Cow-calf producers who make a living from their cows know fertility is by far the most important economic trait. Studies have shown that reproductive traits are twice as important as growth traits, which are twice as important as carcass traits. Ironically, the mainstream beef industry has been selecting almost exclusively for growth and carcass traits for the past 40+ years – at the expense of reproduction.
During the same 40+ years, academics have told us that the heritability of fertility is very low – so low that we shouldn’t waste our time selecting for it. I’m sure that if you were able to isolate fertility from everything else, then that assumption would appear to be true. In the real world, however, nothing is isolated. In fact, just the opposite is true.
Truth be known… it is very easy to select for fertility. Fertility is more a function of fleshing ability than of anything else – and fleshing ability is more a function of low maintenance requirements than of anything else. Reproduction cannot take place until maintenance requirements have been met and cows are storing up energy reserves in the form of fat. Since fleshing ability and maintenance requirements are very heritable, fertility is also very heritable.
As members of the mainstream beef industry selected for more and more growth and for less and less back fat, they inadvertently selected for lower and lower levels of fertility. They created hard-keeping, high-maintenance cows that struggle to reproduce under what was once considered normal ranch conditions. The status quo solution to this problem was to reduce stocking rates and/or increase supplemental feeding. Instead of producing cows that fit their environment, they artificially changed the environment to fit their cows.
Quote Worth Re-Quoting –
“A wise man makes his own decisions. An ignorant man follows public opinion.” ~ Grantland Rice
Bull purchases represent a significant investment in a beef herd. Whether that investment results in a “nest egg” or a “goose egg” depends highly on a bull buyer’s preparation. Let’s discuss some basics.
Step 1: Don’t buy a new disease. While I’ve never had a producer intentionally bring a new cattle disease onto the premises, in reality this is how most new diseases enter a herd. Be sure the bull is a virgin or is tested for trichomoniasis if you live in a “trich” area. Bear in mind that trich is a devastating disease that is spreading into areas where it once was either absent or rare.
What about Johne’s disease, persistent infection with bovine viral diarrhea (BVD) and campylobacter? Ask the supplier if he’s ever had a positive diagnosis and, most importantly, get permission for your herd health veterinarian to call the seller’s veterinarian to discuss the health of the seller’s herd.
Be sure to ask specific questions about diseases you want to avoid buying. If the seller doesn’t allow this communication, I’d look elsewhere for genetics.
Step 2: Buy genetics that fit your herd goals. If you’re using bulls on virgin heifers, calving ease is a high priority. Using across-breed EPDs (Angus base), select a bull below +1 for BW EPD for a high likelihood of unassisted calvings.
For bulls to be used on cows, you should buy a bull with growth, maternal and carcass traits that fit your goals. I see many producers still looking primarily at calving ease when selecting a bull for cows. This is counterproductive as you’re likely limiting the growth of the calves and decreasing pounds sold.
As a general rule, low-birth weight EPD bulls tend to be lower in weaning and yearling EPD. Buy a bull for cows that will improve hybrid vigor (which improves health), growth and carcass.
We all want cattle that will thrive in their given environment; a calf with poor vigor at birth starts life with a huge black mark. Calves should be born quickly and stand to nurse on their own within 30 minutes. Anything less isn’t acceptable, and such calves have a greater chance of morbidity, which can be a tremendous labor issue. Ask about calf vigor before you buy.
Step 3: Quarantine for 30 days. Every farm or ranch has pathogen exposure and most animals never show clinical signs of sickness. Their immune system fights off the disease and you never even know they were exposed.
However, take that “normal” animal, stress him, and put him right in with your cows with their normal pathogen load and the new bull gets sick. Thus, 30 days of quarantine is a small price to pay for improved health.
Your herd health veterinarian will likely recommend a vaccination and parasite-control protocol during quarantine based on the bull’s health history and diseases common in your locale. Call your herd health veterinarian to get advice on these preventive health procedures.
