With bull sale season here, you may already be thinking ahead to breeding decisions for your cows and heifers later this spring.
One way or another, the females must get bred if you are going to stay in business. Sure, any intact bovine male beyond a certain age and size can make them pregnant, but the calves may have little chance of returning a profit.
Maybe it’s a hobby, well insulated from the need for profit. It’s a free country, but if you really don’t care what settles your cows, we’d all be ahead if you were banned from the industry for crimes against consumer demand.
OK, so you do care. You bought the best $1,000 bull in the county and he looks like he could generate some good calves. Oh, you say it was $3,000? Well, price doesn’t always tell whether you have a bull that will improve your herd and further demand. You have to look at breed, and numbers other than dollars.
What breed do you want? That depends on your cows. If they are a hodge-podge of several unknown genotypes, consider starting with bulls from a breed and seedstock operation known for maternal traits and “easy keeping” in your area. Keep replacement heifers and build some consistency into your herd.
If you already have a well-defined breed type in your cows, consider what they need to complement that. If they are “straightbred” cows with sire and dam of the same breed, you may benefit by crossbreeding to achieve “hybrid vigor” or heterosis. It could mean as much as 20% more weaning weight if you choose a bull from another breed that compensates for any shortcomings in your cow breed.
Your cows may fall short in the areas of production efficiency, calf growth or end product, for example. Keep in mind what the market wants when choosing bulls, too.
There may be good reasons for running straightbred cattle. Perhaps the breed’s genetic database is so accurate it makes consistently better, more uniform calves every time. Perhaps the market compensates you enough per pound to make up for the loss in weaning weight you give up by not crossbreeding.
Whether you go straight or crossbred, have a reason and a plan, and stick to it in order to build consistency. When you know why you are using certain bulls, you rule out using your brother-in-law’s bull just because it is available and cheap. On the other hand, advance planning could offer the chance to work together with family or neighbors who have similar goals but different calving seasons. Sharing ownership can open the door to purchasing better bulls.
If you have multiple pastures and the ability to sort cows by breed type, rotational crossbreeding could work for you. Differences in breed type can detract from uniformity in the calf crop, but you can overcome that by marketing in sire groups.
You may have heard of composite bulls, which maintain a steady mix of breed types and heterosis. These can work on a ranch or large cooperative system, but the pool of cows needs to be at least 500 head to limit the risk of inbreeding. Composite breeding systems are popular with ranches that look at whole-herd results more than individuals.
Some producers use terminal crossbreeding, where no heifers are retained for breeding. That can work if you have a source for heifer replacements with the same type and management background. Terminal crossing works especially well when using cleanup bulls after AI for straightbred or single-cross calves, or on older cows.
AI may be your best bet for heifers, especially compared to buying single-traitchampion “heifer bulls.” Too many bulls bought strictly for calving-ease end up moving into the main herd where other traits may need more attention. Of course, you can find a wide selection of excellent and balanced genetics through AI.
Most operations are not 100% AI, so there is still that need for bulls. If you must buy new ones this year, it’s getting late so don’t put it off any longer. Find breeders who share your ideals, management and environment, and look at their cows with records for consistent excellence.
Finally, look at the expected progeny differences (EPDs). Of course you’re going to keep price in mind, and your needs may coincide with a “bargain.” Higher birthweight, lower muscling or smaller frame bulls could complement some cowherds—but don’t buy or use them unless you know they fit your needs.