Month: December 2018

Bull Selection Guide

By Austin Black   |   01/23/2017

Sale season is just around the corner. For bull buyers, it can be a stressful couple of months. Looking at sale books, walking through pens and sitting ringside is time-consuming. Planning ahead can ease the stress and help make the selection process a little easier. Following are five steps that will help bull buyers pick their next herd sire.

1. Establish your needs
One of the greatest challenges bull buyers face is deciding what they need in a bull. Some bulls excel in carcass traits and yearling weight. Others sire great replacement heifers, and there’s always bulls advertised for their calving ease and low birth weight. However, not every bull is the right choice for every operation. Travis Meteer, University of Illinois beef cattle specialist, said producers should align their bull selection criteria with their herd goals.

This starts with identifying their desired markets.

“One of the best parts about the cattle industry is the different ways producers achieve their goals,” Meteer said. Many commercial operations sell calves at weaning, though some retain ownership in the feedyard. Other producers focus on raising replacement heifers. Some finish cattle themselves and sell freezer beef. Each of these markets requires a different set of traits. Knowing the desired market helps producers focus on bulls that excel in these areas.

Traits are often classified as terminal or maternal. Terminal traits focus on carcass, marbling and yearling weight. Maternal traits cater more toward birth weight, weaning weight, milk and mature cow size. Producers should know if bulls are classified as having terminal or maternal traits.

2. Have a budget
It’s easy to go to a sale and get carried away bidding on a favorite lot. Part of the selection process includes finding a bull that’s affordable. Producers know that bull prices fluctuate according to the market. The standard rule of thumb of how much to spend on a bull is twice the price of a fat steer. Meteer said in an average bull sale, the average price will often be comparable to this formula.

There are always high-dollar lots that go above this price point. Some producers have markets that offer a premium on cattle sold. They may sell bred heifers in special sales, feed calves in a branded beef program or market through value-added sales. Any of these market channels can offer premiums that justify spending more money on a good bull.

“If you can make a 10¢ premium on calves, selling 100 head at 500 pounds with a 10¢ premium is an extra $5,000,” Meteer said.

Even if producers don’t have special markets, a bull that excels in traits that benefit their operation is valuable. He could impact a herd for the next five to 20 years in some cases.

“If you find a bull that has the traits you’re looking for — buy him. Buy a bull that adds value to your calves and your cow herd,” he said.

3. Look at phenotypes
Some bulls look better on paper than they do in real life. Producers should make sure the bull has the conformation traits necessary to do the job.

“First and foremost, a bull needs to function,” Meteer said. The bull’s job is to breed as many cows as possible in a limited amount of time. This requires him to be structurally sound, have adequate condition and a strong libido.

Producers should pay attention to hoof health and shape, testicle size and leg movement. This will show if the bull is able to cover ground and breed the number of cows expected. Docility is important, too, especially if labor or facilities aren’t readily available.

Meteer said most seedstock producers screen bulls for these traits before selling. It’s important to take note of any potential issues and compare bulls.

“Buying bulls that are raised in similar conditions to your farm is preferred,” he said. “You can buy someone else’s genetics, but you can’t buy their management.”

4. Compare the numbers
Producers have several genetic and scientific tools to help with bull selection. The most common data measurement buyers use are expected progeny differences (EPDs). These numbers predict how a bull’s offspring will perform compared to his counterparts. There are several EPDs producers can use, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Meteer said it’s important to know which EPDs relate to a producer’s needs.

The most common EPDs that producers look at are calving ease (CE), birth weight (BW), weaning weight (WW), yearling weight (YW) and milk (MILK).

“The emphasis I always make to producers is to understand what those EPDs are,” Meteer said. Producers sometimes get confused and assume CE and BW go hand-in-hand.

“Birth weight is an indicator for calving ease, but you don’t get paid for light-birth-weight calves,” he said. BW EPDs aren’t as important as if the bull will service cows.

“When selecting bulls for use on mature cows, a middle-of-the-road calving-ease EPD may be sufficient and allow for emphasis on other traits,” he said.

If producers sell calves at weaning or keep replacement heifers, they should focus on calving ease, weaning weight and female fertility. EPDs for heifer pregnancy and stayability help measure that trait.

“If you retain ownership in your cattle through the feedlot and market to the packer, then yearling weight and carcass traits become more relevant to your bottom line,” Meteer said.

Using a dollar value index ($Value) helps compare bulls using these types of scenarios. They measure the economic impact of traits and help producers compare several traits together. The two most common indexes in the Angus breed are the weaned calf value ($W) index and the beef value ($B) index.

“[$W is] an index that is designed for cattlemen that primarily sell calves at weaning,” Meteer said. This index measures birth weight, weaning weight, milk and mature cow size. $W is considered a maternal index.

$B measures beef value and is a terminal index. Meteer said it’s important producers understand that distinction.

“It’s not an all-encompassing selection index,” he said. “It’s a great tool for cattlemen that are not keeping replacements. This index will increase profitability of cattle in the feedlot and on the grid,” he said.

For commercial cattlemen, sometimes it’s easier to note how a bull ranks in each EPD vs. studying the number itself. A bull in the top 25% or higher of his breed often excels in the respective trait. While it depends on the producer’s goals and environment, a bull with this ranking may be one to consider. Producers should also compare bulls within their ranks. For multi-breed comparison, producers can use adjustment factors from the Beef Improvement Federation (BIF). This allows equal measurement between breeds for commercial bull buyers.