Step 4: Are you buying for Maternal or Terminal crossing. Study the EPDs. Make sure they fit in with what you are trying to accomplish. If you are wanting to keep your Cows on the smaller side – do not breed for frame size and growth/milk. That will lead you away from your desired outcomes.
By Dr. Bob Hough, WLJ correspondent, and Kerry Halladay, WLJ editor
Imagine you want to buy a horse. But you’re a tall guy, so you want a tall horse. In your search, you find advertisements for two likely potentials. They both look like great ranch horses, but one is listed as 72 tall while the other is described as 132 tall.
If you chose based on those numbers alone, without knowing the measurement systems being used in each case, you would be short-changed if you chose the second horse because of its seemingly larger height number.
If you knew the measurement system each number was coming from—inches and centimeters, respectively—and knew how to convert those systems to make them comparable, it would be clear that the first horse is taller despite the seemingly lower number (72 in. versus 132 cm, a.k.a. 52 in.). If both horses were measured using the same system—let’s say, hands, making them 18 hands versus 13 hands—to begin with, it would make finding the taller horse even easier.
Expected progeny differences (EPDs) in the cattle world are a lot like our hypothetical tall horses problem. Most breeds’ EPDs are on different bases. An EPD basis is analogous to a measurement system; it’s the system in which their measurement numbers (i.e., EPDs) make sense. If you try to directly compare the weaning weight EPD on an Angus bull to the weaning weight EPD on a Hereford bull, for example, your success at getting a bull that meets your genetic goals will be about as successful as if you had chosen the second “tall” horse.
I have a confession. I’m not good with numbers. So, let’s talk about numbers. Selection indexes, to be exact.
Actually, Matt Spangler is going to do the talking. Spangler is a beef geneticist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and one of the speakers at a King Ranch Institute for Ranch Management lectureship on genetics recently in Denver. In addition to KRIRM, the symposium was sponsored by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and Colorado State University.
How many of you have taken up a bull sale catalog and, with expected progeny difference (EPD) thresholds in mind, circled bulls you’re interested in and crossed out the bulls that don’t meet one or more of your baseline EPD levels? Probably everybody.
But, Spangler asks, how many good bulls did you pass by because they didn’t meet one of your EPD thresholds, but excelled in others? The guilty need not come forth.
That’s where an index comes in. Indexes are easy to use and interpret — and most importantly, are economically driven. Traits get more weight if they’re larger drivers of profit.
Indexes inherently account for the genetic relationships among traits as well. That’s good. It can also be very bad if you use the wrong index.
“If you think about growth traits — mature cow weight, birth weight, weaning weight, yearling weight Avoid wrecks in breeding season — they’re obviously not independent. These early traits are not independent of mature cow weight,” Spangler says. “
That means if I select to increase weaning weight and I also keep back replacement females, there is a tendency over time that the heifers I’d kept back are going to be larger in terms of mature cow size,” he says. “I have now pitted revenue, weight of calf at sale or weaning, against cost, which is increasing the cow size and increasing maintenance energy requirements.”
Can you select for multiple traits? “That’s what a selection index allows us to do.”
If you’re a terminal breeder, selecting an index like the Angus $Beef or $B is exactly what you should do. “But there’s a whole lot of commercial bull buyers that don’t fit that, but they still use $B to rank bulls they buy,” Spangler says.
“And it’s inappropriate because of replacement heifers. Dollar beef will put a lot of emphasis on carcass traits, carcass weight.
And so, as a consequence, the heifers they keep back will tend to be larger at maturity.” And because it’s a growth index, it doesn’t take into account female fertility. So, as you gear up for bull sales this fall, study those indexes carefully and know what traits they take into account. ❚❚
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.
Honesty and Integrity
Genetic Program and Focus
Bull Development Plan
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.
Editor’s note: The following is part four of a four-part series that helps you to evaluate different breeding programs, which bulls are optimal for your herd, and how much they’re worth. (See part one, part two and part three).
