How should you pick your next bull? Should you use EPDs? Look at a pedigree?

I think the selection process starts before any of that. First, you have to do the hardest thing of all - set goals for your operation and prioritize the traits that you need.

Which of these traits are on your list?

* Calving Ease

* Disposition

* Growth rate to weaning/yearling

* Muscularity

* Marbling

* Daughter's milk

* Fertility and or fleshing ability

* Hybrid vigor (will the bull create this when crossed on my cows)

* Carcass yield

* Carcass quality.

All these traits seem worthwhile, but it's nearly impossible in life to get everything you want. Frankly, the perfect bull doesn't exist, and if he did none of us could afford him.

With that in mind, I suggest picking just three traits from this list to emphasize in your selection process. Pick them based on what your operation needs most. Take into account your cowherd, your marketing strategy and your management program. Now, you're ready to get into the selection process.

Here Are My Five Steps * First, pick the breed or composite that best fits the three genetic selection goals you determined. You can use research data from USDA's Meat Animal Research Center to compare the breeds for nearly any trait you can imagine. Keep in mind that at this stage of the game you're just sorting out breed strengths, identifying those that can do the job you have defined with your goals.

As an example, if one of your selection goals is increased marbling as an indicator of carcass quality, then don't pick a Continental breed for your bull selection. While some Continental breeds offer more than others do, across their populations they won't allow you to progress as rapidly as using a British breed.

Likewise, if hybrid vigor is on your list - and it had better be if you want to be a low-cost producer - then pick a breed of bulls that is unrelated to your cows, or use hybrid or composite bulls.

* Second, you need to need to sort out the breeders you will consider as suppliers of your genetics. Why pick a breeder? Most often, you will end up buying the average of what a breeder raises. So, if you don't like a breeder's total program and direction, then don't go there to buy a bull.

You might find an outlier in a herd that doesn't match all your criteria, but it will probably breed more like herd average. And, pick more than one breeder so you can do some comparison-shopping.

* Third, look at EPDs. Start with the EPDs that most affect the traits you picked, but be careful because more is not always better. For instance, maintaining maintenance costs and reproductive efficiency with the resources of your operation might mean that selecting a bull with a breed-average milk EPD might be all that you need. In another breed, getting the same kind of production might demand a milk EPD above or below breed average.

Another example is growth. Too much growth can yield excessive carcass weights and your replacement females could eat you out of house and home. If you want to emphasize a trait, set a minimum level that's above the average for the breed, if your resources can handle it. But your best bet is to stay away from extremes.

* Fourth, get a catalog in advance of the sale. Highlight the bulls that fit your criteria for the three traits you selected. If the resulting list includes fewer than 10% of the bulls in the catalog or fewer than four times as many bulls as you want to buy, then you either picked the wrong breeder or your criteria are too strict. Loosen your criteria or pick a different breeder and start again.

* Finally, go to the sale. Spend your time just looking at the bulls on your list. Be sure to study each bull more than once - that first encounter can be deceiving.

Whatever you do, try to see the bulls at least once before they come through the ring. Eliminate bulls that have structural problems. Again, if you picked the right breeder you should not find any of these.

Try to avoid the temptation of adding bulls to your list just because they look good but don't fit your primary selection goals.

Now, with all of your homework done, relax and enjoy the auction until your bulls come through the ring.

Lee Leachman, his father James and brother Seth own and operate Leachman Cattle Co., Billings, MT. For more information about Leachman Cattle Co., call 406-254-2666; www.leachman.com.