With non-productive bulls a constant drain on ranch returns, breeding soundness exams (BSE) easily pay for themselves, but a veterinarian might need to use some creative marketing strategies to build demand and build relationships with clients.

In my practice, we have tried a number of approaches to build and expand BSE services with local ranchers since 2006. Some approaches have worked well and some have dropped by the wayside, but overall, we’ve been able to build the business and help our clients improve reproduction and save significant money.

My practice is in Craig County, Oklahoma, which has the highest density of cows and beef cattle in Oklahoma. I began this practice, which now is about 95% beef cattle, in 1983, and I have an established clientele. 

Along the east side of Craig County we have tame grasses, mostly Bermuda and fescue.  On the west side there are native grasses.  Those pasture grasses result in different kinds of techniques or management styles. There are two distinct calving seasons in the area.  One begins in March and one in September, and both seasons last six months. 

In this article I’ll provide evidence that a quality BSE is a marketable service and a marketing tool for veterinarians.

With regard to seasonal business and cash flow, I have two distinct humps in my practice.  We’re very busy in March, April, and May and also September, October, and November.  The summer and winter months traditionally have been slow. To correct that, I decided to pursue additional services during those times.  I aimed to increase the number of BSEs performed, with a goal of 25 exams on bulls that had not previously had BSEs.  Our plan was to get our clients to bring these bulls to the clinic on one day so we could make a case for the exam’s value. 

We named the event the “Bull Clinic”. We arranged a producer meeting the week of the Bull Clinic and provided a free meal.  We also had a “Cowboy College,” which included a test.  If you scored the highest on the test you won a pair of boots.  We sent out Extension flyers and a newsletter a month ahead to publicize the date of the Bull Clinic.  We mailed to our entire client list, offering free vaccination and free deworming, with a discount on the BSE.  What a deal! 

Over time, the free meal got a little expensive, so we cut that out.  Nobody wanted to give us any prizes and we didn’t want to pay for them, so we cut that out.  We couldn’t get anybody to write up a test and grade it so we eliminated that.  Extension quit sending out the flyers and doing the newsletter.  It got extremely expensive to do a clinic-wide mailing, and we questioned why we would provide a discount on the BSE.

So now, we do a free vaccination and deworming and a BSE with no discount, and the program remains successful.  People ask me when the Bull Clinic will be.  The only money they are saving is on the vaccination and deworming. They could do those on their own schedule, but the offer works as a marketing tool.

The following is the selling point against which all animal scientists rebel.  I leave it up to you whether it is valid or not.  Each year we see 200 bulls at the Bull Clinic.  We wanted 25 and got 200. On average, our data show 15% of the bulls are either deferred or classified unsatisfactory. We can estimate that those 30 bulls would sire one-half as many calves as the remaining bulls. Some of those bulls would not sire any calves. If we plan on each bull serving 25 cows, those 30 sub-fertile bulls cold result in a reduction of 375 calves in one season. Even at just $100 per hundredweight for 500-pound calves, that adds up to $187,500 per year. Over a twenty year period that is over $3,750,000 that we have saved our clients. Some might dispute these specific numbers, but our clients buy into the concept and see the cost savings as a selling point for investing in BSEs.

When we first initiated this in 2006, we performed 474 BSEs.  This past year did a total of 1,204. It seems that no marketing works just as well as aggressive marketing.  All we really needed to do was start the program to begin with.

Efficient use of resources

My team uses a system we’ve developed for completing each BSE quickly and accurately. For semen testing, one of my technicians collects the bulls, and he hands the semen to another technician, Sheila, who uses the microscope to grade motility.  I can train a technician, with some practice, to do a better job on motility than I do. If she wants me to confirm her evaluation or has a question, I’ll look at the sample. Otherwise, I evaluate the morphology and Sheila sits at the computer.  I tell her what I’m seeing, whether it is distal midpiece reflex, proximal droplets, detached heads or any other defect. She enters all the results into the computer using the electronic BSE form, and by the time I’ve finished, she hands the client the paper and I’ve never typed anything.  

With the client, I point out anything of interest.  A green mark on the paper means the bull successfully passed the semen exam.  We put the BSE form into a distinctive yellow folder.  I’m amazed how many times that yellow folder comes back.  It is easy to see and is a good marketing technique.

About one-quarter of the BSEs we conduct are on sale bulls at the ranch. For these bulls, we read motility and bring stains back to the clinic to evaluate morphology.  We can process about 10 to 14 bulls per hour in these cases. We also evaluate some bulls on the ranch where the client wants to turn them out as we test them. For these, we read the motility while the bull is in the chute.  On every three to four, we go back and take a quick look and estimate whether the morphology is over 70%.  I’ve seen enough slides that I can tell if we’ll have something debatable or not.  If so, I count 100 sperm to make the determination.  Then I take those slides and go back to the clinic and read all of them. For these cases, we average about six to seven bulls per hour.

