Keeping a bull – pros and cons

If you only have a few dairy or beef cows on your farm, it is possible to keep your cows in calf using artificial insemination (AI) and not own a bull at all.  A bull can be extra work and an extra mouth to feed, but there are some advantages to keeping a bull, even on a small farm.

If you rely on AI, you will need to find a technician or vet who is willing to travel to your property.  You will need to watch your cows for signs of heat, and call the vet when the cow is in “standing heat”.  It may take several attempts to achieve a pregnancy if you don’t get the timing just right, and you will pay for each visit. Consider that each cow will come into heat at a different time, and if you have more than two or three cows, the costs are going to add up, and it might be worth keeping a bull.

A bull will figure out the timing of heat exactly, and unless you keep him in a very secure yard, the cow and bull will generally find each other at a time of their choosing.  This means it is more difficult to control the timing of calving.  A few times now we have thought we might wait until the next heat so that the calf comes at a particular time that will suit us, but the bull and cow have other ideas and barbed wire fences are not sufficient to stop them from being together!  Also, successful AI with a heifer can be tricky, especially for a smaller breed, so it can help to use a bull for her first calf.  Generally a bull will have a better success rate than AI, especially if you only have a small number of cows for him to service.

Braford bull
Keeping a bull adds another safety risk, even if he appears quiet, he may be aggressive around his cows or with strangers, so you must be wary around him at all times.  The bull may also put more pressure on your fencing.  All our bulls have shown a tendency to fight neighbouring bulls, and even if they do not injure each other, they will certainly break fences.  We have had some success with electric fencing set up inside the barbed wire, but even that can be ignored by determined bulls.  Especially on a small farm where properties are close together, it can be difficult to find somewhere to keep your bull where he can’t come into contact with another bull.

Bulls are noisy, they call out to other bulls and cows that they can see in the distance, repeatedly, and at all times of the day and especially on a clear night with a full moon. I have been known to get up at 2am and throw a bale of hay at our bull in the hope of distracting him, but unfortunately he can still roar with his mouth full.

Unfortunately for the bull, if you are intending to keep replacement heifers from your cows, you will only want to keep your bull for a couple of years, until his offspring are ready to breed, and then you will need a new bull.  This means that there are always plenty of secondhand bulls on the market.  The older bulls can be calmer and more experienced than a younger animal, and they should be slightly cheaper.  If you’re only going to keep him for a few years anyway, it may be worth considering an older bull.
Dexter bull
If you do have a few cows on your small farm, there are some good reasons to think about keeping a bull. Our Dexter bull cost us $300 and has produced four pregnancies so far, which has worked out cheaper than AI (at over $100 a visit); although we have had to feed him hay at times when our pasture was low. The extra effort in managing him and the lack of control over timing of pregnancies has been frustrating at times and using AI would give us more control and probably make life simpler in some ways. It has certainly been an interesting experience though! "Keeping a bull adds another safety risk, even if he appears quiet, he may be aggressive around his cows or with strangers, so you must be wary around him at all times."
The author Liz lives on eight acres in south east Queensland, Australia, with her husband Peter and two dogs. They have a passion for small-scale organic farming  and producing and eating real food. They keep chickens, beef steers, two jersey cows and a big vegetable garden. Liz writes a blog about their farm to both inspire and help others who are interested in self-sufficiency, sustainability and permaculture.

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