The key to finding bulls with good EPDs is to look at the accuracy. Because young bulls haven’t sired any calves, there is minimal data to support the EPDs. Thus, numbers have a low accuracy. The more offspring a bull produces, the more data is collected and the more accurate his EPDs become.

Rather than waiting for years of data or taking a chance on a young bull’s performance, producers can use genomic-enhanced EPDs.

“Genomic-enhanced EPDs use DNA information as an additional source of data, along with the known pedigree, and the available performance and progeny information, to calculate the EPD values,” said Alison Van Eenennaam, University of California cooperative extension specialist.

By using DNA samples of the bull, scientists can determine which genes he inherited. This helps determine what areas he will improve with genetics. The result is increased accuracy of EPDs, especially on younger bulls. It hastens the time needed to get accurate numbers. Genomic-enhanced EPDs provide an accuracy that equals seven to 24 progeny test records.

“This gives bull customers added assurance that the true genetic merit of a young bull is not going to deviate too far from his EPDs. It’s a way to reduce risk associated with the purchase of a young sire,” Van Eenennaam said.

5. Find a reputable source
Do research on the operation selling the bull. It’s important for buyers to be comfortable with the seller and trust they’re getting a good bull. “I encourage bull buyers to develop a good working relationship with bull suppliers,” Meteer said. This gives an opportunity to learn about the management and background of the bull. Meteer said producers should know about herd health programs and nutrition. The latter is important as it dictates how bulls will respond to vaccinations and continued development.

“I suggest producers require a breeding soundness exam (sometimes referred to as a BSE),” Meteer said. Most bull suppliers do it as a routine, but it’s always important to make sure. He also suggested a quarantine period for new bulls. The selling process can be stressful on animals. Afterward, they need time to fight off potential sickness. This also protects the resident herd from any new pathogens the bull might carry.

“A minimum of two weeks will allow time for potential pathogens to break without exposing your herd,” Meteer said.

Find a good source, set your budget and buy the bull that will work best for you.

Editor’s Note:Austin Black is a freelance writer from Nevada, Mo.

Beef Cattle Seedstock - news, features, articles and disease information for the beef industry

Seedstock cattle are breeding cattle typically registered with a breed association. They have documented pedigrees and estimates of genetic merit, such as expected progeny differences, says this Mississippi State University Extension Service report.

Seedstock Cattle Versus Commercial Cattle

Seedstock operations are considered genetic suppliers, and genetic improvement is often a key focus of a seedstock cattle operation. Seedstock operators are also called breeders.

Commercial cattle are usually not registered animals, may be crossbred, and may or may not be offered as breeding herd replacements.

Commercial cattle can include purebred animals eligible for breed association registration but that are used as commercial cattle where registrations are not maintained or pursued. These cattle are often referred to as grade animals.

Seedstock Marketing Approach

Marketing seedstock cattle differs greatly from marketing commercial cattle. There are differences in products, product values, price fluctuations, target audiences (customers), marketing flexibility, and amounts of seller influence on price between the two types of marketing. Opportunities exist to add value to cattle and cattle products for both seedstock suppliers and their commercial customers.

Marketable products for seedstock producers include purebred or registered bulls, cows, heifers, semen, and embryos as value-added beef cattle genetics. A breeding animal’s base value depends on its salvage value. A breeding animal’s value above slaughter value is based on its ability to produce live calves. The overall quality of those calves can impact the value of a breeding animal’s being marketed as a replacement. Cow-calf producers affect the marketability of their calves when selecting breeding stock.

A quality product is something worth marketing. Each breeder has the decision to produce cattle to meet own desires and preferences, to produce cattle to meet the desires of potential buyers, or to produce cattle that satisfy both conditions. Perceptions of “quality” differ among beef industry participants. Individual seedstock suppliers and the rest of the industry benefit from breeder commitment to a quality product.

While cattle of all qualities can be sold, carefully consider the quality of cattle to offer. Marketing few quality animals and selling many cull animals can damage a breeder’s reputation. Promoting poor quality products only further contributes to a poor seedstock supplier reputation. Reputation is essential in marketing the entire program. Produce cattle worth marketing. Then focus on marketing a quality product for operational profitability.

Marketing effectiveness is measured by profitability and customer satisfaction. A common goal of successful beef cattle operators is to produce profitable cattle. Profitability should be achieved by both buyer and seller.

When making marketing decisions, know cost of production and breakeven prices. Be aware of the operation’s product value and how well it will perform or be valued by other industry segments. Understand current prices and trends. Seedstock operations must sell at higher than breakeven prices to realize profits. Beef cattle breeders must successfully market their cattle to remain in business.

Promotion is the act of furthering the acceptance and sale of merchandise through advertising and publicity. Investment in promotional efforts is an important part of the marketing process. Creating ranch logos and business cards is an important first step in promoting seedstock cattle. Electronic advertising of seedstock cattle is now common. Many seedstock operations maintain ranch websites. Current contact information and production offerings provide website visitors with information to pursue cattle purchases.

Some ranches distribute periodic electronic or printed newsletters to prospective customers. Advertisements in breed association, state cattlemen’s association, or other industry publications can be an effective means of reaching potential customers. Hosting field days or producer tours at the ranch is another chance to promote the operation’s seedstock.

