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Herd Bull Selection


By: Joe Myers, Central Kentucky Ag Credit Board Member

Spring is just around the corner and for those of us involved in agriculture, it spawns new hope for the coming year. Spring brings life to the farm and boosts our attitude to see new growth and to have more daylight hours to accomplish our daily work. It also presents a critical time of year for decision making in agriculture. Many of our decisions are made early in the year and those decisions will have a lasting impact for our farming operations success for the remainder of the year and beyond.

For those of us involved in cow/calf operations in Kentucky, spring presents us with one of the most critical decisions we can make to directly affect the profitability of our cow herds. We have all heard the old saying that “the bull is half of the cow herd”. While the statement is very true, I would challenge it to the point of saying “the bull is half the cow herd and many times more”. The selection of a herd bull might actually affect our bottom line in beef production more than any other decision we can make for our cow herds profitability. Not only does the bull provide 50% of the genetics of a calf crop, but if producers are retaining replacement heifers sired by the same bull, those genetics will have lasting impacts for years to come.

Most herd bull prospects are marketed in Kentucky in late winter and early spring. This time of year provides beef producers with many choices to consider when acquiring a new herd bull.  My family has been involved in the purebred cattle business since the early 1960’s and have marketed bulls every year since. I have witnessed many producers sort through our bulls and make their decisions based on what they perceived as the best bull to fit their cow herd and their production goals. Over the years the selection process has advanced for many producers as more information and new technology became available for them to use in the selection process.  I believe it is safe to say that most cow/calf producers in Kentucky have basically the same goals in terms of production; they want  a bull to service their cows in a timely manner, they want the calves to be born easily and they want the calves to grow rapidly until they are marketed. Although this criteria may sound simple, I believe it is of upmost importance that a producer use all the current tools available to help fine tune the selection process for a herd bull. By using all the current information and technology available, a producer should be equipped to find the best fit for his cow herd that will have the greatest impact on his herds profitability.
Getting Started
The starting point for herd bull selection is to correctly analyze the cow herd that the bull will be used on. What breed or breeds make up the cow herd? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the cow herd? What type of management will be applied in the production process? Are replacement heifers being retained? When is the desired calving season and when and where will the calves be marketed? All are questions that should be answered before the first bull is ever chosen.

There are many tools available for beef producers to utilize in order to select the correct bull for their operation. Many bulls are selected from the simple approach of visual appraisal. While this is the foundation for the selection process, we must remember that there is a genetic component to the selection process that can drastically add to the predictability of how a bull performs in a herd. Utilizing visual appraisal, the pedigree or blood lines, actual performance records, EPD’s and DNA markers can all help a producer fine tune their selections to best fit the needs of their herd.

Evaluating Phenotype
Visual appraisal or evaluating the phenotype of the bull is first and foremost in the selection process.  I would encourage producers to develop a consistent process in evaluating an animal. By using the same process and consistent selection criteria one can prevent being distracted by a certain part of the bull and forgetting to check all of the relevant phenotypical traits.  I personally use a format of “ground up - rear  forward”. In other words the first place to start looking at the bull is his  feet. Check for a sound, solid foot that is appropriate sized for his body mass. Make sure the toes are even in size and the edges are straight, along with the heel being deep and the pastern angle at 45 degrees is most desirable. A rolled sidewall of the hoof or long toes that are starting  to curl are undesirable and can sometimes lead to lameness as the bull gains weight with maturity. From there we move to the rear of the bull and check for testicle size and shape.  A bulls testicles should be age and breed appropriate in size and most bull suppliers can provide a scrotal circumference measurement from a Breeding Soundness Exam performed by a veterinarian.  Most yearling bulls testicles range in size from 34 cm to 42 cm. There can be fertile bulls outside of this range, but trying to stay in the normal range can reduce risks. Keep in mind that larger is not always better and can sometimes be a sign of injury or swelling. The breeding soundness exam can provide insight to the bulls ability to settle your cows in a timely fashion. Once the feet and testicles are evaluated we look from the rear of the bull forward. I prefer to see a bull that is wide based and has adequate muscle shape in his rear quarter. How wide the bull tracks is a great indicator of how much muscle is attached to the skeleton. A wide based, thick quartered bull with a wide top and bold turn to the rib cage indicates internal capacity and muscle dimension throughout the bull.