Different traits of bulls can contribute to different impacts on the bottom line of the operation. For example, a bull with a higher calving ease EPD may contribute to more live calves. Not surprisingly, bulls with higher calving ease (or lower birth weights) sell for a higher price (Simms et al., 1997). With the large variation in bulls available, bull prices extend over a wide range from $3,000 to over $20,000 per head.
Identifying a fair price during sire selection contributes to higher efficiency in operation economics. To estimate breakeven bull price, a bull valuation calculator has been developed. The purpose is to provide a general idea of how much a bull is worth based on key farm parameters.
Bull Values – two Scenarios
The value a bull provides depends on his individual performance, the environment (ex: pasture productivity), management (cow:bull ratio) and markets (calf price). For example, large framed bulls require more feed, leading to a higher maintenance cost, but that may be offset by heavier calves at sale time.
Two scenarios were studied – a low maintenance farm versus a high maintenance farm. Table 1 shows the parameters entered for each farm. The default values in the calculator are the averages of the two scenarios.
The low maintenance farm is assumed to have a larger pasture size reducing the cow to bull ratio, multiple bulls in a field with potential for fighting as well as rough terrain contributing to reduced bull longevity, and reduced feeding costs over fewer days, resulting in lower maintenance costs. This management style is reflected in the cow herd as well with a lower weaning rate and lower weaning weights.
The high maintenance farm is assumed to have smaller breeding pastures, more labour, and more feed, which leads to a higher cow to bull ratio, greater longevity, higher weaning rates, and higher weaning weights.
Despite keeping key parameters constant like the proportion of the calf value attributed to the bull and expected calf price, there is a large variation in bull value between the two farm scenarios (Table 2).
The high maintenance farm has a breakeven bull price more than double that of the low maintenance farm. In fact, the low maintenance farm would have had a much lower breakeven price if the annual maintenance cost was similar to the high maintenance farm. However, the lower annual maintenance cost helped to offset the lower cow to bull ratio and lower weaning rate.
For the high maintenance farm, the producer can afford to pay more for a bull given the expected performance of both the bull and its offspring. The large variation in bull prices on the market reflects the different abilities of the bull to bring value to an operation. This is impacted not only by the bull but also the environment and management system used by differing operations.
Driving Factors of Bull Price
The value a bull provides is in the calves sired over a lifetime, the long-term genetic change of the herd, and salvage value at the end of a productive life. (As long-term genetic change is not readily measurable by producers, this parameter was excluded from the calculator.)
The value provided depends on:
cost factors (i.e., bull maintenance cost and death loss),
performance factors (i.e., years of service, the expected cow to bull ratio, expected weaning rate, expected weight of feeders, and proportion of the calf value attributed to the bull), and
price factors (i.e., expected price of feeders and salvage value).
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Last month I talked about culling the right cow.You should cull cows to keep your herd cleaned up and managerially efficient. This minimizes the time required for doctoring, calving problems, taking care of the wild ones and the labor requirement for a strung out calving season. It also reduces the number of animals that are hard to market. In the process, you will also have a positive effect on herd fertility, health and adaptation to your management and environment.
Bull selection can result in rapid change. However, change may not always result in progress or improvement. In fact, I will suggest that a lot of our so-called “improvement” in cattle growth rates has been more than offset by reductions in stocking rates, conception rates and herd health.
The result has been more time spent doctoring cattle, lower conception rates and/or higher feed bills, and fewer pounds produced per acre. Because the calves that are produced are bigger, they bring less per pound. Therefore, we now sell fewer pounds per acre at a lower price per pound.
We are now seeing research on this. In only one case have I seen calf weaning weights higher as cow size decreases. Usually calf weights decrease as cow size decreases, but not proportionally. So, when stocking rates are adjusted to fit cow size, enough more cows can be run that, in spite of lighter calves, more pounds are weaned per acre.
On many ranches, the number one determinant of profit is the ratio of grazed feed to fed feed. Once you have gotten over doing a lot of feeding, stocking rate becomes the number one determinant of profit; and stocking rate is determined by cow size and milking ability along with grazing and pasture management. Next comes herd fertility. Then, in a group, come marketing, cows per person ratio and herd health problems.
