Everyone's searching for the perfect bull, but he's never been born and never will be,” says Mark Gardiner, of Gardiner Angus Ranch at Ashland, KS.

Instead, there are more than enough of the right bulls to do the right job.

Unfortunately, too many commercial producers still end up with the wrong bull for their needs. Leading seedstock suppliers say that's often due to producers putting too little emphasis on bull selection, failing to set breeding goals for their program or waiting until the last minute to find bulls.

“I see too many buyers blow into a sale and buy a bull because of his looks or because he's selling below the sale average,” says John Burbank, CEO of Seedstock Plus, based at St. Catharine, MO. “Too many buyers are getting less value for their money by buying solely on phenotype, over-emphasizing actual performance rather than the genetic prediction or buying a really good bull who's absolutely wrong for the job.”

Of course, there are plenty of astute buyers, too, those who push the envelope of genetic possibility with their knowledge and commitment. In fact, Gardiner says, “The elite commercial producers I refer to as professional cattlemen are extremely sophisticated — far more sophisticated than the average seedstock producer.”

Donnell Brown of the R.A. Brown Ranch, Throckmorton, TX, agrees.

“I see it more all the time — buyers spending more time studying the data in the sale catalog than the bulls. Our bull-buying customers realize the feed bucket isn't heritable. When the fat melts off, the genetics are what you're left with for multiple generations,” Brown explains. “The typical, profit-minded commercial cowman understands the data better than the average seedstock producer.”

That's not sour grapes, either. The sentiment is a shared observation based on more than eight decades of building and marketing bulls represented by these three men and their firms.

“Our most effective buyers are those who meet with us prior to bull season, ask questions and tell us about what they need,” Burbank says. “Such producers are planning ahead, either on their own or with a seedstock supplier. They understand they're more likely to find precisely what they need for a reasonable price when we have 1,000 bulls at the start of the season, rather than waiting until the last sale when there are 100 head.”

Where are you heading?

Of course, planning ahead suggests there's already a plan. A common mistake these folks see buyers make is in not understanding exactly what they want a particular bull to accomplish.

In both his university position and his family's seedstock business, Dan Moser, Kansas State University associate professor of animal science, explains, “There are those with a very clear job description for the bulls they need, and those who get caught up in fads.”

Consider carcass traits, for instance. If you sell calves at weaning, there's little incentive to pay extra for a bull that shines in carcass merit. Or, if you retain ownership through the feedlot, there's less reason to chase weaning growth.

“I encourage buyers to develop a job description for the bulls they need. Unless you sell every calf, you'll live with that bull's genetics for the next 10 years or more,” Moser says.

Being “interviewed” by a seedstock firm interested in building a relationship with you is a helpful way to audit the depth and breadth of your production goals.

When Brown visits with a prospective customer, he asks lots of questions: What's your environment? What's your breed makeup? What are your most likely marketing options? Do you plan to keep replacements? What environment are your cattle adapted to in terms of geography, management and breed?

Burbank asks prospects what they want to accomplish with their breeding program, and why they feel his firm's genetics can help them.

In the same vein, knowing what a bull needs to accomplish requires knowing the cow herd's capabilities. Most producers have at least a gut feel for those levels, but there are straightforward ways to assess the actual genetic trend within a commercial program.

One way is to look at the expected progeny differences (EPDs) of the bulls you've used for the past 10-15 years. Given the overwhelming genetic impact of bulls on a herd compared to cows, the average of those numbers will give you a snapshot of the genetic trend in your herd, says Bob Weaber, University of Missouri Extension beef specialist.

Moser also believes it pays to look at the current EPDs of the sires of bulls bought the last couple of years. These updated values — available through the registering breed association — are a barometer on whether the predicted genetic merit you purchased in the bull's sons should hold up.

“Compute the genetic trend of the bulls you've purchased. Is it taking you in the direction you want to go? Is it too much or too little for your environment? Carry that through in your selection decisions,” Weaber says. “Then tie it to the level of performance you see across years when management is similar.”

EPDs don't measure actual performance; they estimate the genetic component that contributes, along with environment, to ultimate performance. Thus, Weaber says you can look at the average level of calf performance in a given trait during an average year and see what average sire EPD level produced it. In other words, if your average weaning weight in a normal year is 550 lbs. and the average weaning weight EPD of the bulls is +48, then you know in your herd and environment, using bulls from that same breed, this particular EPD level supports that particular level of performance.

That's another fact of life necessary for increasing the value received for dollars spent on genetics.

“You must collect weights. If you think you have a birth weight or weaning weight problem and you're not weighing calves, how do you know?” Gardiner asks.

Incidentally, Weaber points out an easy way to get a fair assessment of mature-cow weight in your herd is simply looking at the weights of cull cows you send to town.

Catching the right ride

Once you know your breeding goals and have a feel for your herd's genetic trend, the next step is identifying genetics to move you closer to your goals, and which suppliers have those genetics. Moser points out many breed associations have online databases that enable producers to search for bulls by geographic region, specific genetic parameter, etc.

“If you find bulls in a sale catalog that fit your criteria, put those same parameters into a breed's search engine and see if similar genetics are available other places as well,” Moser suggests. Chances are they will be.

