by: Clifford Mitchell

Tough decisions are part of the deal for those who call themselves cattlemen. A lot of conclusions are focused on the bottom line. Cutting expenses or increasing revenue to create profit. Numbers are crunched, cattle are evaluated based on goals and choices are made to the production model.

Selecting herd bulls is not an easy task. Identifying production goals is often the first step in identifying potential herd bulls. Once cattlemen can establish where the program should be, it will answer questions like breed type and what traits are important during the selection process.

“Producers have to decide what kind of calves they want to produce and know how you're going to market every calf that hits the ground,” says Dr. Matt Hersom, Extension Beef Specialist, University of Florida.

“If producers will establish some goals and objectives from a breed composition and traits to select for standpoint, it will narrow the search for herd bulls significantly,” says Scott Greiner, Extension Beef Specialist, Virginia Tech University.

Making selection priorities and deciding what breed or breeds of bulls are needed to make the operation successful will help identify potential herd bulls. Prioritizing criteria that producer's are looking for will help interpret useful data and not get overwhelmed during the process.

“There is so much data today with Expected Progeny Differences (EPDs), genetic tests and ultrasound it is easy for a producer to get overwhelmed. Designing a budget and knowing your goals will help identify the product you're looking for,” says Dr. Karl Harborth, Beef Extension Specialist, LSU AgCenter.

“It is important to know your production goals before you buy the herd bulls, otherwise you could get overwhelmed by the data. If you sell at weaning, growth or weaning weight index is pretty important. If you're producing replacements to market or retain in the herd, maternal traits become more important,” Hersom says. “There is a lot of data available to help in the selection process today. EPDs are the strongest tool we have, especially when you combine this with visual assessment. You have to purchase the right genetics and those bulls have to be sound, functional animals.”

“Our selection tools are much better today. We can better weigh various traits from an economic perspective,” Greiner says. “You have to identify which data is important to the selection process and ignore the rest. If it is pounds at weaning then use that data to make your selections. Sometimes figures are based on an output basis without any cost control. You can produce more pounds, but at what cost. We still have to keep costs in perspective when we define goals.”

Tools to make life easier on the ranch come from managing calving seasons to buying the winter's feed supply early to save some money or utilizing risk management to guarantee a profit with the calf crop. Crossbreeding is one of those tools that may have faded in recent years with some herds turning to single sire rotations. Breed composition and utilizing a system could help balance traits needed for successful production.

“You should be looking for bulls that will compliment the cow herd. These bulls will emphasize the strengths and minimize the weaknesses. In an optimal scenario, the bulls in the herd bull battery aren't just one breed,” Hersom says. “The selection tools are in place where we can keep females and have very marketable steer calves. It goes back to production goals and knowing what you want to produce. Incorporating a two or three breed rotation in a crossbreeding system will help meet market demands year-in and year-out and still maintain the cow herd.”

“We have to use heterosis or hybrid vigor as a resource and take advantage of it. Selection indexes combine traits, which helps in balanced trait selection,” Harborth says. “Know what breeds of bull to use will help reach production goals. If you set up a three breed crossbreeding system, you have to manage that system correctly to gain the benefits.”

Environmental adaptability calls for different biological types in different regions. For some areas along the Gulf Coast keeping a percentage of Bos Indicus influence is very important. Knowing what fits the environment will also play a role in what herd sires are purchased and how they are mated to the cow herd.

“Producers with different percentage of Bos Indicus influence have to manage that through sire management. South of Interstate 10 producers have to have at least a quarter Brahman influence to be successful,” Harborth says. “The data shows the benefits of different levels of Bos Indicus influence in the cow herd, but it can sometimes provide other challenges to producers when it comes to marketing calves.”

“A two or three breed rotation will help adaptability if you have the right breed mix. In the areas where they have different levels of Bos Indicus influence you have to manage that with complimentary herd sires,” Greiner says. “Most cattlemen in my part of the world don't have to worry about heat tolerance, but we're fescue based, which is somewhat of a unique environment when it comes to adaptability. There aren't a lot of tools to select cattle that will work in the fescue environment, but buying from seedstock producers in a similar environment should increase buyer comfort level.”

“Cattle still have to function in your environment. In Florida, we have to rely on Bos Indicus influence to produce replacements. Cow herds have everything from F1 to varying levels of the Bos Indicus influence, the question for most is what percentage to maintain. This percentage will vary, but that percentage gets very important when it comes to what breeds to use if every calf is going to be marketed in a terminal cross program.,” Hersom says. “Some of our producers buy bulls that aren't bred in our environment. There is a trade-off because you may sacrifice longevity because the bulls will have a more limited useful lifespan in our environment, but producers can't afford not to capitalize on the genetic improvement.”

As selection tools have evolved to try to help identify these potential herd bulls, other tools have come to the forefront to help buyers identify superior products. Knowing as much as they can will give buyers confidence the seedstock providers are doing everything possible to sell them a good bull. Bio-security has come to the awareness forefront and the ability to test for things like trich and BVDPI increases buyer confidence.

“Never purchase bulls without a breeding soundness exam, that is the first rule of bull buying,” Hersom says. “I don't know if bulls that have been trich tested or are proven BVDPI free are worth any more than other bulls, but it's another opportunity for the seedstock producer to showcase the value of his genetics. It's one more demonstration of quality assurance.”

“Bull purchases need to come with a breeding soundness exam and those bulls should be re-checked during the off season if they are going to be turned out again,” Harborth says. “I am not sure producers in our area fully understand the bio-security issues. I don't know if trich and BVDPI tests create any more value for the bulls, but it's a step in the right direction for buyer confidence and the buyer knows he's not introducing anything to his herd.”

Successful operations understand the value of a good bull and what the right genetics or breed combinations mean to the bottom line. New tools will, hopefully, allow cattlemen to make better herd bull selections. The budget for good bulls seems like it's always on the upswing.

Making the right purchase decisions when it comes to buying herd bulls will influence profit-loss statements for years to come. Good records will help establish production goals and evaluate if those bulls are doing the job. Being prepared and understanding a good bull does not come cheap will set the stage for a successful bull buying experience.

“Good record keeping can help establish our goals when we go to buy bulls. We have to know calving rate, weaning weights, etc to help make our choices. Breed complimentarity is very important and we have to find bulls that match the cow herd and sire calves that meet production goals,” Harborth says. “Every producer has to budget for herd bull purchases. Buying bulls is an investment and the right bull will have an influence for years to come. Buying the right bull or breeds of bulls will add value to the operation.”

“New selection tools allow producers the opportunity to purchase bulls better equipped to meet production goals. Better bulls should mean better calves and bull buying is an investment,” Hersom says. “To maintain the cow herd, crossbreeding is very important. If you're keeping heifers find the happy medium between growth and maternal traits. The goal is to make money. EPDs and a critical eye are your best tools.”

“If you put pencil to paper, bull costs are relatively low in a beef enterprise, considering their genetics have a huge impact on so many things. In our high cost environment, it costs more to produce herd bulls today and the seedstock producer needs to get paid for his efforts too,” Greiner says. “Utilizing the selection tools we can purchase breeds of bulls that allow us to concentrate on the cow herd and mate her to produce a calf that will fit the different segments of the industry.”

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