Customer Identification and Satisfaction

In the marketing plan, identify potential customers, assess the competition, point out product uniqueness, and evaluate ranch resources to cover production costs and marketing budgets. Marketing program development involves knowing who has purchased cattle during the last three years that might be interested in the same quality of animals the ranch offers. Recognize the wants, needs, and desires of potential customers. Learn the location of potential customers. Analysis of Mississippi Beef Cattle Improvement Association bull sale buyers shows that while bulls often sold into states surrounding Mississippi each sale, the majority of bull buyers

The registered livestock business is a people business. The role of a seedstock salesperson is “to satisfy the customer.” Seedstock producers should

  • Listen to learn their customer’s needs.
  • Inquire about the prospective customer’s breeding and management programs.
  • Visit customer operations when possible.
  • Learn the customer’s herd needs and price range.
  • Match bulls and replacement females accordingly.
  • Help the customer with breeding and marketing goals after the sale.
  • Provide buyer services and programs:
    • cattle hauling
    • breeding guarantees
    • calf buy-back or placement programs resided within 200 miles of the sale location.

Information for Marketing Purposes

Many cattle buyers desire relevant information on seedstock cattle and are willing to pay more for this added value. An increasing percentage of seedstock customers insist on certain pieces of information, such as expected progeny differences on prospective herd sires. Information needed for seedstock marketing purposes includes but is not limited to the following:

  • Cattle identification/registration number
  • Pedigree/breed composition
  • Birth date
  • Weaning date
  • Performance information
    • birth weight, weaning weight, age of dam, yearling weight, adjusted weights and ratios
    • ultrasound body composition scan results
      • ribeye area
      • intramuscular fat percentage
      • backfat thickness
      • rump fat
  • Expected progeny differences
  • Management practices
    • Creep feeding
    • Nutrition
    • Weaning/preconditioning
    • Herd health program
      • vaccinations
      • internal and external parasite control
  • Breeding soundness evaluation
    • physical exam
    • scrotal circumference
    • semen motility and morphology
  • Pregnancy determination results
    • rectal palpation
    • ultrasound
  • Artificial insemination breeding and bull exposure dates
    • registration numbers of sires to which

Seedstock Marketing Alternatives

Seedstock suppliers can choose from a variety of marketing methods. Understand the pros and cons for each marketing alternative for the specific operation. Evaluate different marketing alternatives, considering ranch marketing goals and resources. Marketing is an ongoing effort, not an occasional event. Determine how various marketing methods might contribute to a year-round marketing program. Use a combination of marketing alternatives when appropriate.

Private Treaty Sales

Private treaty sales are direct sales from seedstock suppliers to customers. Overhead costs are generally lowest with private treaty sales compared with other marketing methods. Spending money on advertising is still warranted in many cases, though.

Developing customer relationships that elevate the reputation of the operation and result in new and repeat buyers is a primary focus of private treaty sales efforts. Offering quality cattle is important in achieving this. Private treaty purchases can develop into lasting marketing relationships when the seller provides a desirable product and associated customer service to result in a repeat buyer. Some breeders also try to entice volume buyers. Volume discounts, customer service, and a large cattle offering providing more selection opportunities can attract volume sales.

A primary drawback of private treaty sales is the time needed to be successful. Private treaty purchases let buyers interact with sellers individually. The buyer can visit the seller’s ranch and view the operation while asking the seller questions about individual head of cattle and the ranch management program. Seedstock operations need to have someone available and willing to visit with prospective customers throughout the year and often on short notice.

Private treaty sales require excellent knowledge of the cattle offering and current cattle markets. Know current market conditions, the overall quality of the cattle being offered, and the recent sale history of similar genetics in the region. The seller must be able to price cattle to visitors and then close the deal on sales. There is more room for haggling with a private treaty purchase than with many other marketing alternatives. This is both an opportunity and a risk for the buyer and seller.

Sellers must be accessible to prospective buyers. Willingness to answer and return phone calls, respond to e-mail messages, and host visitors at the ranch is needed. Work with customers to determine their needs and match cattle that best fit their programs. Visits to customer operations can be useful in assisting customers in finding the appropriate cattle. Some customers also request production and marketing advice from seedstock suppliers.

The seller develops a reputation (good or bad) depending on the experiences of potential and actual buyers. Cattle purchased private treaty are often farm-fresh with less disease exposure than commingled cattle. Special arrangements can sometimes be made for later delivery, volume discounts, sight unseen satisfaction guarantees, and many other marketing possibilities. Discuss sale terms and conditions, and make certain all parties understand them in detail to avoid future confusion or related problems.

Open House Sales

A seedstock operator who decides to host an open house places cattle on display for designated designated dates and invites potential buyers to visit during this time. This marketing method allows a large volume of cattle to be sold at once but requires less time showing cattle to potential customers compared with private treaty sales.

Sellers can set minimum prices on cattle and sell only cattle that receive bids at or above minimum prices. This protects the sellers from situations where bidding competition is lower than expected or desired. The seller can retain ownership of some cattle for sale at a later date, if needed, while selling other cattle if desired prices are offered.

Effective advertising and a good operation reputation contribute to the success of open house sales. Prepare cattle to be well presented for this event. Make sure the site of the open house is also well presented to create a good impression on prospective customers. Cattle at an open house may be displayed by price range. Customers may also be provided with a list of prices for individual cattle lots. Bidding on cattle may be allowed until a set time in a silent auction format, or cattle may be offered at set prices on a first-come, first-served basis. Marketing middle and bottom end cattle is often the most difficult part of open house sales.

Consignment Sales

Consignment sales involve multiple cattle owners’ consigning cattle to each sale. Many breeders who do not have the herd numbers, facilities, or interest in putting on a production sale participate in consignment sales instead. Sale costs are divided among consignors.

