Trial By Fire

Some claim forage-fed bull tests are a better indicator of on-the-job breeding performance.Gain tests of 120-150 days on high-energy feeds have long been a seedstock producer's barometer of bull quality. Such tests grow young bulls fast, make them look better for sale, and illustrate the bulls' genetic ability as feed converters and to sire calves that do well in the feedlot.In the past decade, however,

Some claim forage-fed bull tests are a better indicator of on-the-job breeding performance.

Gain tests of 120-150 days on high-energy feeds have long been a seedstock producer's barometer of bull quality. Such tests grow young bulls fast, make them look better for sale, and illustrate the bulls' genetic ability as feed converters and to sire calves that do well in the feedlot.

In the past decade, however, some stockmen have begun to find fault with this system. The reasons:

* Overfat young bulls that are infertile (too much fat deposited in the scrotum interferes with sperm production and viability);

* Unsoundness (feet and leg problems from too much weight too soon on immature bones and joints, and founder due to high grain diets);

* A lack of stamina during breeding season. Many young bulls coming off feed tests "fall apart" when they're forced to rough it in the real world.

* Some question the wisdom of striving for genetics that create larger animals with fastest gain on grain. This runs counter, they say, to the focus of building economical and profitable cow herds that raise good calves and breed back quickly on the forages available without expensive grain supplements.

A Slow Evolution Because of these concerns, some bull tests have modified their feeding programs. In addition, a small but growing number of seedstock producers are raising bulls on forage alone. These breeders feel such bulls will perform better for their customers if developed under more natural conditions.

Joe Gotti, an animal science professor at Stephen F. Austin State University, Nacogdoches, TX, agrees. Gotti runs a 15-year-old forage test. The facility grows out 80-100 bulls each year, all consigned by breeders. The test puts January-March bull calves on forage for a year beginning the third week in October. The bulls winter on small grain pastures (oats, rye and ryegrass). In summer, they graze hybrid Bermuda grasses and hybrid millet grasses.

The forage bull test is open to all breeds but most enrollees are Simmental, Gotti says. Daily gain averages 2 lbs./day. While these bulls don't grow as fast as grain-fed bulls, they eventually get just as big. And, while forage tests take longer, they are as economical as grain tests, he adds.

Gotti says research that tracked forage test bulls after sale found bulls stayed in their breeding programs longer than grain-fed bulls. "They are bought by ranchers who use them under a wide variety of conditions. Buyers like them because they're ready to go to work and stay sound longer," Gotti says.

Forage tests demonstrate that bulls don't have to be raised on grain for development or testing. With the knowledge that too much fat can damage a young bull's fertility and future soundness, even some performance gain tests are cooling down rations, not pushing bulls as fast, and striving for more moderate gains and better results on breeding soundness exams (BSE).

A wise bull buyer will look as closely at how a bull is grown and fed as at EPDs (expected progeny differences), sire summaries and all the other information useful in making selections, Gotti says.

Ready For Work Doc and Connie Hatfield helped pioneer this type of breeding and feeding program at their High Desert Ranch in Oregon. The Hatfields were breeding high-performance cattle in Montana 32 years ago with Charolais-Shorthorn crosses. By the mid-1970s they changed focus from "big" to "fault-free" and began creating a Red Angus-Hereford-Tarentaise composite. The Hatfields moved to the Oregon desert where the cattle could work on their own in a natural environment without so much intensive labor, fossil fuel and fertilizer input.

"It's not the ranch's job to produce what the cow needs to perform. It's the cow's job to perform on what the ranch can best provide," Doc explains.

Kit Pharo, a Cheyenne Wells, CO, breeder, credits the Hatfields with inspiring him to develop a similar type of efficient cow herd. Pharo raises Angus, Red Angus and composites (Angus-Hereford-Tarentaise), intensively grazing on rotated pastures with very little harvested roughage. His philosophy is low input costs and fertile, efficient cattle.

Pharo and wife Deanna began raising their own bulls 12 years ago when they couldn't find the bulls they wanted. Pharo now has a niche market producing seedstock for others who recognize the value of efficient and fertile cattle.