Therefore, let’s take all of that into consideration as we make bull selections. Here are five tips:
Cull the right cow: Why would I want to buy a bull born to a cow that I would have culled at my ranch? Go through your cull criteria and ask if the mother of “that” bull would still be in your herd. I firmly believe that, if you have reduced feeding to the bare minimum, have selected good, moderate-sized bulls and have culled cows as I described last month, you have some very good cows. Those are the kind of cows that should be mothers of bulls.
Size and milking ability: If you want cows that can graze most of the year and get pregnant early in the breeding season, and if you want to wean more pounds per acre by running more smaller cows with less milking ability, you will want to select bulls with less mature size and lower milk EPDs.
I’m sure there is room for some difference of opinion here, but to maximize pounds produced per acre and at the same time keep supplemental feed cost at a minimum, I want cows to be as small as they can be and still produce a feeder calf that will be acceptable at the market place.
I know the feeder and packer seem to want them bigger and bigger. But you need to stay in business first. There is information indicating that producers are using bulls with higher and higher EPDs for milk and for weaning and yearling weight. But actual weaning weights on the ranches have not changed in recent years. However, cow size has.
If your attempts to produce bigger and bigger calves are robbing you of conception rate and good herd health, are costing you more in feed cost and supplementation and reducing your stocking rate, you should reconsider your breeding priorities.
Heterosis: Carcass traits are quite highly heritable. Growth traits are moderately heritable. Milk is less heritable and fertility, health and longevity are considered to be the least heritable.
But, because carcass traits are highly heritable, they don’t respond much to heterosis while other traits do. The rest of the traits respond, with the more highly heritable having a smaller response and the less heritable having a greater response to heterosis. Optimum heterosis is most likely different for each situation, but I want a significant level of heterosis in every cow.
Heterosis will significantly enhance fertility and health while slightly increasing milk and growth. You can’t expect selection to do what heterosis does nor vice versa.Parenthetically, I think that some aspects of fertility—first cycle conception as a yearling and calving interval—are more highly heritable than heritability estimates would suggest.
Disposition: As an industry, we have made great progress across many breeds on disposition. I think every bull should be carefully scrutinized for disposition. It is refreshing and encouraging to see herds of cows in breeds with reputations of poor disposition that have wonderful dispositions.
Growth and carcass: Improving growth rates and carcass traits is desirable as long as the negative consequences don’t overbalance the positives. When you make sure that the bulls you purchase will produce the kinds of cows you want, you then need to move carefully and cautiously to get the desired results without undoing much of the good you have accomplished.
I think it can be done, but carefully and slowly. Genomics and heterosis, if they can become compatible, could help move growth and carcass forward faster without undoing progress in the other traits. Currently, a number of genomic tests only validate in high percentage Angus cattle. When those tests are valid across a number of breeds and crosses, much progress could be made.
Perhaps the best breeding decision a commercial producer will ever make is the choice of a seedstock provider. Find someone whose breeding objectives mirror your own, who operates in an environment similar to yours, who can help you benefit from heterosis and can understand your objectives and help you select the right bull.
P.S.—I continue to maintain that about 40% of the cows in America should be bred to terminal-cross bulls. Producers choosing that option should buy cows (not heifers) from producers who cull cows and select bulls as I have described. They should then select bulls with high growth and carcass EPDs for use on those cows—not the moderate EPDs that I have suggested in this article for those producing replacements.
Burke Teichert, a consultant on strategic planning for ranches, retired in 2010 as vice president and general manager of AgReserves, Inc. He resides in Orem, Utah. Contact him at email@example.com.
I have been following a thread on another e-mail list comparing the mothering rating of the cow that tries to attack anyone who gets close to their new-born calf as opposed to the cow that is OK with this. The consensus seems to be that the mellow cow is not as good mother as the cow that will try to eat you. I disagree with this.