Professional sale management typically handles sale logistics. Screening cattle is common before acceptance of consignments to a sale. The Mississippi Beef Cattle Improvement Association bull sales are examples of consignment sales. Breed association field representatives and reputable sale managers are good contacts for learning more about specific consignment sales.

Consignment sales are usually arranged by professionals. While many sale managers do a good job for clients, do not assume that all sale management acts professionally and effectively. Wide variations exist in sale management abilities, willingness to accommodate client and customer requests, communication efforts, marketing effectiveness, and follow through. Similarly, sale management fees vary significantly.

Inquire with previous clients about their experiences with specific sale management. Visit with sale management about their fees and procedures before consigning cattle to a sale.

The potential to reach new customers and further advertise seedstock is an advantage to consignment sale participation. Selecting quality cattle for these sales can help a breeder develop a good reputation. These sales provide breeders with opportunities to expand their market areas and can increase private treaty sales. Producers may want to participate in local, regional, and even national consignment sales before hosting a production sale. Consignment sales promote breeders, individual cattle, and breeds. These sales can provide price benchmarks and help establish values for private treaty cattle.

Consignment sales allow buyers to compare cattle from multiple operations at once. Because each consignor’s cattle are compared to other breeders’ cattle, cattle must be of sufficient quality and well displayed to be competitive. Depending
on the sale, quality and consistency can vary. Learn about what types of cattle have sold well in a particular consignment sale in the past. This helps in selecting the right cattle for the sale.

Be aware of consignment deadlines and check-in times to the sale site. Keep the sale manager’s phone number handy in case of a delay in hauling cattle to the sale site. Pay consignment or nomination fees on time, and submit required paperwork, including nomination forms or registration certificates as requested.

Many sales require evidence of passed breeding soundness evaluations, pregnancy determinations by licensed veterinarians, vaccination records, or test results or herd certification for diseases such as Brucellosis. Plan far enough in advance to schedule necessary veterinary work and to condition cattle properly for a sale.

Production Sales

Production sales offer the production of one or more ranches for purchase. These types of sales may be located at the ranch or another livestock marketing facility. They are often held on a regularly scheduled annual date. The Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station Livestock Production Sale is an example of a production sale. Both seedstock and commercial cattle are usually marketed at this annual sale.

As with private treaty sales, encouraging farm visits from and making advance contacts with the prospective customers to a production sale are a good use of time. Both private treaty sales and production sales allow buyers to see the total ranch program. Consider not selling cattle private treaty before a production sale. This could reduce the quality and quantity of the sale offering if cattle are picked over in advance of a sale. Instead, work to ensure that current private treaty customers feel comfortable with purchasing cattle in an auction setting.

For a production sale to be successful, an adequate number of cattle lots are needed to attract buyers and reduce per lot sales cost. Target a minimum of 40 to 50 lots per sale. When trying to achieve an acceptable number of lots, do not include inferior cattle to increase the sale offering. These cattle may detract from the sale offering, negatively impact breeder reputation, and command less than desirable prices.

Production sales offer both breeder control and breeder risk. The breeder typically controls all sale arrangements. Professional sale management may be retained, but the breeder should approve important aspects of the sale, including the catalog.

A well-run sale results from effective breeder and sale management planning and cooperation. Cattle do not compete with those of other breeders unless invited to participate in the sales. However, breeders marketing through production sales risk not attracting enough buyers to meet the expected sale price average. All or most ranch marketing occurs at one event. Weather can impact buyer turnout. If a sale is unsuccessful, an entire season or year of production is affected.

Internet/Satellite Auctions

Internet and satellite sales feature video of cattle lots over designated websites or satellite channels. Professional sale services are usually required to put on one of these sales. Video presentations are developed by sale management in advance of the sales. High quality video clips and careful editing are essential for achieving a desirable production presentation over Internet or satellite. Production and consignment sales can be presented via Internet or satellite sale service. Bidding normally occurs online for Internet sales and by phone for satellite sales.

Internet and satellite sales are good forms of seedstock advertisement. Many interested persons watch these types of sales even if not interested in purchasing cattle at the particular sale. These individuals may develop good impressions of operations represented in Internet or satellite sales and then purchase cattle from these ranches later.

Internet and satellite auctions offer prospective buyers the convenience of not having to attend a sale in person and instead bidding from a remote location. This eliminates or reduces buyer travel expense and time off from work. Weather conditions are not likely to impact buyer participation. Downsides to Internet and satellite auctions include a lack of comfort among potential cattle buyers with bidding and possibilities for technical difficulties.


Effective marketing is essential to profitability for beef cattle seedstock suppliers. Many marketing methods can work for seedstock marketing. Develop an individual marketing program, including product development, promotion, and customer service that best fits the specific operation. Continually evaluate and adapt seedstock marketing programs as products, marketing resources, and markets change. For more information on beef cattle seedstock marketing, contact an office of the Mississippi State University Extension Service.

April 2009

BeefTalk: Use the Numbers When Bull Buying

Kris Ringwall, NDSU Extension Service

December 11, 2017 12:04 PM

The future is now: the bull-buying season.

The future is in the numbers. The future requires knowledge, so study hard.

For me, bull-buying season means bull-buying workshops where I can meet with small groups of producers to look at numbers, the expected progeny differences (EPDs). EPDs have been around a long time, but the utilization of EPDs is still an ongoing process as more producers annually incorporate EPDs into bull selection.

Interestingly, the extent to which EPDs are utilized on individual operations varies widely. However, no better selection tool is available that will help a beef operation meet future goals.