Overall, for bulls done at the clinic, we can do about four to eight per hour. For production bulls away from the clinic where we come back and read them, we can do 10 to 12 per hour.  Herd bulls done away from the clinic, average eight to 10 per hour.  In all of these cases, we will average making from $350 to $400 per hour.

For collecting semen samples, we use a Lane Manufacturing Pulsator IV.  We also use the Pielstick bull strap to support the bull during the examination. The strap attaches to either side of the chute, is easy to use and works better than a brisket bar to support the bull. Lane Manufacturing and other suppliers sell these straps.

Problems with Service Providers

As service providers, we need to build trust among clients, since the results are not always readily apparent. It is like taking your car in for service – you can’t see a difference, and just hope the mechanics performed the work included on the bill. In comparison, if you trade in an old used vehicle for a new one, the difference is obvious. That makes the sales event easier to market than a service event.

As veterinarians marketing a service, we could benefit from a common form that people understand, with consistency in reporting BSE results. For example, we examined a $10,000 bull on May 7, 2014, and classified him as “deferred” based on a problem with extension. We rescheduled the bull for a follow-up exam in two months. I was not available for the follow-up, so the client took the bull to a different veterinarian who used older standards from the Society for Theriogenology (SFT). He gave the bull a 90% rating and the rancher put the bull into service. However, pregnancy examinations on the cows to which he was exposed showed he hadn’t performed adequately. 

I’m not critical of the veterinarian who did the exam, but my client could not objectively compare the two results arrive at a conclusion because the standards were different. We need a common and consistent product. In some cases, when ranchers have bulls they’re going to use for themselves they bring them to me.  When they have a bull they plan to sell, they take it to someone who they believe will rate it more favorably. That ought to go away.

We also need to compile this data into a national database. The SFT has established and maintained a database for its members. They also provide options to download your own data into an Excel spreadsheet as well as uploading your data into the national database.

When we look at existing data sets on BSE results, we see considerable variation in the percentage of bulls rated satisfactory, deferred or unsatisfactory. Auburn passes about 57%, while I pass about 85% and the national database pass rate is about halfway between those two. I don’t know whether either database provides a more accurate picture. Perhaps the discrepancy in the number of bulls they fail and the number I fail is because we’re dealing with a different population of bulls. Compared with the national database and that from Auburn, I defer more bulls while grading fewer as unsatisfactory.  If the client wants a recheck, I defer the bull rather than declaring him unsatisfactory.  In any case, veterinarians could benefit from a system that allowed them to track their own BSE results and compare them with overall trends. 

Toward that goal, we are currently working with a graduate student at Purdue University, Jennifer Koziol, who is conducting her thesis research on breeding soundness in bulls. Objectives of the study include:

·         Elicit factors affecting breeding soundness examinations in bulls in the United States.

·         Determine the most common reasons for unsatisfactory BSEs in U.S. beef bulls, looking at age groups and breeds as well as all bulls.

·         Establish whether the average scrotal circumference has increased in U.S. bulls.

·         Define the incidence of congenital or juvenile penile abnormalities such as incomplete separation of the penis and prepuce and persistent frenulum.

·         Reveal any geographic differences among BSE outcomes.

Ethical and economic challenges

Obviously, the veterinarian’s BSE standards can affect producer returns in the short and long terms. Say for example, a seedstock producer in my area hires someone else to conduct BSEs for a bull test, who charges $20 per bull and passes all 100 bulls, which is not unheard of. If the bulls sell for an average of $4000, and we subtract what was charged for the BSE, the producer nets $398,000 on 100 bulls. 

If they had brought the bulls to me, I would charge more and, on might rate 20% non-satisfactory on the first test and bring 10 bulls back for rechecks. On average, I would I put five of those bulls back into the satisfactory group.  At $4000 per bull minus my charges and the value of the disqualified bulls, the net return is $334,500, a reduction of $63,500.

If the owner works with the service provider who passes all the bulls, initial returns are higher, but how many customers will complain? If a bull is infertile but pastured with fertile bulls will the rancher even realize that bull is not productive? This is an ethical issue, but we need to consider that our clients may be better off letting someone else do the testing for production bull sales.

I have a few wishes. One is for veterinarians to embrace the standards set by the Society for Theriogenology for BSE’s.  I also wish the veterinarians would use the eBSE form to such an extent that it would be recognized by bull breeders and bull producers.  I would hope veterinarians would contribute on a regular data base to the SFT BSE.

Following are my key take-home messages:

·         A “special” event, like our Bull Clinic, can be well-received.

·         Quality work is recognized and can command a fair price.  I have annually increased my price for BSEs, so I don’t think the BSE is price-sensitive service.  It is fulfilling to perform work that is based on quality rather than price.

·         Word gets around.

For more information on conducting BSEs and using the eBSE form, view the webinar I produced with the Society for Theriogenology, which is available online at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=5bHJuKwLVvQ&feature=youtu.be