Visual clues reveal the right bull choice

Dave Davidson knows how important it is to get the right bull power in his herd. For the Center rancher, wading through mounds of data on bulls and selecting the right bulls is crucial.

“Before going to a bull sale, I usually go over the numbers and pick the bulls I’m interested in,” says Davidson. But he utilizes his years of experience in the business and visual assessment to choose the bulls he will bid on.

Davidson runs between eight and 10 Angus bulls with a single herd of Salers/Angus cross cows during the grazing season, rotating through paddocks of about 160 acres each. Basic masculine traits are important when he’s selecting bulls, including defined muscle tone and healthy movement on their feet and legs.

At a glance

Dr. Jan Bonsma’s writings offer visual clues to selecting fertile bulls.

Animal scientist says that fertile bulls have coarser, curlier hair and are not fat.

Running bulls of different ages and sizes together prevents bull fighting.


Terry Gompert, University of Nebraska Extension educator at Knox County, told a group of producers at a Cow Common Sense Forum recently that there are visual clues indicating fertility and reproductive efficiency that can help them select masculine, fertile bulls. He believes that the 1960s-70s research and lectures of South African-born animal scientist Dr. Jan Bonsma offer commonsense criteria to help producers visually appraise bulls.

According to Bonsma’s research, fertile bulls generally have a masculine crest, clearly defined muscles and noticeable hair pigmentation. These are clues that transcend data and are visually observed.

“Cows and bulls need to work with your management,” said Gompert. Moderate-sized animals are best, staying away from the extremes. “If they don’t hold condition without supplementation, don’t keep their replacements,” he said.

Here are some of Gompert’s points, gleaned from Bonsma’s practical visual appraisal advice for selecting herd bulls:

Shape of the animal and skeletal form. Fertile bulls should have an upside-down triangle shape, with a wider frame at the hips and shaping downward toward a smaller torso. They should be deeper on the front than on the back.

Hair. Hair is heavier, coarser and curlier about the crown, neck and upper shank on fertile bulls. Pigmentation of the hair is darker on the neck and chest, upper shank, lower ribs, lower thigh and often above the tail brush or switch.

Muscling. A virile bull should have prominent muscle development that does not give the appearance of smoothness. He looks more like he was chiseled out of wood or rock, often with a clearly defined muscular crest on the neck.

Fat deposits and distribution. Fertile bulls should generally have no fat on the hips or pin bones and no fat deposits or visual abnormalities on their testicles. Testicles should descend properly and evenly in the scrotum.

Disposition. According to Bonsma, bulls with bulging eyes and a crazed look lack libido and produce abnormal sperm. Bulls that are sexually active are alert, interested in their surroundings and seldom look drowsy with their eyes half-closed.

For Davidson, a healthy disposition is important. But he says, “Too many people make pets of their bulls. We need to keep in mind that this is business, and the bulls have a job to do.”

To prevent fighting, he runs six bigger experienced bulls with two or more young bulls. Grazing bulls of the same size and age together causes more fighting, Davidson says. Fence jumpers should be sold.

“You also have to consider your neighbor’s grazing schedule in your grazing plan,” he says. If it is possible to graze your herd in an adjacent pasture at a different time than the neighbor, you can often prevent bull fights and broken fences between competing bulls in each herd.

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EXPERIENCE COUNTS: Dave Davidson, of Center in Knox County, utilizes data, visual assessment and common sense learned from years of experience in the cattle business to select the right bulls for his herd.

This article published in the March, 2011 edition of NEBRASKA FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2011.