Just as with buying equipment, the spec sheet informs potential buyers what is underneath the exterior metal, and EPDs inform potential buyers what is under the hide. The tires need to be checked and the feet and legs need to be checked so you purchase the desired specs.

Bulls are the tools of the trade, enabling the cow-calf producer to modify the industry. EPDs can guide the process, yet EPDs are complex, so don’t be afraid to seek a better understanding of the numbers.

Bulls and next year’s crop seed have a lot in common as well. Bulls are to beef production what seed is to crop production. Crop producers engage seedstock growers regarding information on new varieties, which come with an extensive amount of data. When is the last time a crop producer went out and took a picture of a field of grain and decided that would be the variety to grow?

OK, sorry, that was not called for, but some truth is in the statement. Selecting bulls only by visual appearance, just like selecting crop varieties by visual appearance, means bypassing the data (information) that provide the knowledge (power) to effect change within a beef operation. Just like crops, bulls carry individual genes that are sought after and actually determine the value of the bull. The numbers tell the story, not the view.

All the bull workshops start out with a question: Do you like what you see? If you stand by the fence and look at your calves, do you like what you see? Is the view good? The real question is how to maintain or tweak what is good.

Interestingly, data from the Cow Herd Appraisal Performance Software (CHAPS), through the North Dakota State University Extension Service and North Dakota Beef Cattle Improvement Association (NDBCIA), suggest that with most performance traits, threshold values seem to exist that commercial beef producers can attain for relative performance within the herd, including growth, reproduction and livability. Assuming CHAPS producers are similar to other beef producers, they simply need to better understand the numbers to adequately maintain or tweak their current cow-calf enterprise.


Enter the bull. The bulls impact production and are the tools of the trade to meet the specifications of a demanding consumer and help the cow-calf producer sustain the cow-calf herd through the selection of replacements. The message for today’s cattle producer: Understanding value and balance is more important than the perceived, ever-desired increase in cattle performance. It’s what’s inside beef that counts.

Historically, we run races, and we believed that biggest is best. What happens when all of the cattle are big? As the beef cattle industry continues to mature, bull selection shifts from a simpler straight race to a more complex maze. As the race ends, we enter the maze, a maze that will drive bull selection.

The hard work starts now. Future success will be a balancing act now, weighing inputs and costs against potential additional improvement. Thus the need for EPDs and bull selection. If puzzled, seek some advice, attend some workshops and ask for help for the questions that do not seem to have answers.

The goal in the bull workshops is connectivity, connecting what one sees to the previously purchased bulls. The bulls carry the genes, which make up 50 percent of a calf. The sire of the cow makes up 25 percent of the calf and the sire of the mother of the cow makes up 12.5 percent of the calf. In simple terms, the last three bulls have furnished 87.5 percent of the genes in the most recent calf crop.

The same could be said of the cow side of the pedigree; however, the cow does not have the opportunity to produce copious numbers of calves, so data is more limited. And data – that is, the numbers – are the point of this discussion.

So begin by finding registration numbers of recently purchased bulls, look up their current EPD values for the traits of interest and write them down. Once the numbers are written, data are emerging.

An average EPD calculation for the traits of interest will develop a benchmark. The benchmark relates to the calves in the pen. Modification of the benchmark is sire selection.

May you find all your ear tags.

Sorting Out the Bull

February 2015

Selecting a bull today can be an overwhelming task for many cow-calf producers. Photo courtesy of Aaron Berger.

The winter and spring bull sale season is well underway. For many cow-calf producers this is when catalogs are studied and sales are attended, with the focus being on the purchase of their next herd sires. The purchase of a bull is a significant investment and represents the genetic future of the calves and in many cases replacement heifers that will go into the cowherd. The following are thoughts on a process that producers can use when planning the purchase of their next sire.

What do you want your cowherd and the calves you produce to do? What genetics will do that?

Clearly identifying goals for what cattle are expected to do and the traits and characteristics that most impact profitability for the cow-calf enterprise is a foundational first step. Are calves sold at weaning, as yearlings, or is ownership retained through until harvest? What do the purchasers of your calves want? Can you produce what they want and have a functional female if replacements are retained? What is an optimum target given the production system cows are expected to operate under? These “big picture” questions should be answered prior to the selection and purchase of a bull.

Where is my cowherd at genetically?

“Wherever you are at, that is where you are.” Randy Hunter, DVM and stocker/yearling operator from Wheatland, Wyoming uses this phrase when teaching cattle handling skills to help people recognize everyone is at a different place in their ability. Once you know where you are, you can identify a plan to move toward where you want to go. This phrase applies well to thinking about the genetics of the cowherd. What is the genetic makeup of the cowherd currently? Are you pleased with where you are? What traits or characteristics would you like to see change? What is the target for where you want to end up? How much change is needed to reach an optimum level given your resources?

Sorting out the bull breeder

Selecting the breeder and breeding program of your next bull is more important than the choosing of the bull himself. The following are characteristics in no particular order that need to be considered when deciding who will be your genetic provider.

  1. Honesty and Integrity
  2. Customer Service
  3. Genetic Program and Focus
  4. Bull Development Plan
  5. Value Added Opportunities

Sorting through all the information

Selecting a bull today can be an overwhelming task for many cow-calf producers. Bull sale catalogs are full of information, including actual animal performance, ratios, Expected Progeny Differences (EPDs), gene testing, economic indexes, ultrasound measurements, etc. There are also individual breeders who utilize their own scoring system for characteristics such as disposition and udder soundness of a bull’s dam. Having access to all this information is great. However, trying to sort through and discern what these data mean and which information is relevant to what you want can be a bit like trying to get a drink out of a fire hose! What you want is there, but you can find yourself getting smacked in the face with more than you wanted when you go to get it.