After you've identified acceptable genetic parameters, specific genetics and supplier candidates, Weaber says breed-percentile rankings can provide a time-saving sort. He explains these rankings describe where an EPD value for a specific trait places an animal within the breed. If you know the genetic profile of the supplier's herd you're considering — average EPDs — you get a first glimpse at where those EPDs place the herd within the breed.

“Maximization is not the goal, it's optimization. By getting a sense for where a breeder's herd ranks in terms of percentile, you get an idea of how likely you'll find a bull in his program that fits your parameters,” Weaber says.

Finding the right bull for the job is as much about managing risk as finding the genetics. That's one reason Burbank says, “If I was a commercial cow-calf producer, I wouldn't put myself at risk buying bulls that are available; I'd look ahead and contract them. It's a very overlooked opportunity.”

Short of that, Gardiner says, “The best thing is to use high-accuracy, progeny-proven sires through artificial insemination. If you can't do that, then use sons of those sires in natural breeding.” His family has used this strategy since 1980 to hyper-accelerate genetic progress in their herd.

It has to do with accuracy, which Moser defines as the precision of the genetic prediction. Predictions for bulls with EPDs based on only pedigree (the average of the parents' EPDs) are significantly less accurate than predictions that also include the animal's own performance compared to peers within a contemporary group. In turn, predictive values that also account for the performance of distant relatives as well as a bull's own progeny are even more accurate.

According to Weaber, once numeric accuracies are ˜0.2 to ˜0.3, they indicate the animal's own performance is included in the EPD. An accuracy of ˜0.4 and higher for growth and carcass traits indicates the EPD is also accounting for performance of the bull's progeny.

That in mind, Weaber says it's important to look at accuracy levels relative to possible change in order to build confidence ranges. He explains possible change in EPDs decreases as accuracy increases. So, the possible change associated with a particular EPD accuracy — the standard error of prediction — defines the range in which the animal's EPD is expected to fall 68% of the time.

For illustration, the possible change associated with weaning weight EPD at an accuracy level of 0.4 in the latest genetic evaluation of the Angus breed is 7.0 lbs. Thus, using a bull with that accuracy level, you'd expect the bull's true progeny difference for weaning weight to be within 7.0 lbs. of the bull's published value. And, you'd expect that to be true 68% of the time.

Weaber says producers should pay attention to possible change, especially if there's a critical performance threshold you need to avoid.

Say it's critical you use bulls above breed average for weaning weight EPD at a 68% confidence level. Using the previous Angus example, the average weaning weight EPD in the breed is currently +38 lbs. At an accuracy level of 0.4, with the associated possible change of 7.0 lbs., that means you would consider buying only bulls with a minimum weaning weight EPD of +45 because the accuracy level indicates you would expect the bull's true progeny difference to range between +38 and +52 (45 ±7.0 lbs.).

For any given level of accuracy, there are other ways to stack the odds in your favor, too.

“The size of the contemporary group in which the bull is evaluated increases prediction accuracy,” Moser says. “You know more about a bull that performs well in a large contemporary group than one compared to just a few contemporaries.”

Moser defines a “small” contemporary group as fewer than 10 head. As the number increases to 25 head and beyond, accuracy increases.

Prediction risk also decreases if a group of bulls with a similar genetic profile is added to the herd, rather than a single bull. Moser compares this to guessing cattle weights.

“A few people can do a great job of estimating the weight of an individual steer. Many more can do a great job of estimating the average weight of a pen of steers,” he says.

For the record, while some producers are convinced using half-brothers increases prediction accuracy, Moser says, “Putting groups of half brothers together won't improve genetic uniformity anymore than putting together groups of bulls with similar EPD profiles.” He lists one exception: you can increase uniformity of convenience traits and other non-measurable traits by using bulls that are more closely related.

The point is, there's no more chance of telling which roll of the genetic dice each half-brother received than there is in guessing it for less-related critters. Even full siblings are obviously different.

Lest you think all this chatter about EPDs, accuracies and percentiles takes the actual animal out of the equation, Gardiner emphasizes, “High accuracy, progeny-proven bulls don't get to that point if they have a structure or phenotype problem. Those things are a given.”

Further, Weaber points out buyers can increase the odds of selecting a bull that meets their needs by prowling suppliers' cow herds and looking at the dams of bull candidates. Along with considering their production records, you can evaluate such factors as udder quality and disposition, which don't necessarily show up on paper. But, he cautions, “You can't do it in the 20 minutes before a sale.”

Likewise, knowledge loses its punch when not applied. Buyers who select the right bulls but impulsively switch gears at the sale are sacrificing the resources they've spent in their search.

“I advise people to sort the cattle based on only those that fit their genetic parameters, then consider only those bulls. At a sale, that bull may be the first one in the ring or the last,” Gardiner says.

By comparing similar genetics in different herds, buyers also begin getting a feel for basic differences between programs.

“Buyers need to understand where a supplier's cattle fit within the breed. The last bull in one sale may have more value than the top bull in another,” Gardiner says. “The reality is a lot of seedstock suppliers provide a lot of similar genetics, so what makes the genetics at one place more valuable than those at another?”

It's everything from knowledge and expertise to service and reputation, topics the second installment of this series will explore in March BEEF.