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Dr. Scott P. Greiner, Extension Animal Scientist, Beef, VA Tech

Livestock Update, February 2007

As we move to the heart of bull buying season, the question is often asked- “which is the best bull in the sale?”  The response to such a simple question cannot be painted with a broad brush, or in a manner which fits all needs.  If we consider the question in the context “which is the right bull for my operation?” we are prompted to define the important parameters that need to be considered.  Successful bull selection is dependent on effective strategies that allow the right bull to be identified.

Strategy 1:  Define Herd Goals and Objectives, Identify Strengths and Weaknesses
Broad herd goals and objectives serve as the foundation for sire selection and provide guidance as to traits with the most economic relevance.  A basic definition of the production and marketing system, along with management strategies and environment are key factors that warrant consideration:

  • Will the bull be used on heifers, mature cows, or both?
  • Will replacement females be retained in the herd?
  • How will the calf crop be marketed (at weaning?, backgrounded?, retained ownership? sell females?)
  • What are the labor and management resources available?
  • What are the feed resources and environmental conditions of the operation?
  • How will this sire contribute to the overall breeding system plan?

Within each of these considerations, an assessment of the strengths and weaknesses will provide more details.  Fundamental records are key to identifying strengths and weaknesses.  Basic performance parameters such as calving percentage, weaning percentage, weaning weights, sale weights, feed usage, etc. are necessary to serve as the basis for assessing areas of strength and those needing attention.

Strategy 2:  Identify Priorities and Opportunities for Improvement
Priorities should be established based on those factors which stand to have the largest impact on profitability.  Remember that income is derived from performance (sale weight, % calf crop weaned, carcass merit, etc.).  Performance is a function of both genetics and environment/management.  Superior genetics can be negated by poor management, which emphasizes the importance of delineating the impact of management (nutrition, health program) from that of genetics when specific priorities for the herd are established.  As an example, operations marketing feeder cattle have a need for optimum early growth as calves are sold around weaning.  This early growth is impacted by milk production of the dam, which in turn is influenced by available feed resources.  Considering both the genetic and management influences on these traits is important.

Genetic improvement in commercial herds is largely accomplished through sire selection.  Simplifying sire selection by focusing on the handful of priority traits is generally more achievable than attempting to change many traits simultaneously.  Establishing the few traits to focus on is the key factor.

Strategy 3: Effectively Utilize Selection Tools
Once selection priorities have been established through close examination of herd goals and current status, a number of useful tools are at the disposal of beef producers to assist in making genetic improvement.  Genetic differences across breeds have been well established, and utilization of different breeds in a complimentary fashion through structured crossbreeding plans provides the opportunity for improvement in multiple traits.  Most importantly, heterosis attained through crossbreeding has been shown to have significant favorable impacts on traits such as reproductive efficiency and cow longevity which are critical for herd profitability.  The limited ability to select for reproductive traits in the form of EPDs further emphasizes the importance of heterosis. 

Individual EPDs are available for many traits of economic importance. The introduction of economic indexes which combine several related traits and their economic values into one EPD are available to assist with simultaneous improvement in multiple traits which impact areas such as carcass merit and post-weaning profit.  Again, with the large number of EPD tools available, the critical step is to determine the EPDs which are most important and establish benchmarks relative to each.  Several tools can be utilized to assist in the determination of EPD specifications.  EPD values for current and past sires can be used as benchmarks.  With these benchmarks, EPD specifications can be set to reflect the desired increase or moderation in performance for a particular trait.

Strategy 4:  Track Performance and Know Your Market
As discussed in Strategy 1, records are the key to establishing the road map of where the herd has been, current status, and plans for the future.  Simple record-keeping that allows for the assessment of key performance indicators such as calf weight per cow exposed, weaning weight, and returns on per cow basis are necessary for buying the right bull. 

Additionally, our beef industry continues to evolve rapidly. Staying abreast of changes and developments that will impact costs of production, marketing strategies, and profitability are important.  A visionary approach will assist in establishing both short and long-term goals and objectives.

In summary, consider all strategies that will assist your operation in finding the right bull.  The right bull for your operation may not be the most popular, or at the top of the sale order, but through strategizing properly a bull which will fit your needs can be successfully identified and secured- thus increasing the odds for success.

Virginia Cooperative Extension materials are available for public use, re-print, or citation without further permission, provided the use includes credit to the author and to Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech, and Virginia State University.

Issued in furtherance of Cooperative Extension work, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Virginia State University, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture cooperating. Rick D. Rudd, Interim Director, Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg; Alma C. Hobbs, Administrator, 1890 Extension Program, Virginia State, Petersburg.

Publication Date

May 8, 2009

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