Know and understand what the numbers mean

The first priority is to know and understand EPDs. Research has shown EPDs are a tremendous and valuable tool for giving an indication of what a bull’s true breeding value is in terms of the genetics he will pass on to his calves. Understanding what the numbers mean and which ones are relevant for the traits which you are selecting for is important. Matt Spangler, University of Nebraska–Lincoln Extension Beef Genetics Specialist has put together a NebGuide titled “EPD Basics and Definitions” that explains what these traits mean and how they can be used to compare animals within a breed to one another. In most cases, EPDs are not comparable across breeds. An exception to this is Red Angus and Simmental EPDs which are a multi-breed EPD and are calculated in the same way.

Economic indexes are the second set of numbers to understand. Matt Spangler defines economic indexes as “A collection of EPDs weighted by their economic value such that traits with greater impact on production goals have a larger economic weight associated with them.” Understanding how different economic indexes are calculated for the breed you are evaluating can help you to know if they should be used as a tool for selection.

The third set of numbers to grasp and evaluate is an individual’s own records and performance against those of his contemporaries. These indicate how a bull did in his own right. While worth looking at and evaluating, they are secondary to EPDs for identifying a bull’s true breeding value.

Identify the bulls that meet your “numbers” criteria

Sorting through the bulls on paper and identifying those that meet your criteria is the next step. Plan to do this well in advance of the bull sale so you give yourself adequate time. The more stringent the criteria and the more values you include, the fewer bulls you will have to pick from.

Visually appraise bulls for structural soundness and phenotype

While a bull may look good on paper, when you actually see him, he may not be the type and kind that you want. Remember that this bull’s purpose in life is to get cows pregnant. That means he has to be able to move and cover cows.

Get the breeder’s opinion

A solid seed stock supplier should be a tremendous resource for you in selecting your next sire. Communicate to them what you want and ask what bulls they recommend. See if the bulls you have identified are ones they believe will meet your goals.

Set a budget and give yourself options

Bull sales can be fast moving events. Know ahead of time what you are willing to spend. Identify your options in terms of bulls you will consider. If the bulls you want quickly blow by your limit, you want to have evaluated if there are others in the offering that still meet your criteria.


Selecting your next herd sires is an important event. Being well prepared can help to ensure that the bull you pick takes your herd genetically the direction that you want to go. An excellent resource that further discusses preparing to purchase your next herd sire is the “Rancher’s Guide to Profit”. This set of videos prepared by the Red Angus Association is available at their website.

Aaron Berger
Nebraska Extension Educator

How to do EPD accurate sire selection

You can combine information into a single index to help rank sires and aid in sire selection.

Mar 12, 2018

By Dennis Fennewald

Sire selection for many producers seems fairly simple. Pick a bull that has an acceptable disposition and a low actual birth weight, will settle cycling cows in a short period (less than 45 days), is relatively “pretty,” and can be purchased as cheaply as possible.

While each of these characteristics can and do contribute to profit, there is a more accurate method. Let’s assume our goal is to make the most profit and we have two components:

1) Cows need to produce a marketable calf, profitably.

2) They must do so for many years.

Let’s explore some of the data needed and how we can combine all of this information into a single number, an index, to rank sires and aid in sire selection.

First we need the cost of feeding the cows. This is largely due to two factors: 1) mature size, adjusted to the same body condition score and 2) cost of milk. Although we would prefer mature weights (see graph of Angus mature weights compared with yearling weights), we can use yearling weights to predict mature weights as these have a high correlation (.76). We know the rule of thumb is for females to weigh about 65% of their mature weight at breeding and 85% at calving.

It is also important to understand the “old” breed characteristics do not apply and that continental breeds are no longer the largest.

Beef cows are not milked, but milk production is estimated from weaning weights of their progeny. The statistics used to obtain this information has been validated with multiple research projects, which show we can accurately group cows into different levels of milk production. Now we know the demand for energy by the cow in weight and milk and can calculate the cost of energy to maintain that cow. As an example, the American Angus Association values feed energy at $.095 per MCal NEm (megacalorie for net energy maintenance).

Figure income

Now that we have some of the costs, income can be determined at weaning or yearling time, as well as a finished carcass when selling on the rail. We can multiply these weights by a price (with any necessary slide) to get gross income. If we don’t have actual carcass data, we can estimate carcass weights from yearling weights, and use ultrasound data to estimate intramuscular fat, ribeye area and back fat. There is a limitation to using ultrasound, but many of the heaviest-used bulls will also have actual data from progeny.

Carcass weight is very important, but it is correlated to a large mature cow size. Thus, much of the benefit of a larger carcass weight is largely offset by having to maintain a larger cow.

Marbling can be very important and experts use historical data as well as trends to predict the benefit of increasing the percentage of Choice and Prime carcasses, as well as branded beef programs.

Differences in yield grade typically play a more minor role. Going back to the American Angus Association example, the index calculates the days on feed at 170 days. This is not optimum for all cattle but is probably optimum for most cattle.

There is one more major piece of information: Longevity.

Breed associations use the term “stayability,” which is defined as the probability of a bull’s daughter to have a calf at the age of six given she had a calf at age two. The age of six is the estimated general age at which a cow has “paid back” all the expenses of the development cost of a heifer into a productive cow. This would be based on the sale of her fifth calf.

