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May 4, 2006

Knowing Bull Behavior Patterns May Save Lives

The headline in a major upper Midwestern newspaper read, “Son to Continue Farming After Father Killed.”

The article explained that a Brown Swiss bull killed the father April 6, 2006, at the man’s dairy farm while the man was working with his son.

Breeding with bulls on dairy farms is supposed to be a thing of the past, according to J.W. Schroeder, North Dakota State University Extension Service dairy specialist. Most farmers, and almost all researchers, agree artificial insemination is a better option for numerous reasons.

“But the reality is that there are still a lot of dairy farms with dairy bulls doing at least some of the breeding chores,” Schroeder says. “The successful dairy farm has to have pregnant cows, and sometimes the most efficient way to get this done is with a bull.”

The downside of using dairy bulls is they are not safe to be around, he says. While bulls account for only 2 percent of the cattle population, they are responsible for more than half of the farm worker fatalities. Many of the deaths were the result of farm workers being attacked, mauled, rammed, gored, trampled or pinned against some surface.

Schroeder says producers can decrease the danger if they use common sense and knowledge, and think ahead. They also need to remember they have no guarantees when working with an animal that weighs 1,000 to 2,500 pounds, moves extremely fast (up to 25 mph), and makes decisions based on experience and instinct.

“The first and most important rule is never to trust a bull,” he says.

He also advises producers never to raise young bulls in isolation. He says bulls should be kept with other cattle so they identify with cattle, not people. According to Temple Grandin, an animal behaviorist at Colorado State University, a bull that identifies with people may see a person as a rival. It also can act based on improper learned behavior.

Schroeder says dairy bulls are so much more notorious than beef bulls for injuring and killing people because of the difference in the way they traditionally are raised. Edward Price, a researcher at the University of California, found Hereford bulls reared in groups were less likely to attack people than bulls that had been bucket fed in individual pens. Seventy-five percent of the individually reared bulls threatened handlers. Of 1,000 dam-reared bulls, only one bull attacked.

Beginning at 6 weeks of age, bull calves should be penned with calves of the same age. When a young bull becomes old enough to start breeding, he should be moved to a group of dry cows or bred heifers.

Another important rule is to watch for signs that the bull may become a threat, Schroeder says. The threat display often begins with the bull standing broadside with its back arched. The bull then lowers its head and sometimes shakes it rapidly from side to side. Its eyeballs protrude and its hair stands up along its back.

When the bull becomes a direct threat, it stands head-on with its head lowered, shoulders hunched and neck curved toward the potential object of its aggression. It often paws the ground with its forefeet, sending dirt flying behind it or over its back, and rubs or horns the ground.

If an opponent, such as another bull or person, withdraws about 20 feet at this point, the encounter likely will end with the bull turning away. If not, the bull will circle another bull or animal and drop into the cinch (flank) body position or start head-to-head or head-to-body pushing.

If the other animal advances on the aggressor bull with its head down in a fight mode, the two animals likely will get into a short fight with head or horn butting. If the aggressor bull previously subdued the other animal, he likely will withdraw with no further interaction.

Many farm workers need training in bull/cow behavior because they lack the background, attitude or knowledge to deal with dangerous bulls and fresh cows, Schroeder says.

“So watch the signs, be careful, observe/study bull behavior, communicate with others and please don’t work alone around bulls,” he advises.


Source: J.W. Schroeder, (701) 231-7663,
Editor: Ellen Crawford, (701) 231-5391,



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