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Why the "best bull" might not be the best for you

Beef bull - what's best for you? Courtesy of Noble Research Institute
The best bull at the sale may not be the best one for you. He may have the best EPDs in the offering and may cost too much. Or he may have EPDs that emphasize a genetic direction different from the one you have envisioned for your operation. So, do your homework beforehand, and then cast an eye on the bulls that have the numbers you want, to make sure they have the structure and conformation you need.
Buying the “best bull” may not be the best fit for your ranch. Here’s why.

A bull purchase requires a great deal of thought and effort. This decision will affect ranch economics for years — as long as that bull’s genetics are represented in the herd.

If replacements are kept from a particular sire, this influence could extend beyond his own lifetime. It is essential to invest the time needed to make numerous decisions before writing the check for a new bull.

Below is an outline of the process you will want to go through before selecting a bull. Start early, in order to give yourself enough time to work through the process.

1. Define your ranch goals and how the new bull will help to meet them.

It is difficult for a bull to excel in every trait, and those few that do are too costly for the average commercial cattle producer to buy and use for natural service. Thus, consider how the bull will be used: as a terminal or a maternal sire?

Most producers who have herds with fewer than 100 head should concentrate on a terminal operation and plan on buying replacement bulls. Once you have decided how the bull will be used, pick the breed you will use. Then find the individual within the breed that meets your goals.

2. After you have decided what bull breed you will use, do your homework before going to the seller’s ranch.

Identify the reputable breeders in your region from whom you might purchase a bull. Request all data and expected progeny differences (EPDs) of the bulls. Develop a spreadsheet to sort the EPD data from each bull.

Determine which bulls you should look at in person. I call this process the “judging class on paper.” Consider the individual actual weights, but do not let them alone dictate your final decision. EPDs are more reliable than individual values, as management can have a dramatic impact on individual data.

Finally, check to ensure realistic prices are set on the value of the bulls you will consider. Going through this process will give you a short list of bulls to phenotypically consider once you arrive on-site.

3. Go in person to evaluate the bulls physically.

Only consider the bulls on your short list. Do not deviate from the hard work that you have done before the sale day. Be extremely critical, and do not allow for deformities or structurally incorrect bulls.

When judging the bull physically, start at the hooves and legs, then work your way up to the rest of the body. The bull should be sound and have good angles at the fetlock, hocks, shoulder and hip. A bull that has structurally incorrect legs (post-legged, sickle-hocked, etc.) will not last long in the herd and will put those genetics into any replacement heifer you keep out of him.

Move the bull around, and make him walk out to ensure he has a smooth, long stride and is not lame. Evaluate him from all angles: front, back and sides. This part is especially difficult with video auctions; because unfortunately, most sale videos are short and they only provide the side perspective.

Find the bull that has the most body capacity and is balanced. Likewise, disposition should be evaluated to ensure the bull will be amicable when you handle him.

Much planning and preparation should go into the purchase of a new bull. When possible, make a planned decision as to when the bull exits your program, and start the replacement search early. Prior planning will result in a better bull purchase decision that you will not regret in the future.

Wells is a Noble Research Institute livestock consultant. Reach him at rwells@noble.org.

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