July 10, 2020

A day in the life of a bull: Researchers move from Calgary Stampede to W.A. Ranches

UCalgary study looks to improve the health and productivity of breeding bulls

For the past few summers, Drs. Ed Pajor and Jennifer Pearson worked behind the rodeo chutes at the Calgary Stampede, studying the daily routine of the bucking bulls. They were looking to identify where injuries might occur and to improve animal welfare.

This year, the researchers are still studying bulls, but they’ve shifted focus to the beef bulls at W.A. Ranches, the University of Calgary’s 19,000-acre cow-calf operation near Cochrane.

  • Photo above: Researchers have attached GPS radio collars to beef bulls at W.A. Ranches to monitor their movements and activities before and during breeding season. Photo by Christy Goldhawk

Pearson, a veterinarian and postdoctoral fellow, and Pajor, a professor of animal behaviour and welfare in the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine (UCVM) and director of W.A. Ranches, have a mission: to figure out what bulls do all day.

Ed Pajor has been conducting research at the Calgary Stampede for the past eight years.

Ed Pajor has been conducting research at the Calgary Stampede for the past eight years.

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Cattle, like people, have their own social networks. During the non-breeding season, bulls are kept together in paddocks, where they form relationships and develop social hierarchies. “Some will spend more time with one animal or several animals. A friend, a buddy to hang out with,” says Pajor, who holds the Anderson-Chisholm Chair in Animal Care and Welfare.

During the non-breeding season, bulls are kept together in paddocks, where they form relationships and develop social hierarchies

During the non-breeding season, bulls are kept together in paddocks, where they form relationships and develop social hierarchies.

Christy Goldhawk

Bull surveillance

But when the bulls are separated into smaller groups and moved out to different grazing locations with herds of cows, the social dynamic changes. By using a radio collaring system to track the animals, the researchers will study changes in their movements and activities. The GPS technology is especially useful when bulls are turned out on large lease lands, where it’s not otherwise possible to monitor them multiple times throughout the day.

“We can download that data once a week from bulls on pasture, and it gives us an understanding of how they spend their time, where they spend their time, who they spend their time with,” Pajor explains.

Tracking collars have been used to study other animals, including wildlife, and they work quite well. Pajor says this is the first such project with beef bulls and “fitting the collars was challenging because those other animals actually have necks.” 

Distinguishing the lovers from the fighters

Of particular interest is to find out what happens when bulls unfamiliar with each other are put together during breeding season. “Those animals may spend a lot of time fighting, a lot less time breeding, and lose more condition because they're spending so much energy fighting,” Pajor says.

“They will likely be less successful in terms of breeding. And they may get injured more often, because they're spending more of their time fighting.”

Jennifer Pearson tracked a daily time budget for each bucking bull at last year’s Stampede to see how the animals spent their days.

Jennifer Pearson tracked a daily time budget for each bucking bull at last year’s Stampede to see how the animals spent their days.

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

“We want to see if we can use this technology to better understand what a bull is doing and how he interacts with other bulls to help promote better health. If a bull is sick or injured, then potentially we could use this technology to help identify that bull before we might be able to see it,” says Pearson. The research will combine tracking surveillance with direct observation and video recording of bulls in closer proximity.

Many people think of bulls as highly active animals that exhibit a lot of aggressive behaviour, but that hasn’t been Pearson’s experience. “That's not what we've seen either at the Stampede or with our beef bulls. The majority of them spend most of the day lying around chewing their cud, kind of relaxing.” Pearson is interested to find out how each bull’s behaviour translates into the number of calves it produces.

“I want to see how these bulls interact with each other and if some of their interactions and activities might indicate which ones are going out and breeding more cows and siring more calves than other bulls who maybe aren't doing their job as much.” Just how well an individual bull does his job will be traced by DNA testing offspring after next year’s calving season.

Research could improve animal welfare and a producer’s bottom line

“Another component is by understanding the behaviour of the animal prior to going out to pasture, it also will open up new research questions about the management of those animals, and how we can manage them better to improve their welfare and their health before going out to pasture,” adds Pajor.

Pearson says the Anderson-Chisholm family’s gift of W.A. Ranches offers an incredible opportunity to study bulls and use new technologies to help better understand the animals.

“Investing in good, fit bulls is really important to a cow-calf producer,” says Pajor. “We're pretty excited to be doing research that can help them make good management decisions that can also reduce injuries and improve welfare. There are potentially some pretty important economic impacts from the type of research we’re doing.”

Community spirit cannot be cancelled — UCalgary at the Calgary Stampede

UCalgary is a proud partner with the Calgary Stampede. Together, we are offering many ways to get your fix of cowboy culture, fairground food and community connection. Learn more.

The gift of W.A. Ranches from the Anderson-Chisholm family is part of Energize: The Campaign for Eyes High, UCalgary’s historic $1.41-billion fundraising campaign. Fueled by the generosity of UCalgary’s friends and supporters, we are igniting discovery, creativity and innovation to make lasting positive change at the University of Calgary, in our city and beyond.