Compiling data based on figures derived from different measurements has been a tool for corporate firms to tell a success story. Profit margin, increase in individual stock price and statements of net worth all created a comfort zone if they were on the rise. Amassing this information led for a quick trip to the top of the mountain. Cattlemen, because the four legged critter is involved, have to show a little more than what's on paper to solidify the program, but accumulating positive data is a good first step.
Measuring things like weaning weight and yearling weight were early forms of data, which almost seem like they were chiseled on stone tablets, compared to the type of data most firms are accumulating today. Much like a corporate entity, when a rancher steps to the plate and puts his genetics up against the best around, good things will happen from a herd improvement and merchandising standpoint.
“I have been sending bulls to test stations since the 60s, when I started with the Noble Foundation. I have been sending bulls to Oklahoma Beef Inc. (OBI) since I helped build the Brangus barn in the 70s,” says Charles “Tinker” Ray, Ray Brothers Brangus, Atoka, Okla.
“I have been purchasing bulls at bull tests for at least 35 years. I was at the first OBI sale and have been buying there ever since. The reason I buy bulls from the test station is because they have been handled in a like environment for a short period of time and there is a good supply,” says Dr. Charles Nichols, Arnett, Okla.
Central bull tests have been a long standing commitment to improving genetics in commercial and purebred herds. These tests not only give breeders a chance to compare their genetics to others within their breed, but also provide a service for most cattlemen.
“It gives the smaller breeders who don't have real contemporary groups a chance to be part of a large contemporary group. I can also save him the time and trouble of semen testing, ultrasounding and gathering important data,” says OBI Manager, Tim Stidham. Stidham has managed the Stillwater, Okla. test station for 20 years.
“I was mentored by a group of cattlemen I really respected. Carlton Corbin, an Angus breeder, sold me on the idea of how to develop a program,” Ray says. “They were all tremendous ranchers who would help you. I tried to spend a lot of time with them and they steered me in the right direction. Testing cattle was part of the plan.”
On farm tests and other forms of gathering data have taken away some of the glitter test stations provided in the days of old. However, this arena is still a good outlet for producers to promote commercial bull sales. Large and small firms take advantage of this competition.
“I hear breeders say it's too expensive to test my bulls. Something has to be working because I am constantly sold out of bulls here at the ranch,” Ray says. “My advertising program has been through gain tests. I had to get the commercial man's eye and they pay attention to the bull test and the data it produces.”
“It gets smaller breeders in the public eye because he's competing against established firms who have tested cattle before. That clientele will also provide guidance,” Stidham says. “We gather the type of data that is useful to the commercial man and the data he wants to see when he's buying bulls. The commercial man can come here, buy bulls of any breed and get what he needs all in one day.”
It is often said “Competition makes you better,” and even though it's a cliché, there is probably not a truer statement. Cattlemen sometimes have the uncanny ability to be unaware of what's happening on the other side of the fence. Being very proud people it is often a needed piece of humble pie, for some, when something as real as a bull test helps them see the holes in the cattle.
“Competing at the bull test helps cattlemen rank their cattle. At home his best one will always look pretty good,” Stidham says. “If he competes at the bull test, most will learn whether they're making improvements or just spinning their wheels.”
“I tried a lot of other things, like the show ring that didn't work for me. Bull tests bring a lot of exposure. I could test at home, but I am just comparing my cattle to my cattle,” Ray says. “If you want to improve you have to put them up against someone else's cattle. The test will authenticate what an animal can do in a group of his peers. Most people bring what they consider to be their best animals to the bull test, so you're competing against some pretty good cattle.”
Bull tests are often an avenue producers can look to boost private treaty sales at home or increase market share. The tests will help identify genetics that will add value components to purebred and commercial herds.
“My philosophy was different than most when I first started. I didn't take bulls up there to build my bull market. I was trying to find a herd sire to bring home. As a result, I got to sell a lot of bulls,” Ray says. “If I was fortunate enough to have one that would win, he went home to my herd. My cattle won and I got some notoriety. Even though I took that winning bull home to use, people wanted his offspring. I have a good private treaty market and I sell between 100 and 150 bulls a year here at the ranch.”
Ranking potential herd sires is the chief goal of the bull test. Because of the volume of bulls and like raising conditions, it attracts a pretty sophisticated buyer. Test stations also perform an educational service to buyers because data sets on individuals contain more information than ever.
“Rate of gain first attracted us to the test. We have fed cattle for 35 years and increasing rate of gain was an important economic trait. We like to identify sire lines that exhibit some rapid early growth and the test allows us to do this,” Nichols says. “One thing that has been good, some test stations, particularly, OBI, look at all the figures not just the ones measured at the test. As time goes on we accumulate more and more data, which is good, because it helps you do a better job of selecting bulls, but it also makes the decision more complicated.”
“A lot of times, I would buy a bull from another breeder that performed well on test. These are good cattle and they measure the right things. I was always looking for another herd bull,” Ray says. “I'd test my bulls and pay attention to my competitors. The bull test provided a platform to sell cattle and improve my herd.”
“There are breeders who don't bring bulls to the test, who pay close attention to the results. Everything is treated the same and all the data was taken the same day. Potential buyers have an accurate comparison of bulls from two different programs,” Stidham says. “Buying bulls here makes a lot of sense. The bull has complete EPD information and been on test. All the buyer has to do is take him to the pasture.”
Some producers are leery of test stations because of high grain rations and it seems to be a trap for single trait selection. Blending the gain test into the breeding program with the proper restraint is a challenge most seem to have handled.
“We've definitely improved growth rate and gainability within our herd. A word of caution, with this, there is also an increase in mature size and we have been doing a good job of keeping a lid on it so far,” Nichols says. “I don't think the test station environment is a real good environment for bulls. Make sure you take bulls home and allow them to acclimate and toughen up a little after coming off that high grain ration.”
“We were very careful to make sure we had soundness, structural correctness and good dispositions in all our cattle. The bull test is the best tool we have to test our cattle. I look for a balanced animal, but gain and efficiency take a long time to breed into your herd,” Ray says. “In 1979, I had the first bull to gain four pounds per day, there wasn't one until then. Now if you don't gain at least that, people laugh at you. I had a five pound bull in the 80s and a six pound bull in the 90s. In 2000, I had one gain 6.19 pounds per day. It has taken a lot of years to make improvement.”
Just like there are stepping stones in any business, test stations have had to evolve to meet the demands of today's customer. As current production costs continue to be a concern for most buying strategies and testing strategies or information gathering will have to be modified to maintain the distinction. Bull tests have done their job in providing marketing outlets, advertisement and most of all genetic improvement.
“It has been a tremendous help to my marketing program. We have an extremely good private treaty market. We have a lot of repeat customers who have been buying bulls for a long time,” Ray says. “We have large outfits and the guy who needs just one or two come buy bulls. You get a lot of recognition. When your cattle do well at the bull test, people know it.”
“There is no question efficiency has improved in our feedlot cattle. As they gain faster, they are also more efficient,” Nichols says. “We're just now to the point where we can measure feed efficiency. DNA markers show promise, but they have to become more reliable. Individual animal feed intake will do a better job selecting for efficiency. We have to look at all the actual data and OBI has always provided that for us to buy bulls.”
“We have to keep up with what the buying public wants. Twenty years ago gain was number one. We went through a phase where people wanted all the carcass information they could get,” Stidham says. “Now, with the cost of corn and everything else, efficiency means a lot. It's not feasible, at this time, to individually test every bull, but we do take DNA samples and identify bulls with feed efficiency markers. It's my job to keep on top of things and make sure the buyers and consignors are getting the right information that is very timely.”