Bull sale season is in full swing, and between now and late spring many producers will be looking to acquire additional bull power for the upcoming breeding season, says Scott P. Greiner, Ph.D, Extension Animal Scientist, Virginia Tech Cooperative Extension.

Bull selection is Job #1 for genetic improvement, as nearly all herd improvement over time is a direct result of genetics infused through new bulls. Consequently, selection of the right bull is paramount. Finding the right bull is a process which should be initiated long before arrival at the bull sale or opening the sale catalog. A systematic approach which identifies genetic priorities will greatly enhance the ability to find the right bull, and ultimately make the genetic progress needed within the herd. The following outline key steps for consideration.

Identify Herd Goals

Herd goals serve as the foundation for sire selection and provide guidance as to which traits have the most economic importance. Defining the production and marketing system, along with management strategies and environment (including forage and feed resources) 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?

Evaluate Herd Strengths and Weaknesses

Fundamental records are key to identifying strengths and weaknesses. Basic performance parameters such as calving percentage, weaning percentage, weaning weights, sale weights, carcass merit, feed usage, etc. are necessary to serve as the basis for assessing areas of strength and those needing attention.

Establish Selection Priorities

Concentrate 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 management. Superior genetics can be negated by improper management, which emphasizes the importance of considering the interaction of management (nutrition, health program) and genetics when specific priorities for the herd are established. As an example, higher milk production is accompanied by increased nutritional requirements. These increased nutritional requirements must be met to realize more performance. Focus on a handful of priority traits rather than attempting to change many traits simultaneously. Establishing the few traits to focus on is the key factor. It is likely that several traits may be at optimum levels already in the herd, so the priority may be to hold these constant while focusing an a few that need changed.

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 capturing the value of heterosis. 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 together impact areas such as carcass merit and post-weaning profit (Angus $Beef and Weaned Calf Value, Simmental API and TI, etc.). 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.

Establish Benchmarks

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. As an example, establishing a benchmark for milk EPD can be determined through the relationship between previous sires’ genetics for milk and the performance of his daughters in the herd.

Find Source

With the above defined, we can now begin to look at individual bulls. There are many sources of bulls that warrant consideration- test stations, production sales, and private treaty sales. Of critical importance is that the bull be from a reputable source which will stand behind their product.

Do Your Homework

The first step to doing so is to evaluate the sale catalog, performance pedigree, and data. By examination of the bull's performance record, determine which bulls meet the EPD and other specifications that have been established (and likewise eliminate those that do not meet the specifications). Be prepared to make trade-offs, as the perfect record may not be attainable. Do not be surprised or alarmed when the bulls you have highlighted appear scattered throughout the sale order. Remember to stick to the selection criteria and qualifications/specifications that have been established. All this can and should be accomplished prior to ever looking at the bulls.

Have a Look

Once the list has been narrowed to only bulls which meet the criteria, these bulls can be further evaluated and selection refined. Having a list of suitable bulls prior to arrival at the auction or farm will not only save time, but also assist in making sure the right bull for the situation is purchased. Upon narrowing the potential candidates on paper, the bulls can be evaluated for suitability of phenotypic traits and the potential candidate list shortened even further. Not all relevant traits have EPDs (examples include disposition, fleshing ability, etc.), and therefore must be evaluated visually.

Make a Sound Investment

For many cow calf producers, purchasing a new bull is a relatively infrequent occurrence. This emphasizes the importance of selecting the right bull, particularly in single sire herds. The value of the right bull cannot be underestimated. Investments in the right genetics will pay dividends both short and long-term through the influence the bull has on each calf crop as well as his daughters that are retained in the herd.

Manage the New Bull Properly

Of equal importance is the care and management of the newly acquired bull. Proper management and nutrition are essential for the bull to perform satisfactorily during the breeding season. With most new herd sires purchased as yearling bulls- management prior to, during, and after the first breeding season is particularly important. Plan ahead by acquiring a new yearling bull 60 to 90 prior to the breeding season so that ample time is available to allow for adjustment to a new environment, commingling with other bulls, and getting the bull in proper breeding body condition.