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Is It Time to Do Away with the Herd Bull Once and for All?

Posted: August 24, 2012

Perspectives on the dangers of keeping bulls on the farm and alternatives that can help keep you, your family, and your employees safe.

In the last month, I once again heard of a local dairy producer (one who has been a dairy farmer for a long time) who was seriously injured by a dairy bull. This time, the bull was out in the pasture with a large group of heifers. The dairyman decided to go out in the pasture to get a closer look at the heifers. Within a matter of seconds, the bull who had not previously shown signs of aggressiveness, ran straight at the dairyman, knocked him down and proceeded to maul him to the point of unconsciousness. What followed was a life-flight in a helicopter to a hospital 30 miles away, a trip to the emergency room, an overnight stay in the hospital, broken ribs, and a possible concussion. The result was a dairyman who was extremely sore, unable to work on the farm for a period of time, but thankful to be alive.

This scenario is repeated every year in the USA, with many of the victims of a herd bull not so lucky. Headlines from papers across the country read like this. “Dairyman Barely Survives Bull Attack”, “Lucky Farmer Survives Nasty Bull Attack”, “Man Killed By Bull in Clarksburg”, “Farmer Devastated After Bull Attacks Neighbors, Killing Husband and Leaving Wife Severely Injured”,  “Bull Attacks and Kills Illinois Dairy Farmer”. These are just some examples of headlines in newspapers across the country.

I know.  “It won’t happen to me” and in many cases, we are right. But when will it be our turn?

Let me share a situation that I was personally involved with a couple of years ago that could have led to disaster but fortunately didn’t.

The incident started with a local dairy farmer’s father who was the proud owner of a registered Red and White bull and a phone call to me. “Gary, how about coming out to the farm today?  My son has a bull here that we are really proud of. I would really like you to see him and tell us what you think”. I said sure and out to the farm I went. When I arrived, a little apprehensively I might add, Dad, who was in his later years said to me, “Let’s take a walk.” We proceeded to walk into the middle of the pasture where a really wonderful looking Red and White registered bull about two years old stood with “his herd” grazing. When he saw us coming he stopped grazing and stared at “Dad” and I who were no more than 15 to 20 yards away. At that point it crossed my mind, “What am I doing here? We are in the middle of the pasture, no fence to crawl under, no hay wagon to get behind, no way to get away from this bull if he decides to run us down.” What happened? Nothing! We were the lucky ones. We were the “it won’t happen to me” crowd and it didn’t. But we could have been the dairyman I talked about earlier. We could have been the next statistic, the next farmer and in this case the extension educator being life-flighted to the hospital 30 miles away… or worse.

Fortunately it wasn’t our turn. The question is, whose turn will it be and when?  If you have a herd bull, a clean-up bull, a bull for the heifers, please consider the alternatives we have available today. The AI industry has been here since the late 30’s. Synchronization programs continue to be tweaked and improved. Research by universities and AI organizations for improved AI fertility on a per straw and per breeding basis continues.

In Dr. Michael O’Connor’s (Professor Emeritus of Dairy Science, Penn State University) article in an earlier Penn State Dairy Digest article entitled “Cost and Risks Associated with Natural Service Sires,” he noted these facts favoring the use of AI over natural service sires:

  • Estrous synchronization programs have been used for 25 years and have been refined to minimize time spent for estrous detection and to manage an AI program for heifers and cows. Acceptable conception rates can be achieved with properly designed and implemented programs. For a relatively small investment most heifer facilities can be upgraded and equipped to provide restraint and handling facilities for heifers. In addition to administering treatments for synchronization and insemination, such facilities can also be used for vaccination, deworming, veterinary treatment, pregnancy examinations, and perhaps embryo transfer. There are solutions to the major reasons dairy producers do not use AI for their heifers.
  • The fact that the AI sires are examined and tested for reproductive soundness and disease, and that semen quality and fertility are routinely monitored are additional benefits. Based on the results of breeding soundness examinations performed on sixty-six on-farm dairy bulls by one veterinary clinic in California, 26 percent of the bulls were considered unsatisfactory. Breeding to a subfertile or infected natural service sire will cause a significant delay in the interval to conception. Heat stress impacts bull fertility which can significantly set back herd reproductive performance.
  • Finally, and most importantly, it is your responsibility to provide a safe working environment for your employees and family members. Bulls are dangerous.

To read Dr. O’Connor’s complete article click on the following link: http://extension.psu.edu/animals/dairy/news/2008/costs-and-risks-associated-with-natural-service-sires.

Just in case the next incident with a herd bull is the incident where it is your turn, a family member’s turn, or a neighbor’s turn, let’s consider the alternatives.

Be safe out there.

For an additional perspective on this topic, please consider downloading a copy of Utah State University Extension Veterinarian, David Wilson’s (DVM), May 2012 newsletter entitled “Can the Dairy Industry live without “Cleanup” Bull Breeding? Could Improved Fertility of each AI Straw Make Cleanup Bulls Less Necessary?” at the following internet address: http://extension.usu.edu/dairy/files/uploads/Utah%20State%20Dairy%20Vet%20Newsletter%20May%202012.pdf.