Some breed associations have a stayability EPD, such as Red Angus, Simmental, Gelbvieh, Limousin and Salers. Producers in these breeds must document each cow in the herd from the age of 2 to 6. Researchers know that the highest percentage of the females fail to rebreed after their first calf with the second most fall-out after the second calf. Thus, researchers don’t have to wait until the daughters are six years old to add information to the prediction.

There is a lot of variation within breeds for fertility. For example, the top 5% of the Red Angus breed has a stayability EPD of +15 and the bottom 5% of the Red Angus breed has a stayability EPD of +5. Let’s assume 60% of your females are still in production at age six. We would expect 65% of daughters sired by the top 5% of the Red Angus breed to still be in production, with only 55% of the daughters sired by the bottom 5% of the Red Angus breed. This is HUGE as 50% of the variation of a maternal index is based on stayability.


Now the index

It is possible to calculate profit at the ranch or at the feedlot/processor. It is also possible to calculate profit of the entire system. As you can imagine, sires are not equal in their ability to deliver profit. Some might do well at the ranch but not as well at the feedlot/processor and vice versa. The differences determine how these sires rank, which is their index.

Indexes are robust. Even as economic and production assumptions change, the net effect on the index is minimal, meaning the bulls generally rank the same. So now it is possible to rank the sires on their ability to deliver profit.

Some producers might want to select only bulls that rank in the top 1% for an index. This is not possible for everybody unless they can buy semen. So, some producers will buy bulls that rank lower, which is fine. Producers may want to avoid bulls that are “trait losers.” These bulls fall outside of an acceptable level of milk, growth, marbling and so forth.

Don’t forget to check out their disposition, hair coat and structure, as these can’t be fully incorporated into the index.

The conclusion is that sire selection is an art and a science. The good news is a selection index (the science) does a great job of giving appropriate weight to each EPD and accurately ranks sires for a specified outcome.

Two limitations to consider

There are two major caveats about this method of EPD selection that need to be discussed.

First is genotype-by-environment interactions (GxE). Sires may not rank the same in every environment for every trait. We might imagine some sires do well on fescue or at high altitude while others do not. This is not accounted for in the current EPDs and could change the ranking of sires for certain traits. Traits low in heritability, such as fertility, probably suffer more from GxE compared with growth and carcass traits. Thus, the stayability EPD and any index in which it plays a major role, could change the ranking of sires. This change in ranking could be a little or a lot.

Second, the indexes are based on cattle in the breed association database. The majority of cattle in the US will end up in a feedlot, so the indexes are geared toward this outcome. But this likely means the indexes are inappropriate for some other production models. Grass-based systems that market grass-fed cattle should use the indexes with caution and actually pay close attention to matching cattle to the environment by capping milk production and mature size at a lower level.

In Australia, the genetic evaluation is performed by a system called The cow bell curve. They do calculate an index for cattle destined for the feed lot (Heavy Grain Index) or grass-finished (Heavy Grass Index) and may provide a model to follow.

Grass versus grain problem

The bad news is there is more work to do for further accuracy.

There is a need for an index focused on grass-based production because the research is very limited in this regard. There is also a need to address GxE in beef cattle production. While this would be a positive move to increase the accuracy of sire selection, it also makes it more complicated for breed associations and producers. Breed associations would need to educate producers on the new indexes and how to select the indexes that fit their goals.

Dennis Fennewald, is an animal science professor at Tennessee Tech University in Cookeville, Tennessee. He can be reached at

BOLT power

Bull sale season is just around the corner, and soon, mailboxes will be full of catalogs for upcoming sales hosted by seedstock producers across the country.

For commercial cattlemen, the challenge is sorting through the wealth of information provided and making accurate comparisons from one breeding program to the next. This becomes even more difficult if comparing and contrasting an Angus bull to a Limousin bull, for example, because expected progeny differences (EPDs) vary for each breed.

To address this issue, multiple beef breed associations have come together to work with International Genetics Solutions (IGS) to update and implement a new software system called BOLT to replace the Cornell EPD evaluation system, and ultimately create an EPD system that is more accurate and comparable from breed to breed.

The breed partners include the American Chianina Association, American Gelbvieh Association, American Shorthorn Association, American Simmental Association, Canadian Angus Association, Canadian Gelbvieh Association, Canadian Limousin Association, Canadian Shorthorn Association, Canadian Simmental Association, North American Limousin Foundation and the Red Angus Association of America.

“IGS represents an unprecedented collaboration between multiple beef breed association with a common goal to improve the National Cattle Evaluation and provide commercial cattle producers with the tools needed to make informed selection decisions,” said Matt Spangler, University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) beef genetics specialist.

In the single-step process, the Multi-breed Genetic Evaluation powered by BOLT looks at the DNA marker genotypes that are directly incorporated into the genetic evaluation, as well as the phenotypes, performance data and the pedigree. As a result, the genomic data impacts not only the genotyped animal but also non-genotyped relatives, essentially improving the accuracy for all.

According to IGS, “The Multi-breed Genetic Evaluation powered by BOLT uses a subset of weighted markers based on a research study performed by Drs. Mahdi Saatchi and Dorian Garrick, while they were scientists at Iowa State University. Drs. Saatchi and Garrick first used the 50,000 markers to determine a subset of weighted markers that are highly associated with economically relevant traits in beef cattle with consistent effects across breeds.

“Because the IGS evaluation is for multiple breeds, it is important to remove markers with inconsistent effects or no effects in different breeds. The Saatchi and Garrick research also found that utilizing genotypes on animals of multiple breeds consistently increased the accuracy of prediction within a particular breed when compared to limiting DNA utilization to only animals of a particular breed.”

