How to rear dairy beef bulls

Bulls can be reared for beef on a cereal-based diet or, if you have home-grown forage available, silage and cereal. Learn more about how to rear dairy beef bulls, including nutritional guidance and how to handle bulls safely.

Back to: How to manage dairy beef production

Things to consider when rearing bulls for beef

Due to testosterone, bulls have superior feed conversion efficiency (FCE) than castrated steers.

They also produce leaner carcases with a higher yield of edible meat in a shorter time than steers.

However, producing bull beef is a specialist enterprise and requires higher fixed and variable inputs. Health and safety is key – see our advice below on how to handle bulls safely.

The meat from bulls and steers can be of poorer quality than other beef production, so you should plan a finishing period with a fast rate of gain. You should then hit your targets for fat and conformation classification.

A dairy bull’s daily gain starts to decline when it reaches over 550 kg in liveweight. As the bulls feed intake continues to increase, there will be a considerable drop in efficiency.

The two systems for rearing dairy beef bulls

When rearing dairy bulls for beef production, there are two different systems you can consider.

Each system depends on what feed is given to bulls. Both systems require housing.

Bulls can either be fed a:

  • Cereal-based ration: finish bulls at 13–15 months
  • Mixture of silage and cereal: finish bulls at 14–16 months

Explore these two different systems in more detail to decide which is best for your farm.

Dairy bulls on a cereal-based ration (13–15 months)

You can achieve a high throughput of cattle on the beef production system for finishing bulls at 13–15 months.

On a cereal-based ration, bulls can achieve fast growth rates, giving you the option to finish them early and reduce the feed cost per kilogram of gain.

This type of system can be easy to control and monitor.

However, with around 2.4 tonnes of concentrate needed per head, this system can be more expensive overall.

Bulls obviously pose a safety risk. Adequate housing, handling and management policies must be in place.

There is also little room for slippage in growth targets due the challenge of disease, variable feed quality and stress.

Nutritional guidance for cereal-fed bulls

High cereal diets are traditionally used in intensive beef systems for dairy-sired male calves. They offer good growth rates.

However, when cereal prices are high, margins can be put under pressure and alternative high-energy feeds can be substituted for grain.

We recommend seeking professional nutritional advice, tailored specifically to your farm and beef system.

You should generally provide the following protein supplements in the bulls’ cereal-based ration:

  • Between six and seven months old: around 16% crude protein in the dry matter (14% as fed)
  • After seven months old: 14% crude protein in the dry matter (12% as fed), plus the cereal-based diet including 12.5 megajoules of metabolic energy per kilogram (MJ ME/kg) in the dry matter

Other feed and management requirements for cereal-fed bulls finished at 13–15 months:

  • All cereals must be lightly rolled
  • Consider including 10% beet pulp with the cereal as a source of digestible fibre – especially recommended for high-starch rations and those containing wheat
  • A source of good, clean straw must always be accessible to bulls in feed racks, or chopped in the ration
  • Average concentrate consumption with this system would be in the region of 2.4 tonnes per head
  • House bulls in well-bedded and well-ventilated yards, with at least 5.4 m2 of space allowance for 600 kg bulls
  • Monitor feed intakes and liveweight gain
  • Select cattle for slaughter at fat class 3
  • Sell those animals that fail to thrive early – known as the poor ‘doers’
  • Know your market – many processors do not take bulls under 12 months of age

Targets and keys to success for cereal-fed bulls

The secrets to success for achieving better returns from cereal-fed bulls are:

  • A lower cost ration that delivers target growth rates
  • The right type of buildings and handling facilities
  • Maximum ration energy density and inclusion of digestible fibre to maintain rumen stability
  • Regular recording of bull weights and condition
  • Strict veterinary and stockmanship regimes

See the table below for a rough guide on performance targets for dairy bulls finished at 13–15 months old. You should check the minimum carcase weight for your chosen outlet rather than stick to the figure here.

Table 1. Example performance targets for dairy bulls on cereal-based diet

Performance targets (kg)
Lifetime growth rate 1.2–1.4
Liveweight at slaughter (13 months) 540–620
Carcase weight* 270–320
Carcase classification –O/O+2/3

* Check minimum carcase weights for the chosen outlet

Dairy bulls on silage and cereals (14–16 months)

If you have access to high-quality, home-grown forages, the 14–16-month bull production system will save you money on feed.

This system – with bulls fed a mixture of silage and cereals – can achieve a high cattle throughput.

However, there are extra risks involved with keeping older bulls. See our advice on the safe handling of bulls below.

Nutrition for bulls on forage

Home-grown forage can provide an efficient and cost-effective feeding system for finishing cattle. With silage in the diet, a bull will take a month or two longer to finish than on a purely cereal-based ration.

The following silages are recommended for finishing bulls on a simple mixed forage ration:

  • Grass
  • Wholecrop
  • Red clover
  • Lucerne
  • Maize

You must still provide a ration that delivers your target growth rates. Other feeds can be fed separately or as a total mixed ration (TMR).

The quality of any homegrown forage offered must be high to maintain bulls’ performance.

Good quality silage should contain at least 11 MJ ME/kg in the dry matter. The overall diet formulation must contain at least 15–16% crude protein in the dry matter. This can be dropped to 14% at six to seven months old.

Feed dairy bulls on this beef rearing system 2–6 kg per head per day of concentrates to achieve a target daily liveweight gain (DLWG) based on the quality of the forage.

Feed should always be available, along with straw to provide the long fibre the animals need to stimulate rumination.

Ongoing work at Harper Adams University suggests that 75% of ad-lib cereals could be replaced with good quality, high-energy wholecrop (at least 25% starch and 10.5 ME). This type of system provides similar carcase outcomes while relying less on potentially more expensive bought-in protein.

Read more information about this Harper Adams study into bulls on protein and mixed forage: Protein and mixed forage rations for bulls

Targets and keys to success for silage-fed bulls

The keys to success for achieving better returns from feeding bulls a mixture of silage and cereal, finishing them at 14–16 months, are:

  • Best-practice silage making from crop establishment to harvest, storage and feed-out
  • Rations can be based around silage analysis, with supplementary feed to make up shortfalls in energy and protein
  • Regularly record bull weights and condition to check the bulls are meeting targets
  • Your facilities must be robust enough for older bulls
  • You should sell bulls before they reach 16 months of age – some abattoirs will not take or will penalise you for bulls older than this

The table below provides a rough guide on performance targets for dairy bulls finished at 14–16 months old. You should check your chosen outlet’s minimum carcase weight rather than stick to the figure provided here.

Table 2. Example performance targets for dairy bulls on forages together with cereal

Performance targets (kg)
Lifetime growth rate (kg/day) 1.1–1.3
Liveweight at slaughter (kg) 540–620
Carcase weight (kg) 270–320
Carcase classification –O/O+2/3

Health and safety when handling bulls

You and your staff must follow strict health and safety guidelines when handling bulls:

  • Make sure your housing allows for routine tasks (feeding, bedding etc.) to be done outside the pen
  • You should be able to open and close internal division gates from outside the pen
  • Arrange your race, crush and loading areas so no one ever needs to be in with the animals
  • Check that handling, weighing, vet treatment and shedding arrangements are safe, i.e. designed for the greater strength and unpredictable nature of young bulls
  • Put up prominent signs warning bulls are present
  • Never handle bulls alone

See the Health & Safety Executive advice on how to handle bulls: How to handle bulls 

Useful links

Access the ‘Dairy beef production systems' manual, for further practical advice

If you would like to order a hard copy of the Dairy beef production systems manual, please contact or call 0247 799 0069.