Bud and I found that when you work livestock properly – that is, by using pressure/release methods instead of force and fear, the cows learn to respect but not fear you. Since they don’t feel you are a threat to them, they also don’t think you are a threat to their calf so they don’t “get on the fight” when you need to handle their new baby.
When we lived in Canada we were involved with a Beef Booster cow herd. In case you aren’t familiar, this is a composite breed. Some of the herds were rated “Maternal.” Their main function was to produce heifers to go into the cow herd, another raised “Terminal bulls” to use on the herds that would market all of their calves, etc. The man we worked for had about 100 head of cows that were designed to raise “Terminal bulls.” He wanted to change over to a “Maternal” herd so he swapped his herd with a neighbor. When these cows were delivered the neighbor also delivered a list of ear-tag numbers of cows that would kill you if you tried to handle their baby calf. The only way they could weigh and tag the calf was with a bucket loader on a tractor. A man in the bucket would get the calf, then the tractor operator would try to raise the bucket before the cow could climb in, too. We received these cows in October. We handled them quite a lot. If the feedlot shipped a pen of cattle and there was still feed in the bunks, we’d put these cows in the pen for a while to let them clean the bunk. Through the winter we tried to move their straw bed every few days to make it easier when they farmed the ground in the spring. This usually meant we had to drive the cows to the new bed a couple of times to discourage them from going back to the old one, etc. When spring came the owner was able to weigh and tag every calf with no aggression from any of the cows.
The first year we worked on the elk ranch In Texas, we didn’t see an elk calf until it was a couple of weeks old. The following year, the cow elk would bring their newborn calves with them when we drove through the pasture, scattering hay. We even had one calf born in the corral.
Bud Williams Stockmanship • Eunice Williams • 1519 E Erie Street, Apt #206
Springfield, MO 65804 • 417-719-4910 • firstname.lastname@example.org
I came across an internet article late last week entitled, “Selecting Bulls to Meet Your Goals,” or something like that. It wasn’t worth the time it took to open the link – but it did get me to thinking. I suspect most cow-calf producers have no goals. They are just doing what everyone else is doing and/or what they have always done. If you don’t have goals, you have no direction in your life or business.
Do you have business goals? I’m not talking about ideas or dreams you think about every now and then. I’m talking about real goals. If you have real goals, you are probably one in a thousand. If you have real goals, you have a HUGEcompetitive advantage over everyone else in your business. If you have real goals, you are creating your own future. If you have real goals, you are also creating a future for the next generation.
A real goal must be Specific, Measurable, Attainable and Time-Sensitive.
Specific:Goals are no place to waffle. This is no place to be vague. Vague goals produce vague results.
Measurable:Always set goals that are measurable. If they are not measurable, you will never know for sure when they have been achieved. For example, don’t set a goal to “make more money.”
Attainable:Goals must be realistic and attainable. Most people don’t set goals – so when they do, they tend to set goals that are too big to be easily attained. This creates discouraging results.
Time-Sensitive:Every goal should have a timeframe attached to it. A goal must have a deadline – a time in which you want to accomplish it.
I have achieved the best results when I break my big goals down into several (or many) smaller goals that can be easily attained in a relatively short period of time. I liken my really big goals to an elephant that must be eaten. There is no way I can eat an elephant in one sitting. However, I will eventually eat the entire elephant – one bite at a time.
If you do not have any business goals, I encourage you to set some. Start out by just setting one simple goal that should be easy to attain. Do it today! Someday is not a day of the week. I cannot think of anything that will even come close to giving you a greater return on the time invested. You will literally amaze yourself!
Let’s go back to the subject of bull selection…
Since the bulls you purchase are responsible for at least 90% of your herd improvement (or deterioration), it makes sense that bull selection can play an extremely important part in helping you meet your goals. Are you purchasing bulls that will help you achieve your business goals? Are you purchasing bulls that will increase your future success and happiness? Are you purchasing bulls with the next generation in mind?
Quote Worth Re-Quoting –
“Setting goals is the first step in turning the invisible into the visible.”~ Tony Robbins