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‘No bull’ tips on picking a bull

Early spring bull sales are just around the corner. Selecting the right bull is one of the biggest success factors for a beef operation — especially now with high cattle prices, high feed prices and the real prospect of a beef shortage.

One size never fits all — not in farm caps and definitely not in bull selection.

And with different intended markets, it’s no surprise the best bull for you may be a poor choice for me.

That’s actually a blessing, since it creates a market for all types of cattle and keeps genetic diversity alive and well.

Key Points

Before going bull shopping, rank your goals for what you need.

The fastest herd improvements are made by crossbreeding.

Few beef chores lead to higher returns than herd bull selection.

Aim for heritability values

You can make the most rapid progress by selecting for genetic traits with the highest heritability estimates.

Most reproductive traits tend to have low heritability (less than 0.20).

Growth traits tend to have a moderate level of heritability (0.20 to 0.40)

Carcass traits tend to have a fairly high level of heritability (more than 0.40).

Traits with the highest heritability scores are most influenced by selection. But ignoring traits with low heritability would be a mistake.

Reproductive performance is one of the most economically important traits. So although progress through genetic selection is slow, it should never be ignored.

Also remember that traits with low heritabilities tend to respond well to heterosis or hybrid vigor. That’s why more rapid progress is made by crossbreeding.

Do your prepurchase homework

Driving off to a local sale with no idea of what you are really looking for is a very bad idea — a costly one. Answer the following questions before getting out your checkbook:

What’s your intended use? Will the bull be used on mature cows, first-calf heifers or both?

Will he be primarily used as a terminal sire, where all offspring go to market? Or do you plan to keep replacement heifers from his offspring?

Where does your herd need to go? What are its strongest and weakest points, and where does it most need “genetic correction” — milk production, growth traits, carcass traits, mature weight, fertility or reproduction?

Think, and rank your goals

What are the most important traits you need to improve? Focus on those traits and realize you’ll only dilute your efforts by trying to select for everything. Then look at your bull market options.

You have many choices available: test station sales, private treaties, production sales, dispersals and even real-time video auctions. You don’t have to jump at the first bull sale you attend.

Luckily, in this Internet age, you can at least narrow down your choices from the comfort of your office.

Science and technology are wonderful. We’ve never had so much genetic selection information available.

Even so, human vision and judgment are key. Traits like structural soundness and temperament are still best judged by the eye — and the brain it’s connected to!

Resist the ‘go cheap’ impulse!

Most of us severely underestimate the true economic value of bull selection. Anyone can buy a cheap “cow freshener.”

Yes, there are bargains and “diamonds in the rough” out there. But for the most part, you get what you pay for.

Harpster is a Penn State animal scientist and a beef cow-calf producer.

Care and feeding of that new bull

Ok, you’ve done your homework. You’ve found the bull of your dreams, and bought him for a price you can almost afford.

Now, make sure you manage him properly to make the most of that investment. The most common mistake is nutritional neglect!

Too often, a yearling bull is purchased just before turnout with the cows. That yearling bull is still growing and developing. When he’s abruptly switched from a high-grain diet to a pasture situation where forages may or may not be adequate, weight loss is inevitable.

Recondition an overconditioned bull

Excessive condition loss can lower the bull’s fertility and libido. Avoid that by providing adequate feed.

Bulls often carry lots of condition at purchase, especially those on high-grain, test station diets. South Dakota State University research shows they can have normal fertility and libido — if allowed to gradually return to moderate condition before breeding season.

Purchase such bulls at least a couple of months before turnout. Provide plenty of exercise. Gradually decrease the level of grain feeding until they’re in good breeding body condition.

One bull; how many cows?

The number of cows a young bull should be expected to breed is a tough call. So you’ll need to answer more questions:

How many females will be in heat at the same time?

Is estrus synchronization being used?

How large and what is the terrain of the breeding pastures?

How old is the bull?

Will only one be used?

Is the bull in proper body condition, and is he injury-free?

An old rule of thumb may provide some guidance: Expect a bull to service the number of cows that matches his age in months. For instance, a 14-month-old bull should breed 14 cows; a two-year-old, 24 cows; and a mature bull, 25 to 30 cows.

Finally, don’t forget your investment when breeding season ends. In most cases, you’ll want him back next season!

Yearling bulls should stay with the cow herd for 60 days or less to avoid extreme body condition loss. Start preparing them for next year. Keeping them growing on good-quality roughage, and extra grain as needed.

Don’t forget to provide a free-choice mineral vitamin mix and plenty of fresh water. Keep your hoofed investment growing and vital.

– Harold Harpster


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BULLHEADED: Don’t let cute curls, conformation or size fool you. Study your herd’s genetic needs and the bull’s genetic ability to deliver them.

This article published in the January, 2011 edition of AMERICAN AGRICULTURIST.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2011.