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The Importance of the Breeding Soundness Exam

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Posted Mar. 1, 2008

Cattle producers should seriously consider getting a breeding soundness exam (BSE). Before you jump to conclusions, let me explain! The examination is conducted on bulls prior to the breeding season to assess their reliability and capability as breeding animals. The cost of the test will vary, but it is usually under $50 and is arguably the best money cow-calf producers will spend on an annual basis. We sometimes try to save money by not spending it, but conducting a BSE is a prime example of how to save money in the long run by spending a little up front.

The test is conducted on an annual basis at least 60-75 days before turn-out by a licensed veterinarian. Conducting the test during this period will allow time to replace any "unsound" animals and to retest any questionable animals. This means that if you implement a spring calving season and turn bulls out in late spring/early summer, you should be preparing to do this in the very near future.

The test doesn't take long to conduct and basically involves three evaluations: 1) a structural soundness assessment; 2) a reproductive system evaluation; and 3) a semen quality appraisal. During the structural soundness assessment, the veterinarian examines the overall condition of the animal including the flesh, feet, legs, eyes and teeth. Once the bull passes this initial inspection, the veterinarian will assess the scrotum, testicles and penis, while also conducting a rectal palpation to determine any internal abnormalities. They may also measure overall scrotal circumference to determine if minimum requirements are met and to determine if any changes have occurred since the previous year (if these records are available). Scrotal circumference is important due to its positive correlation with semen production and age of puberty in female offspring if heifers will be retained. The absolute minimum is 30 centimeters for yearling bulls, while anything greater than 34 centimeters would be considered acceptable for mature bulls. The third and final phase consists of semen collection, primarily via electro-ejaculation, and an evaluation of primary characteristics such as semen motility (i.e., activity and progressiveness), morphology (i.e., percent normal sperm cells) and overall sperm production.

Following the tests, the veterinarian will usually classify the individual bull in one of three categories: 1) satisfactory; 2) unsatisfactory; or 3) suspect or deferred. They will also usually explain how they arrived at the results and may recommend culling or re-testing an individual bull. Keep in mind that it is not uncommon for younger bulls to fail their initial test, creating the need to retest later. If a mature bull fails, however, they will rarely pass a second test and thus, unless the veterinarian recommends retesting, should be culled.

There are many abnormalities that can be identified during the breeding soundness examination, however most physical problems can be detected prior to a formal inspection. Therefore, it is very important to observe bulls throughout the year in order to detect any injuries as early as possible. Nonetheless, more times than not, a bull will fail a BSE during the third phase of assessment - factors which are not easily detectable. Therefore, it is strongly recommended to retain a veterinarian with whom you feel comfortable providing you consultation in this area.

False positives (infertile bulls given a satisfactory score) can result in open cows and/or calves born later in the calving season. False negatives (fertile bulls given an unsatisfactory grade) can lead to culling sound bulls and incurring needless replacement costs. The BSE is a very important decision-making tool that incorporates very little room for error. Year-round management and alignment with a quality veterinarian is therefore extremely important. Finally, just because a bull passes a BSE doesn't necessarily mean he will "get the job done." It's kind of like leading a horse to water - you can't make him drink, but you might want to stand around to see if he does.