Bruce Golden, is the CEO and president of California-based company Theta Solutions — the company that developed this new series of genetic prediction models and the BOLT software. Following his 19-year career as an animal breeding professor at Colorado State University, Golden is now putting his animal breeding and genetics knowledge to work to elevate and streamline the way ranchers evaluate and understand the performance potential of their cattle.

“BOLT allows these collaborating breed associations to own a relatively low-cost computer with our software systems and models on it, and it automatically dumps data into it and runs the evaluations and produces EPDs,” said Golden. “No longer do breeders have to wait to get their EPDs updated twice each year; now they have the results with a week, and that’s a big feature of this technology. This work through IGS allows these breed associations to improve the accuracy and predictability of their EPDs, and because they are pooling their data, it enhances the information and allows for easy comparisons of animals across breeds.”

The American Simmental Association (ASA) was the first of the IGS partners to roll out the new and improved EPDs using the BOLT software.

“We’ve been working with this new system for several months now, and the transition has been pretty smooth for two reasons; first, it’s thanks to incredible effort and work that went into testing things out ahead of time, and second, our breeders have been on board with this from the beginning,” said Chip Kemp, ASA director and IGS commercial and industry operations. “Our membership, as well as the IGS population, have known this evolution was a necessary step to staying on the cutting edge, and this has allowed producers to really improve the accuracy and predictability of our EPDs.”

One major difference many breeders have noticed is a distinct shift in some of the EPDs as outliers and extremes have more accurately aligned and the EPDs have compressed.

“EPDs are more accurate, but the numbers appear to be lower, so seedstock producers will need to reconcile with the fact that accuracy for traits have declined even though they are more accurate than before” said Spangler. “With the change to a single-step system, the EPDs have shifted, and it’s going to take some time for seedstock and commercial producers to retrain their minds to understand the new parameters. As bulls move to new rankings, producers need to be cognizant of the adjusted thresholds and percentile rankings, and I encourage folks to peruse the breed association websites to learn breed specific details about these changes.”

The IGS partners aren’t the only ones working to improve the accuracy of their EPDs. In mid-2017, the American Angus Association (AAA) began to incorporate genomic information into EPDs using the single-step approach. The AAA also updated the underlying statistical models to estimate EPDs.

In addition, the American Hereford Association (AHA) also relies on the BOLT software, and released its new evaluation system in December 2017. At the same time, AHA also updated its economic indices to include more Economically Relevant Traits, as well as new economic assumptions.

Throughout 2018, the IGS partners have slowly began to release the new EPDs derived from the updated BOLT software, with more to come. Most recently, the American Gelbvieh Association released its BOLT-powered EPDs, and Kemp anticipates new breed associations will join the collaboration in the near future.

“All of the partners are really invested in this and have been instrumental in helping this effort move forward,” said Kemp. “The biggest piece of this has been the willingness of all of these breed associations to share the best information possible with commercial producers. No single breed is the answer, but responsible, thoughtful crossbreeding adds merit — not only in carcass traits, but also in cow longevity, durability and functionality. It’s amazing to see these breed associations work together to tell this story.”

“It’s really pulling back the curtain and allows these seedstock producers to be totally transparent and straightforward with their commercial producers,” added Spangler. “Commercial producers have been marketed at and repeatedly told what they need, but now this switches the model around, so they can evaluate from breed to breed and make decisions for themselves. It takes a remarkable level of humility to work together that collaboratively, but that’s what has made the BOLT method really matter.”

Now when producers evaluate sale catalogs, they can now directly compare the EPDs of a Simmental to a Gelbvieh to a Limousin with ease. Moving forward, genomic-enhanced EPDs will certainly help make meaningful genetic changes for both commercial and seedstock producers; however, Kemp urges cattlemen to keep other factors in mind as they make breeding decisions.

“Should we be leveraging DNA information as aggressively as we can?” asked Kemp. “Yes, absolutely. DNA is a sexy topic right now, but if we don’t tie that information to phenotypes and actual physical measures, we risk disconnecting these traits over time. Resist the temptation to select solely on the DNA data. Now, more than ever, we need to really look at the whole picture. And now with these BOLT-powered EPDs, producers can ignore the propaganda and selling points and closely examine the bulls and their data to make the best decisions for the operations.”

“There is still so much untapped potential here,” added Golden. “We are in the first step where we are getting the genomic data up to date, but now it’s up to producers to use the information in a sensible way to make the right decisions that maximize progress while managing risk.”

For more information on the single-step genetic evaluation method, check out http://www.ebeef.orgor


  1. What are the breeding objectives for the herd?
  2. Is the breeder recording with a recognized performance recording service provider (e.g. Breedplan, CSU)?
  3. Can the breeder provide evidence that genetic progress is being made in the traits in which you are interested i.e. by showing you a favourable genetic trends table?
  4. What is the average genetic merit of the breeder’s herd in relation to the breed average?
  5. Can the breeder supply you with percentile band information, enabling you to rank his bulls?
  6. Can the breeder supply you with $ Indexes (EBVs for Profit), which rank bulls according to their profitability, in different production systems?
  7. From where does the breeder source the herd sires and what are their EBVs/lndexes?
  8. What are the breeder’s main criteria for sire selection?
  9. Does the breeder mate yearlings – heifers and/or bulls?
  10. What proportion of bulls are sold in relation to the number born?

For your herd to improve, the breeder’s herd must have higher genetic merit and rate of improvement than yours.