull in the first place, do you really want to just run and out and buy anything that will do the job?
As we know genetics are the building blocks of our herd and persist in our cattle from generation to generation ………………….. so a rushed-purchase at the last minute and under pressure can be a costly mistake!
Do you have an old faithful who gets to sit in the paddock in-case/for when he is needed and every few years he is replaced?
Do you keep a ‘retired’ stud bull once he has worked his term as a back-up bull?
Do you purchase a bull specifically to be a back-up bull and then upgrade him and rotate him into your program and rotate another bull out?
If you have multiple mobs do you have multiple back-up bulls ?
We would love to hear how you manage an heir and a spare on your farm.
Please join the Cattle Conversation and share your story.
This got cut from the children’s Disney Movie “FROZEN” but it is a nice illustration of “An Heir and a Spare” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g-5klGOPJik or just a fun short video for the kids to watch.