When viewing a bull from the side profile we want to see length of body and depth to the fore rib and flank. A long bodied, deep sided bull with adequate muscle and rib shape tend to be high performers and can add pounds to a calf crop. Remember body length and muscle add pounds quickly to beef animals. The side view of the bull also allows us to evaluate his strength of top and straightness of lines.  It is desirable to see a  straight topped bull with a long level hip and strong rear leg. The underline of the bull should be long as well with a tight sheath that is close to the body cavity and not distended.  The same applies to the brisket and dewlap so that the throat, brisket and neck region appears trim. It is preferred to not have any waste in these areas. As we move forward in viewing the bull we want to see how the bulls shoulder ties to the center portion of the bull and into his neck area. This should be a smooth transition from rear to front. Some very masculine bulls have a bold, pronounced shoulder especially in older bulls but it is desirable for the shoulder to blend into the rest of the body. We want to see a wide chest floor and front legs that that also have appropriate width as they touch the ground. A wide skeleton with adequate muscle composition and length of body is the core of the animal and contains the most mass and body weight. The bulls skeletal structure should be balanced and should distribute the core body weight evenly to all four legs and all eight toes.

When evenly distributed one should see the bull move freely and easily and have a long, fluid stride without effort or restriction. This free movement allows the bull to mingle among cows without restraint and should therefore do a better job of seeking out cows in estrus for breeding. Continuing forward in evaluating we last look at the head and neck of the bull. It is desirable to see plenty of neck extension with the proper balance to head and neck carriage. This is critical to the balance, structure and movement of the bull. It is not desirable for the bull to be low headed nor   to carry his head too high as both are signs of other structural issues.   We are looking for balance and when the head is not carried in a normal position it tends to show up in other parts of the skeleton including the spine which can in turn have a detrimental effect on the length of stride of a bull. Remember all parts of the skeleton are connected so when one portion is slightly off it can have an effect in other parts of the body. Last but not least we look at the head of the bull. We want a bull to look masculine and show signs of breed character, however the head of the  bull should also be appropriate in size and balanced to the rest of the animal. When evaluating an animal it is also easy to notice the temperament or disposition of that animal.  As one moves closer to the  bull his reaction is important to notice. He should remain still or walk away at a slow, natural pace. A bull that raises his head, moves quickly away or has a touchy flight zone may need to be examined closer to determine if  he does have a disposition issue or if he is just unsettled to have a new person in the pen with him.

Performance Records
Once a complete visual evaluation is complete it is important to   study the bulls individual performance records. It is good to check his  actual birth weight, weaning weight and yearling weight. A bulls individual performance is important but also should be compared against the contemporary group that he was raised and developed with. Many bull suppliers submit their on-farm data to their respective breed associations and can provide you with adjusted weights and ratios for each bull and  each trait to analyze. Many bull suppliers can also provide average daily gain (ADG) and weight per day of age (WDA) to help with your selections. If available, I prefer to view the bulls mother and any other progeny she may have produced on the farm as well as look at her production record,  calving interval and her birth weight and weaning weight ratios.  Good   bulls are produced from good cows therefore the maternal side of the equation is very important to selecting a bull especially if you plan to retain daughters of the bull in your herd.

Expected Progeny Differences
Once the phenotype and individual performance has been evaluated one should add in the genetic component to the selection process. Many commercial producers are not familiar with purebred pedigrees and current trends in the purebred business therefore many times they are at a disadvantage of selecting a bull from pedigree alone. This is where the commercial producer can rely on data that is formulated from the  breed association to help them with their selections. EPDs (Expected Progeny Differences) are the best tool available in the beef cattle business to help us predict the genetic value of a purebred bull and to make genetic improvement in our herds.  EPDs are a collection of data from the individual and his ancestors that supply a numerical system for producers  to analyze multiple traits to help them fine tune their selections for their herd.  Most breed associations have data collected on thousands of head  of cattle in their data base. Keep in mind the larger the population of the breed usually means a larger collection of data. The data sets are collected from cattle breeders all across the U.S. that submit their herd records and data to the association. The more records that are submitted from a particular line of cattle, the more the accuracy of the data builds and therefore the more predictable the non parent animal becomes.  Some EPDs are breed specific but most of the economic traits and indexes are calculated by nearly all breeds of cattle. Keep in mind that EPDs are specific to their breed and are not to be compared across breeds.  The most common EPDs calculated by breed associations are Calving Ease, Birth Weight, Weaning Weight, Yearling Weight, Milk, Heifer Pregnancy, Scrotal Circumference, Marbling and Ribeye and many breeds have some type of index for quick reference for $ Weaned Value and $ End Product Value.