He calves in April and May so cows can be on grass instead of hay. Weaned bull calves are left on pasture. In November, some go on a 100-day feed test with a little grain (to sell as yearlings); the youngest go on a forage test (all grass, no grain).

The forage-raised calves are roughed through winter, then put on grass. They grow well that next summer, Pharo reports, then they're roughed through the next winter for sale as two-year olds. The Colorado producer says these older forage-tested bulls are more mature and able to handle a heavier workload. "Since they've never been confined to a pen or fed a high-concentrate ration, they're healthier with much better feet and legs," he says.

The bulls he sells as yearlings get minimal grain in a grass/hay ration designed for a 3-lb./day average gain. Pushing young bulls any harder negatively affects overall soundness and fertility, he believes.

"We end our feed test at least 40 days before our bull sale in April to allow time to reduce grain consumption to zero and have the bulls ready to go to work," Pharo says. "Our bulls must perform under conditions their daughters must work in. Fat bulls don't adjust and lose weight.

"Our bulls don't carry as much bloom and flesh, but they do fine," Pharo says. "Our yearling bulls, just barely yearlings, may weigh only 900 to 1,000 pounds, but people appreciate that they've been backed off grain and can go right to work."

Pharo says most seedstock producers gain test on grain instead of grass because most bulls are sold as yearlings. Bulls strictly forage tested, he says, aren't big enough to use until they're close to two years old. "Most seedstockers aren't willing to invest the time required to forage test their bulls," Pharo says.

But foraging ability is extremely important to maternal cattle, he adds. His cattle are on grass year round with a little protein supplement before calving. Maternal bulls, he says, should not be tested in a feedlot situation.

A Canadian Experience Dylan Biggs, a Canadian seedstock producer from Alberta, believes the concept of grass-tested genetics is gaining acceptance. Producers, he says, are increasingly appreciating the value of testing cattle under the conditions in which they're expected to perform.

"Few cow herds spend their producing years in a feedlot," Biggs says. "Maternal seedstock genetics should be tested for their ability to perform on grass, not grain. A forage test separates the men from the boys."

Biggs and wife Colleen raise Red Angus, black Angus and composite cattle. They started with a very fertile commercial herd of Simmental, Gelbvieh and Braunvieh but decided birthweights were too high for their harsh country.

"Most seedstock producers focus too much on weaning weight. They don't make genetic selections relative to total cost of production. We emphasize forage do-ability, fertility and longevity. If you're raising replacement females, that's what's important," he says.

When Biggs began looking at breeds reputed for good maternal qualities, he couldn't find a seedstock producer raising bulls any differently than those raising sires for "terminal cross" programs. It didn't make any sense to him to select maternal genetics in a feedlot environment.

"We decided to select our genetics differently and start raising our kind of bulls, not only for ourselves but for sale to others. We want bulls that can genetically improve our customers' cattle, so we raise ours under the same conditions - even harsher - than the cows must work in," he says.

Biggs says his cow herd must be fertile and efficient, breeding in 41 days. Calves are weaned early, on pasture, and the bull calves are roughed through winter on straight hay, no grain, often gaining only 31/44 lbs./day through winter. They'll bloom and grow swiftly on grass the next summer, however. The first of May they go on a pasture gain test for 120 days.

"Our bulls weigh 650 to 750 pounds going to grass after being roughed through winter, but average daily gain on grass is over 3 pounds a day, depending on the year. In a dry year it might be just over 2 pounds a day. Some gain 411/42 pounds just on grass," says Biggs.

Customer feedback, he adds, has been good. "We've sent bulls to some pretty tough country in southern Wyoming, Colorado, northern and western Alberta. Customers tell us these bulls never fall apart and sire very fertile daughters."

Since he started using herd sires from his grass test program, Biggs says the highest percentage of breedback on his first calvers was from heifers sired by bulls out of their own program.

"I don't contend that bulls finished on grass test are any better genetically. We just know more about what they can do. When we have 170 bull calves rough through the winter, the good ones really stand out. It's tougher to determine the best doers in a grain test because the difference isn't as clear," he says.

To find out about forage bull tests in your area, contact your area beef specialist.