URBANA, Ill. — High prices are providing an incentive to cattlemen to expand the nation’s drought-riddled cowherd.

With fewer cows in the nation’s breeding herd, it is important to make each cow count, said a University of Illinois Extension beef specialist.

Travis Meteer explained that management strategies play a major role in ensuring that cows rebreed.

“The most obvious management strategy a cattle producer can deploy is conducting a breeding soundness exam on bulls. All bulls that will be used in a breeding season need to be tested. Without a breeding soundness exam, producers are taking a huge risk,” he said.

The Extension specialist added that breeding soundness exams are low cost and provide a great return on the investment. Bulls that are infertile or have poor fertility will fail to settle cows.

“Evaluating bulls is crucial to making sure that cows get bred. A BSE should be conducted by a veterinarian each year prior to turnout. Environmental factors, age and injury can all affect a bull’s fertility from year to year,” Meteer said.

With a particularly harsh winter of 2014, checking bulls for frostbite damage, which can cause short-term and long-term infertility, is important.

Bulls should be evaluated for mobility, body condition score, age and other functional traits. Bulls need to possess a free-moving gate with no signs of lameness.

Hoof shape, joints and locomotion speed also need to be appraised. Long toes, cracked hooves or signs of foot rot are characteristics that can cause lameness and subsequent failure of that bull to service cows.

Swollen, fluid-filled joints may be signs of structural incorrectness or injury that may affect the number of cows a bull can cover.

“Simply looking at the speed and comfort of a bull during locomotion can be valuable in determining his functionality as a walking herdsire,” Meteer said.

Bulls need to be in good body condition with an ideal BCS of 5 or 6. Bulls that are too thin or too fat can pose problems.

Bulls generally lose weight during a breeding season because they are focused on breeding and traveling to service ready-to-breed cows, so it is important to ensure bulls are in good condition. On the other hand, bulls that are too fat may be out of shape and more fatigued when servicing cows.

Over-fat bulls also are prone to infertility during hot weather as fat around the scrotum limits cooling and thermoregulation.

Bulls also should be transitioned nutritionally.

“Feeding bulls a balanced diet in a drylot situation where feed is close and readily available is far different than a big pasture full of cows needing bred. Lush spring grass is not nearly as nutrient dense as hay and grain offered in the drylot setting,” Meteer explained. “Thus, transitioning bulls to pasture is important in making sure they don’t ‘melt’ or ‘crash’ when they go to pasture to breed.

“I suggest feeding a low-protein, high-energy supplement at two to four pounds per head per day. This is very important if you are using yearling bulls. These bulls will have higher nutrient requirements than mature bulls because they are still growing.”

Once bulls are in the pasture or breeding pen, they need to be monitored for libido. Bulls need to be checked for activity and to make sure they are servicing cows in heat. Sunup and dusk are good times to check to see if bulls are breeding cows.

“Open cows are a major drain on profitability of a cow/calf operation. There is no doubt that reproduction is a sensitive mechanism and is vulnerable to several factors. However, evaluating bulls to ensure they are capable of servicing cows is the starting point to making sure your breeding season is successful,” Meteer said.