BS Balancing Act... or, of Bull Shopping, Dollars, Data and DNA

Spring is almost on the horizon and many producers' minds are turning to the BS season - Bull Shopping that is.

When you start looking you'll find bulls across the entire spectrum, ranging from bulls with nothing more than "they look good", to bulls with pages and pages of data, pedigrees and a DNA profile to try and sort through.

So start a list of what you want him for. Now I know this may seem a little elementary, after all we want him to breed cows. But is this his only criteria? If that's the case than any bull with a good set of testicles, viable sperm and a delivery system could fit the bill. However, most producers are looking for a lot more - let's say a lot of proof and a little less bull, perhaps.

So is this bull just to sire the calf crop I'll market in 2012? Will everything go to market from that group? Or is your main aim to market heifers out of this bull? Or perhaps you are looking for a middle of the road bull that will let you do both? On another front, are you marketing everything as finished beef or meat in the box? All of these starts with getting the cows bred but require different sets of traits by the time we get to marketing.

They all start with a live calf, so the first set of numbers to worry about are the calving ease and birth wt. EPD's. No matter how good the performance numbers- a live calf is the beginning of it all. Table 1 shows a breakdown of selection traits related to your end market.

A healthy newborn calf with attentive mother

Figure 1. A healthy newborn calf with attentive mother.

If we look at a true Terminal situation where "they all go" it can cut down the traits we need to consider. We need a live vigorous calf, that gains well, and exhibits good muscling, capacity and over all eye appeal for the sale ring in the fall. Then we need that stocker calf to gain quickly and efficiently in the feedlot, and yield and grade well in the packing plant. I'll leave the eye-appeal and breed question to your local situations, but remember a crossbred calf is still the cheapest way to increase vigour.

Considering grow, gain and yield questions we need to turn to some of that data. Typically we have looked to the EPD's whether BIO or breed generated to compare marbling grade, gain and yield. If the amount of numbers starts to make your head spin then you may like using the BIO$ index, which attempts to roll the commercial carcass data into one easily compared number. Using this data is good and certainly proven over time to make big changes in the calf crop and the carcasses.

However, we can now have another set of data available - if we ask for it. That means asking for a genetic profile done on potential bulls. The DNA Test Panels have been expanding over the last number of years and you can find the traits broken down into Carcass Composition, Maternal and Docility categories. From the Carcass section, the DNA profile will give a rating on Tenderness, Quality Grade, Yield Grade, Ribeye Area, Fat Thickness and Marbling. Along with the Docility rating, the Avg.Daily Gain and Residual Feed Intake ratings can make big changes in cost of feeding. (The Maternal traits won't matter in this case but come along with the profile.)

Bulls in a sales ring.

Figure 2. Eye-appeal is important in the sales ring.

If you are looking for a bull to sire replacements then that Maternal Profile from the DNA test will become of great interest. Under it you will find ratings for Heifer Pregnancy Rate (fertility), Stayability (longevity) and for Maternal Calving Ease. The Docility rating as well as Residual Feed Intake (feed efficiency) ratings are also important rankings if keeping heifers. From the straight EPD's look to Calving Ease, Birth Wt, Milk, and Scrotal Circumference as important selection criteria. From a physical eye-appeal aspect, important traits include lots of capacity, and good feet and legs and easy movement. If possible a look at the bull's mother's udder can tell you a lot as well.

If your bull selection involves selling the calves as boxed meat then the tenderness and marbling profile in the DNA test probably shoot to the top of your list. Add to that the Residual Feed Intake and Docility. From the bull test angle frame score may become more important as you work to keep carcass size moderate in the resultant progeny. Functional conformation is important but the eye-appeal is less so in this case.

Bull and cow in field.

Figure 3. Bull fertility is an essential selection trait.

A main DNA profile is about $40.00 (a good investment on a purchase that is probably in the many $1000's category). Also in the DNA test a producer can ask for other extra tests on genetic abnormalities, parentage, horn condition, and coat colour as well as if the animal is negative for BVD virus. These are extra costs but in particular bull buyers should ask for a BVD test as it is only $3.50 extra and can save a lot of economic hardship in a cow herd.

So before you start into the BS or Bull Shopping decide the main sale route of the resultant progeny. This will then help you make the list up for your needs and wants in this year's purchase. You can "never have it all", so pick the main traits you want to concentrate on. However, remember single trait selection is a recipe for disaster. So make sure you balance you bull selection criteria so that 2012's fall sales leave you smiling.

Table 1. Bull trait selection related to main market'
Main Sales Breed or Feed
Test EPD's
DNA Testing - Panel Traits Conformation/Eye Appeal
Feeder Calves

Marbling

Gain

Yield

Carcass

Tenderness

Quality Grade

Yield Grade

Ribeye Area

Fat Thickness,
Marbling

Docility Rating

Avg. Daily Gain

Residual Feed Intake

BVD-Negative

Muscling

Capacity

Eye-appeal in the Sales Ring

Good Feet, Legs and Movement

Replacement Heifers

Calving Ease

Birth weight

Milk

Scrotal Circumference

Maternal

Heifer Pregnancy Rate
Stability Rate
Maternal Calving Ease

Docility Rating

Residual Feed Intake

BVD-Negative

Good Feet, Legs and Movement

Capacity

Bull's Mother's Udder

Branded or Direct Meat Sales

Marbling

Gain

Yield

Carcass

Tenderness***
Marbling***
Quality Grade
Yield Grade
Ribeye Area
Fat Thickness

Docility Rating

Avg. Daily Gain
Residual Feed Intake

BVD-Negative

Good Feet, Legs and Movement

Frame Score

*** most important traits

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