Choosing The Right Bull Takes Patience


   The spring breeding season will soon be upon us.  It is important that cattlemen purchase a bull that meets their production goals since the herd bull contributes half of the genetic makeup of his calves and has an essential role in improving herd genetics. This time of year provides cattlemen numerous opportunities to purchase high quality bulls at the numerous advertised beef bull sales.
   A cow typically produces one calf per year, while the mature herd bull may sire 25 or more calves per year. Unless your cows live to 20 plus years, the bull will contribute more to the genetic makeup of your herd in one year than a cow will in her lifetime.
   Thus when choosing a bull it is important to consider your production goals; different cow-calf operations have different goals and different resources.  Bull selection goals for any cow herd should target an acceptable combination of traits that complement the strengths and weaknesses of the cow herd and match markets. When selecting a bull, consider the needs of the cow herd. Ask questions that will help match a bull to the cow herd. What do you need to match or improve your production goals; i.e. improved weaning weights, improved carcass traits, calf crop color.
   If you sell your calves at weaning through the salebarn and keep your own replacements, traits of priority should be CE, heifer pregnancy, stayability, and weaning weight. Selecting for more yearling weight, too much milk or too little milk, or cacarss traits are much less important in this scenerio. If you retain-ownership in you cattle through the feedlot and market to the packer, then yearling weight and carcass traits become more relevant to your bottom line. Your ultimate goal should be to produce the most profitable product, thus seek traits that add value without increasing cost of production over the value of the trait.
   Other factors that should be considered in bull selection include structural soundness, conformation, libido, disposition, scrotal circumference, sheath, frame size, muscling, breed and horn presence or absence. It is important to find a balance among various traits and avoid extremes. Base the type of bull selected on the purpose of the bull in the breeding herd. Will the bull be used as a terminal sire on mature cows, will he be bred to heifers or will he be used to sire replacement heifers?
   Avoid putting too much downward pressure on birth weight (BW), especially if the bull will breed cows. Another mistake I see is purchasing low BW bulls for cows. This is not necessary. Many times you can purchase a bull with average or better calving ease for cows at a discount to “heifer bulls” with comparable growth. Smooth, flat shouldered bulls with decent CE EPDs are good value bulls for breeding mature cows.
   If you plan to attend a bull sale then secure a sale catalog a soon as possible. Many catalogs will have breed percentile tables and breed averages, if not search for them through the respective breed associations on the internet. Use the tables and averages while reading the catalogs. Identify bulls that excel in the traits that you have identified that are important to your herd goals and cross out those bulls that are at the extremes of your selection criteria.
   If you need one bull, then I would suggest selecting 3-4 high quality bulls that would meet your production goals. This serves a two-fold purpose; some bulls may exceed your budget or are off structurally. I recommend showing up before sale day or early enough on sale day to be able to observe the bulls move in the lots. When examining bulls on your list, focus heavily on structure. Foot and leg structure of bulls is crucial to their longevity in the herd. Speak to the consignors and find out as much as you can about their breeding program, management of their cow herds, and the bulls you are interested in. 
   Once you have purchased a bull I also suggest a quarantining new purchases a minimum of two weeks.  This is a sufficient time period for potential pathogens to break without exposing your herd. Lots of times cattle coming from a sale have experienced elevated stress. It is important to keep them on good feed, in a clean pen, and allow the quarantine period to run its course. 
   Keep in mind that the lowest priced bull is seldom the best valued. If you find a bull that has the traits you are looking for… then buy him. Set a budget, but understand it is often hard to find everything you are looking for. Bulls with the traits you are seeking can add value to your cattle in a hurry. They can add far more value than a cow. The bull you buy this year will impact your herd for the next 5 years with his calves, but his daughters will impact your herd for the next 20 years. Make a good investment. Buy a bull that adds value to your calves and your cowherd. ∆
   DR. TERESA L. STECKLER: Extension Specialist, Animal Systems/Beef, Dixon Springs Agricultural Center, University of Illinois

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