Dr. Mark Wahlberg, a professor at Virginia Tech, once told me, “A cheap bull is the most expensive thing on the place.”
Dr. Wahlberg had a number of sayings that voiced a lot of common sense cow knowledge but none that rang more true. Investment in a bull provides a greater impact on the genetic improvement of a herd than most producers realize. A sire has the ability to produce a higher number of offspring in a lifetime than a cow and through his daughters, if kept as replacements, can influence performance for generations.
A good breeding program works to advance long- and short-term herd goals. The goals must be based upon a valid and honest assessment of the production system, environment, and resources, while identifying the potential performance and profitability goals for the herd. The bull you select should have traits of economic relevance to your system and goals. Here are a few questions to consider when formulating your herd goals.
Who is your customer and where do you fit in the marketplace? Do you sell your calves at weaning, retain ownership through harvest, or do you sell heifers?
This information will determine if you need to focus on heavier weaning weights, maternal traits or carcass characteristics. It will also help you focus on your customer (i.e. backgrounder, feedlot or packing plant) and fit your program to align with their needs and market demands.
Will you be breeding heifers to this bull or retaining females by this bull? Determining the maternal needs of your herd sets the stage for developing a selection criteria on a number of maternally relevant traits, such as calving-ease, milking ability, age at puberty and longevity.
What are your resources and environment? Both feed and labor resources are major factors to consider when making your bull selection. High amounts of available feed translate into a larger frame sized cowherd. If you don’t have the manpower or resources for calving season, you will need to focus on calving-ease. The environment influences performance along with feed resources and has an effect on the type of bull you need. For example, if you ranch in the mountains of Colorado, structural soundness and PAP scores become high priorities.
Identifying traits of economic importance is the key to optimum bull selection. Only by evaluating your herd’s performance can you tailor bull selection to maximize performance, so records become fundamental. Records of basic performance parameters like conception rate, calving percentage and dates, weaning percentage and weights, etc., are necessary to determine areas of strengths and weaknesses within the herd.
Once you have set herd goals and assessed the genetics of your herd, you can determine the traits that are of economic value to your program. Determine what acceptable combination of traits a bull must have to complement the strengths and weaknesses of the cowherd. Concentrate on those factors you have identified that have the greatest impact on profitability. Performance is where the greatest degree of income is derived, so traits such as weaning weight, percent calf crop weaned, and carcass merit should be included in your criteria dependent upon your herd goals. This should be coupled with convenience traits like calving-ease and birth weight. The old adage still holds true, a dead calf has a very poor growth rate.
Expected progeny differences (EPDs) are a useful tool when narrowing down the list of prospective bulls. A majority of seedstock producers will provide EPDs, along with individual performance data and ratios. While performance data and ratios are useful when comparing a bull within the herd, they do not translate across herds or breeds due to differences in environment and management. EPDs take into account both individual performance and performance of relatives to provide a more reliable tool to evaluate across the entire breed. Guides to understanding and using EPDs are available through the North American Limousin Foundation (NALF).
Remember that when selecting for an increase in one trait, it has a direct effect on correlated traits and their associated costs. A five pound increase in milk production increases energy required by 15 percent, protein required by 21 percent and minerals by as much as 37 percent. Increases in frame size have similar increases in costs. An increase in mature cow size from 1,000 pounds to 1,200 pounds increases maintenance requirements by 15-20 percent and potential pubertal weight in heifers by 120 pounds.
Crossbreeding can also be used as a tool in bull selection. By harnessing the power of hybrid vigor, an operation can reap rewards not only in added pounds of performance, but through the hard to select for, reproductive traits. A crossbreeding strategy would need to be employed in an operation to maintain heterosis through multiple generations. Hybrid bulls could also be an option to add or maintain hybrid vigor in a herd.
Once selection criteria and tools have been established, benchmarks must be set for traits of economic importance. Evaluating breed averages and percentiles will further narrow down the list of possible candidates. Specifications can be set to enhance the performance in a specific trait. Bulls that excel for all traits are near impossible to locate, so designate tolerances or ranges for each trait that fits your criteria. Remember, when selecting for a few traits of greater economic importance you make more genetic progress than if you select for a range that is across the entire spectrum.
Since you have already narrowed down your options to those bulls that meet your criteria on paper, you need to visually evaluate them for phenotypic traits. Fleshing ability, disposition, muscle, and structural soundness should all be taken into consideration visually in respect to the herd goals and selection criteria. Structural soundness occurs in varying degrees, so be sure to critically evaluate the prospective bulls from the ground up. Be sure their feet hit the ground evenly with the rear feet landing in the same spot the front feet left. As structural soundness is heritable, it should be given extra attention in bulls from which replacements will be kept. Acceptable tolerances in structural soundness should be decided before attending the sale.
To achieve maximum productivity and therefore profit, the investment made in sire selection must be matched with the resources available, the production system, and the product that is desired in the marketplace. Bull purchases represent as much as half the genetic potential of the herd and have a long lasting effect on herd quality and performance. Whether you are a seedstock or commercial producer, the value of purchasing the right bull cannot be underestimated. A sound investment pays dividends and will benefit the operation beyond the lifetime of the purchase.