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Bulls, Cows and How to Breed Cattle

Cows in a corral.

Best herd managment practices include the annual calving of cows. This means cattle owners should try to encourage cows to produce one baby calf per year. To have successful calving on your livestock farm, learn the basics of cattle breeding and herd management.

Breeding Season

Plan and implement an estrus synchronization and artificial insemination program, or release bulls into the pasture with females. During cattle breeding season, it is important to control external parasites in cows, bulls, and calves using any of the following methods:

  • Fly Control:
    • Insecticidal pour-on spray
    • Insecticidal ear tags
    • Dust bags
    • Back rubbers
    • Insecticidal salt mineral mix
  • Pinkeye
    • Reduce flies
    • Clip tall mature grass
    • Apply a pour-on or spray
  • Degrub if necessary

Preparing Bulls For Breeding

Prepare bulls for breeding by following a few basic steps:

  • Vaccinations:
    • Leptospirosis (3 or 5-way)
    • Campylobacter (Vibriosis)
    • Clostridial (4, 7 or 8-way)
    • BRD
  • External and internal parasites
    • Deworm every spring and fall
    • Delouse if necessary
  • Perform breeding soundness evaluation

Bull Management Procedures

Other steps you should take to prepare bulls for breeding include:

  • Do not overfeed bulls. You want bulls to gain weight without gaining fat.
  • Run two or more bulls together or with a few pregnant cows

Calving Schedule

After each calving, cows should be rebred within 80 days. Cow gestation is 283 days, so rebreeding soon after calving is important to keeping the herd on the same schedule. Do not rebreed a cow in poor health. Cows with a low body weight or other health conditions may lack the energy reserves needed to support simultaneous lactation and conception, so it is best to allow these cows to recover before rebreeding. The best production usually occurs in cows with a Body Condition Score (BCS) or 5 or 6.

Breeding Heifers

Heifers, or young cows who have not yet given birth to any calf, should be bred at the same time as the other cows to ensure the same calving schedule can be maintained among the herd. Breeding a heifer requires a bit more attention because a heifer is still growing during the first pregnancy, so nutritional requirements are greater. Heifers should be at least 65 percent of the expected mature body weight when first bred. Feed heifers to gain at least 1 to 1 1/2 pounds per day during the first pregnancy. By the time the heifer is ready to deliver, she should weigh at least 85 percent of the expected mature body weight, excluding the weight of the calf and birthing tissues.

During pregnancy, cows should be given proper nutrition to facilitate the growth of the calf and the production of high-quality colostrum. Colostrum is the special kind of antibody-rich milk cows produce just after giving birth. It is very important that baby calves consume this colostrum so their immune systems can fight disease on the farm. If newborn calves will not drink the recommended amount of colostrum, collect the colostrum and save it for later when the newborn may be more receptive to drinking. Read more about how to collect and save colostrum here.

How to Prepare for the Delivery of Baby Calves

Many beef cows give birth in the pasture. If this is the case, merely observe the birthing stages from afar and only intervene if the appropriate amount of progress is not being made. Pay special attention to heifers. Calving happens in stages:

  • Preparation Stage: During this stage, the calf begins rotating into the propoer position. The cow's cervix begins to dialate and uterine contractions begin. In this stage, the water sac is expelled, and the preparation usually lasts 2 -6 hours.
  • Delivery Stage: During this stage of calving, the cow lies down as the cervix is fully dialated and uterine contractions become more intense. Most healthy cows can give birth without assistance from humans, however it is important to monitor calving to ensure fast response should there be a problem with delivery. It is recommended that cattle owners take a closer look if no progress has been made within 30 minutes. This could be a sign of dystocia, or calving difficulty. Improper development of the dam or small pelvic area of the dam, excessive body condition of the dam, large calf size, multiple calves, or improper positioning of the calf in the womb can all cause dystocia. Contact your veterinarian or an experienced herdsman right away if you think your cow is having difficulty calving.
  • Cleaning Stage: This stage is the final stage of calving and usually happens within 2 - 8 hours after delivery when the placenta and afterbirth are expelled. If this does not happen, contact a veterinarian. Fetal membranes should never be removed manually.

If the cow will give birth in a barn or stall, make sure the calving area is spottless and clean. Newborn calves have almost no ability to fight off infections or disease, so calving in a clean area is very important. Microscopic disease-causing organisms, called pathogens, can be carried by sick or healthy animals or can thrive in manure, saliva, nasal secretions, wet or dirty stall bedding, on stall walls, or even on a cow's udder.

Calving in Beef Cows

Provide a well-drained, grassy pasture for your beef cow to give birth. Make sure the calf consumes colostrum right away, and step in to assist if this does not happen naturally. Use caution when approaching newborn calves. Mother cows can be protective of their newborn and may be dangerous, so have a head gate or cattle chute ready to go just in case you need to milk the colostrum and bottle feed the newborn.

To keep the pathogen load low in your pasture(s), limit the number of cows giving birth in one area and rotate pastures regularly.

Calving in Dairy Cows

Provide a dedicated, sanitized birthing area for a dairy cow to give birth. The pen should be well-bedded, very clean and should not be shared with other calving cows. It is more important for cattle owners or veterinarians to attend the birth of a dairy cow because dystocia, or calving difficulty, is more common in dairy cows. The cow can be allowed to lick the calf after delivery, however the calf should be separated from its mother prior to getting up to nurse. Milk the cow immediately after delivery so you can bottle-feed colostrum to the newborn.

Breeding Season

  • Plan and implement an estrus synchronization and artificial insemination program, or turn bulls in with females

Control External Parasites In Cows, Bulls And Calves

  • Begin control of external parasites
  • Control flies with
    • Insecticides
    • Insecticidal pour-on or spray
    • Insecticidal ear tags
    • Dust bags
    • Back rubbers
    • Insecticidal salt mineral mix
  • Control pinkeye by
    • Reducing flies
    • Clipping tall mature grass
    • Applying a pour-on or spray
  • Degrub if necessary

Preparing Bulls For Breeding

  • Vaccinations:
    • Leptospirosis (3 or 5-way)
    • Campylobacter (Vibriosis)
    • Clostridial (4, 7 or 8-way)
    • BRD
  • External and internal parasites
    • Deworm every spring and fall
    • Delouse if necessary
  • Perform breeding soundness evaluation

Bull Management Procedures

  • Feed bulls to proper flesh (don't get overfat)
    • Provide feedstuffs that promote growth rather than fattening
    • Run two or more bulls together or with a few pregnant cows