© The Animal Consortium 2018. The ability to predict the fertility of bulls before semen is released into the field has been a long-term objective of the animal breeding industry. However, the recent shift in the dairy industry towards the intensive use of young genomically selected bulls has increased its urgency. Such bulls, which are often in the highest demand, are frequently only used intensively for one season and consequently there is limited time to track their field fertility. A more pressing issue is that they produce fewer sperm per ejaculate than mature bulls and therefore there is a need to reduce the sperm number per straw to the minimum required without a concomitant reduction in fertility. However, as individual bulls vary in the minimum number of sperm required to achieve their maximum fertility, this cannot be currently achieved without extensive field-testing. Although an in vitro semen quality test, or combination of tests, which can accurately and consistently determine a bull's fertility and the optimum sperm number required represent the 'holy grail' in terms of semen assessment, this has not been achieved to date. Understanding the underlying causes of variation in bull fertility is a key prerequisite to achieving this goal. In this review, we consider the reliability of sire conception rate estimates and then consider where along the pregnancy establishment axis the variation in reproductive loss between bulls occurs. We discuss the aetiology of these deficiencies in sperm function and propose avenues for future investigation.