When studying the EPDs of a particular bull it is important to study the whole EPD profile and to place particular emphasis on the traits that you need the most improvement in your herd.  For example if a  commercial producer is selecting a bull to breed to virgin heifers, the emphasis would need placed on calving ease and birth weight. The goal being to have more calves born unassisted and at a birth weight that fits  the calving season environment.  Keep in mind that more or a higher EPD is not always better for any given trait. Again, it is all about maintaining a balance that fits your needs for your particular herd. Most traits have a point of diminishing return. For instance if a cattle producer selected for lower birth weight for multiple generations in his breeding program he may get to the point where gestation length is shortened, birth weight becomes too small and the calves are born at a disadvantage from a weight, strength and vigor standpoint. This point of diminishing return does not need to be reached in any trait. When making selections utilizing EPDs a producer is simply putting some degree of emphasis on the traits that will help him to improve the genetic makeup of his cow herd without taking away from other traits that the cow herd has built in. It has been proven  that genetic improvement can be obtained through genetic selection  by the use of reliable EPDs. Multiple trait selection through EPDs can improve several traits in a cow herd simultaneously. This is good news to most producers that study their lesson and apply the correct amount of selection pressure to various traits. In short, the cow herd becomes more profitable every generation that good selection decisions are  made.

DNA technology has been utilized in the beef cattle business for the past several years. It has been introduced into multiple breeds of cattle since 2011 and is now one of the fastest growing trends in helping producers to identify genetics that can improve their herds. Not only can DNA help predict the genetic capability of an animal but it can also identify certain genetic defects and allows breeders to make more accurate selections from very young non parent animals. Most breed associations have a panel of tests available for their producers to choose from. A breeder simply submits a blood or hair sample from an animal to their respective breed association and chooses the panel of tests to be ran at a central lab. The results are received in a percentile ranking of each trait within that breed. By the use of genomics the breed association uses the results of the DNA profile to enhance the EPD profile of an animal for each particular trait. The end result is a genomic enhanced EPD profile that provides more insight to the animals genetic capability. This in turn results in a higher accuracy EPD prediction at a much younger age. This relatively new technology in the beef cattle business helps in the bull selection process by increasing the amount of accuracy of an EPD. When selecting a bull it is good to check if the bull has a genomic enhanced EPD  profile.
If so, the EPD prediction will be printed with a higher accuracy  rating.

Genetic Suppliers
One of the closest allies a commercial beef producer can have is his seedstock supplier. Most purebred breeders that market bulls to the commercial sector are very willing to help a producer with their bull selections. First and foremost the purebred breeder should have quality cattle, and have integrity within the business. A trustworthy supplier of genetics can help a commercial producer fine tune their bull selections to help drive profit for the commercial operation. This may require several conversations and a visit to the commercial producers farm to view his cattle and operation. Not only can they help with genetic selections but also management of the bulls when not in service. Most purebred breeders are up to date on current genetics and have used them in their own herds. They have witnessed the results of certain pedigrees and bloodlines and can accurately predict how they will perform. This knowledge can help short cut the selection process and remove trial and error situations. It is also important to work with a genetic supplier that provides a guarantee for the bulls they are selling. It is comforting to know that once a bull is purchased that if something does go wrong in the breeding pasture (injury, death, low fertility etc.) that you will not be left without a bull.  Many purebred bull suppliers provide a written guarantee  for a certain period of time. Many times if a bull does not perform they will provide you with a comparable replacement bull or allow a credit toward toward the purchase of another bull. Always make sure that you have a breeding guarantee and that the bull has had a breeding soundness exam from a veterinarian. There is nothing worse than turning a bull out and finding out four months later that he did not service your cows well.

With each year there is more information available and more technological advances in agriculture and especially in the beef cattle industry. The beef business is quickly becoming a data driven business. We have learned to quantify traits and to predict an animals performance at a very early age. All of which are very useful to add efficiency and profitability to our cow herds. While data allows us to make better breeding decisions and more specific genetic selections it is important to remember to still evaluate the animal and to apply common sense selection criteria to those traits that are not measurable. Visual appraisal still needs to be applied and individual performance data should still be utilized in conjunction with EPDs and DNA predictors. Its all about balance! Utilize what is available, but use it with a common sense approach that works in harmony with the environment we live in. It is my hope that the information provided can help in the herd bull selection process for cattle producers in our area.

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