4 Tips to Study Up on Before Buying a Bull

Four considerations to make before your bull purchase. ( John Maday )

Mail boxes and email inboxes are starting to fill up with bull sale announcements and catalogs as the heart of bull sale season nears. Sifting through all the data, pedigrees and photos can be nerve-racking, but in the end finding the right sire to move genetic progress forward in your cow herd will be rewarding. Here are a few considerations to keep in mind before making the final decision on what bull to purchase:

1. Set Job Goals

Before buying new genetics it is always a good idea to establish what you’re looking for in a bull.

Setting goals is an important first step says Darrh Bullock, beef genetic specialist with University of Kentucky Extension. This would include looking for bulls that fit your end goals with the calves that will be produced.

“Do your homework in advance. You don’t want to show up at the bull sale and that be the first time you see any information on the bulls,” Bullock says.

Dan Moser, president of Angus Genetics Inc., agrees with setting goals and advises to write a “job description” for each bull you purchase.

Job goals for a bull start out simple with determining if they’ll be breeding mature cows or replacement heifers. Next, you must decide if replacement females will be kept or if all of the cattle are going to a terminal market.

How calves are marketed will also play a role in the types of bulls and traits that are targeted. For producers who plan to retain ownership there will be different emphasis placed on particular traits than those selling weaned calves.

“Having that job description written in a fairly detailed manner makes it a lot easier in terms of figuring out which traits are important, what those ranges for those traits are and which index values are valuable in finding the right bull for that job,” Moser says.

2. Consider How to Buy Genetics

While many producers will source their bulls from a traditional auction sale setting, there are a few other methods that might offer better opportunities. Buying bulls via private treaty and sourcing bull power through artificial insemination (AI) are two different methods to consider.

AI opens up a world of possibilities for sourcing genetics.

“The real benefit there is risk reduction because you’re able to use a highly proven bull through artificial insemination that you wouldn’t be able to use in natural service,” Moser says.

The accuracy of expected progeny differences (EPDs) improves by buying semen because the bull has had the prospect to breed more females. For instance, Moser says an AI sire might have hundreds or thousands of daughters, so traits like milk would be defined to a higher degree of accuracy.

However, the cost of semen will also have to be weighed with the extra labor and synchronization costs that come with breeding AI versus natural service.

Another downside for AI that Bullock says might make it less attractive is you’re taking someone else’s word for the physical confirmation.

“A lot of people want to see the bull physically in person, that’s what you give up,” Bullock says. “But in my mind you gain so much more in terms of accuracy in values and reliability to offset that.”

Private treaty on the other hand can be an excellent option to physically viewing a bull.

“At private treaty you usually get a little more personal attention,” Bullock says when comparing to an auction.

It gives commercial cattle producers a chance to better discuss goals with the seedstock operator because they are working one-on-one. There might be more time to view other cattle at the seedstock operation to see which bulls came from which cows.

Private treaty can reduce the anxiety of having to make bids on a bull and worrying if you’re staying on budget. Prices are typically set beforehand so there is up front knowledge to keep within a budget.

However, one pitfall is there may not be the entire bull battery available during private treaty, particularly if the seedstock operation sells the majority of their bulls in an auction setting.

3. Know Your Values

It can be overwhelming to comb through all of the numbers that a bull might have in their paperwork. Now, it is easier to sort through a catalog or sale sheet to find the right bull faster because of index values offered by the various breed associations combine multiple traits found in EPDs.

“The dollar values or indexes are there to make a hard job easier,” Moser says. “They combine traits weighted by their economic value.”

A producer who retains their top heifers and sells the remaining steers and heifers at weaning should consider an index like $W in the Angus breed. Moser says the value includes a number of factors like revenue from weaning weight (WW), cost from cow size, milk is factored in as both a revenue for increasing calf weight and a cost for cow maintenance. After picking several bulls with an index a buyer could then go through the particular traits they are hoping to improve in their herd from that selected bull group.

Bullock says it is important to know what traits go into the index values. “Indexes are specific to marketing and management situations. Make sure that it fits pretty close to your marketing and management situation.”

This also means that producers don’t need to chase the top bull for an overall index like $B in Angus or All-Purpose Index (API) in Simmental. Consider those job goals you have for the bull when looking at the index values.

Also, when looking at data it can be an added bonus if bulls have had a genomic test. This will increase the accuracy of the EPD traits and index values that are being selected.

4. Finding the Right Fit

After going through all the data it is a good idea to get in the pen with some bulls and see how structurally fit they are.

Both Bullock and Moser say it is important to focus on feet and legs. Many seedstock operations will have culled out the worst bulls for structure, but it still a good idea to get a look for yourself.

“We absolutely need to look for structural correctness. Good angles through the shoulder, level tops, all of those things,” Bullock says.

This ensures better longevity for the bull so they can do their job and breed cows. The traits are also moderately heritable.

“I put even more emphasis on structure when I know I’m going to keep heifers out of a bull,” Bullock says.

Picking bulls with good muscling might be a focus for a terminal herd, but might not be as needed for a herd retaining heifers to breed.

To aid in selecting structurally sound bulls, the American Angus Association has been working on a project to do hoof scoring and possibly bring the trait into EPDs. The trait is still in a research stage for EPDs among AI sires. Moser says the goal is to extend the foot trait EPD across the rest of the breed in the upcoming year.