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Considerations for feeding and managing bulls over winter discussed

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Bulls need just as much care and attention through winter as a producer’s cowherd to make sure they stay healthy and will be ready for the next breeding season.  Over the winter, bulls need a chance to regain body condition if they’ve lost weight.  

            “Don’t forget to vaccinate them,” says Dr. John Kastelic, veterinarian and professor of cattle reproductive health at the University of Calgary. 

Kastelic adds deworming may also be helpful, depending on the situation.  

Winter feeding and watering considerations

“If bulls are confined, I recommend feeding them in a bunk rather than on the ground in order to break the fecal-oral transmission of disease,” Kastelic explains. “If bulls are on pasture and fed hay or pellets, it is important to feed on clean ground.” 

Bulls need adequate diet during cold weather to maintain body temperature and not lose weight.

Kastelic also notes it is important to make sure feed is free of mold or toxic material. 

“Sometimes we have issues with ergot on cereal grains,” he says. “This can cause vasoconstriction and diminished circulation to the extremities. Bulls can lose ear tips and suffer from gangrene if this occurs. Certain molds can be harmful and some have estrogen-like properties, which interfere with semen quality.”

            Access to clean, unfrozen water is important, with minimal fecal contamination. 

 “It’s best to have some kind of point water source like a stock trough, rather than drinking from a dugout or stream,” he says.  

To keep bulls out of a non-point water source, water can be fenced off and piped to a trough, delivered via nose-pump or some other system to keep it clean and prevent freezing.

            Bulls should always have access to mineralized salt or mineral mix, as certain mineral deficiencies can lead to health issues.

 Kastelic recommends producers check with their herd health veterinarian to know what type of mineral supplement might be needed in order to balance the bulls’ diet and make up for deficiencies in the feed. Producers may need to test feeds to know what minerals will be needed.

Healthy housing situations

            A clean, healthy environment is another key component in overwintering bulls. 

“Good management simply means doing a lot of things well, including paying attention to all the small, but important, details such as vaccinations, parasite control, etc.,” says Kastelic. “It’s just basic husbandry.”

            Lice can be an issue in winter, especially if bulls were not deloused or if delousing was done too early in the fall, according to Kastelic. Bulls may start rubbing out their hair before spring. In this situation, bulls should be treated – or retreated – for lice, as producers typically don’t want bulls rubbing their hair off in cold weather and losing insulating hair coat.

            Kastelic also recommends producers make sure bulls have adequate bedding, especially in cold weather, to minimize risk of scrotal frostbite. In addition, it is important for bulls to be kept out of the wind.  

“A little frostbite won’t be detrimental, especially if it’s just on the bottom part of the scrotum,” Kastelic says. “This will generally heal – the bull might have temporary reduction in sperm quality, but unless operations have fall-calving herds and breed cows during winter, it usually won’t be a problem.”

            “If frostbite covers a larger area, for example, the back side of the scrotum or halfway up the scrotum, this may create adhesions and the bull can’t raise and lower his testicles,” Kastelic continues. “If the scrotum puckers up when the testes are pushed upwards, this indicates there are some adhesions – a relatively poor prognosis for recovery.”

            He continues, “To prevent frostbite, bulls need adequate dietary energy and a good windbreak like trees, a coulee or a manmade windbreak with about 20 percent porosity. Bedding is also important, so bulls are not lying on frozen ground, in a snowdrift or sleeping in a wet environment.” 

Bulls covered in frozen mud and manure lose much of the insulating quality of their hair coat, he adds. 

Providing adequate space

Travis Olson of Ole Farms in Athabasca, Alberta, Canada has years of experience raising bulls. The ranch has 1,100 registered Angus and 300 commercial cows. 

“When taking care of bulls in general, especially older bulls, I give them lots of room,” Olson explains. “I prefer to keep and feed them in large pastures, away from the cows and make sure they have good bedding in several areas. I don’t want them bedding in just one location because some bulls don’t get along.”

He notes it is important to ensure bulls have at least two or three different bedding locations if 60 mature bulls are in the same pasture. If space is limited, bulls have the opportunity to rough up one another. 

            “The older bull might be dominant during the breeding season, but maybe he doesn’t have the energy or desire in the winter to put up with an aggressive young three-year-old that’s trying to come up through the pecking order,” Olson says. “The older bull might be able to beat the younger bull, but he just doesn’t want to get into a scrap.”

            Rather than constantly fighting to settle the pecking order, an older bull might go off by himself in a corner of the pasture with no bedding.  

“Producers might notice issues with scrotal frostbite on these bulls because they don’t have the advantage of bedding and a windbreak,” Olson shares. “It is important for bulls to have bedding and a good windbreak in at least two locations so if an older bull is being pestered and doesn’t want anything to do with the situation, he has somewhere else to go. This is why I give them lots of room.”

            Olson’s yearling and two-year-old bulls are kept in a separate pasture, away from mature bulls. 

As long as all the bulls have adequate feed for maintenance – and extra nutrition for the younger bulls that need to regain lost weight and keep growing – winter bull management is fairly simple.

Heather Smith Thomas is a corresponding writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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