The Prairie Star, MT 03-16-06 Doing homework is key before buying bulls

The Prairie Star, MT
Doing homework is key before buying bulls
By DONNA FARRIS, For The Prairie Star
At the same time when bull sales are at their height for the year with a huge
number of animals to select from, cattle producers are making a crucial decision
in the management of their operation as they choose which bulls to purchase.
“It's a very key decision to the whole ranch management system,” said Daryl
Strohbehn, beef cow/calf specialist for Iowa State University Extension and
the Iowa Beef Center.
The weight of the decision depends on how proactive producers are about their
herd management, said Ryon Walker of Grand Rapids, Minn., University of
Minnesota Extension regional educator and member of the Minnesota Beef
“What product do you want to produce - product meaning calves,” Walker said.
Before buying a bull, cattlemen need to understand their herd and what type of
cattle they have, as well as their own goals as a producer.
“Are you selling calves at weaning to go to a feedlot, are you trying to accomplish
a lot of carcass quality in your genetics, are you looking to produce replacement
heifers or are you selling bulls?” Walker said.
Doing a self-assessment can help a producer see genetic strengths and
weaknesses in the herd.
“That should direct you toward what type of standards you should set up for your
next bull purchase,” Strohbehn said.
Breed representatives, sale managers and cattle owners can help buyers find
bulls that meet their objectives. Buyers should consider the breeder's reputation
and credibility.
Visiting a breeder's ranch before the sale to see his herd can help a buyer decide
if he prefers one producer's genetics over another's.
Strohbehn advocates using a set of benchmark figures in comparing bulls.
Iowa's Beef Cow Business Record summary was developed to help Iowa
cow/calf producers evaluate where they are from a profitability standpoint and
benchmark themselves against other Iowa producers. The summary is a
compilation of data from all producers participating in the program.
“We try to score the herd as to whether they're average in specific areas, above
average or an excellent performing herd in certain areas. And that serves as our
guidepost to determine whether they have weaknesses or strengths in specific
areas,” Strohbehn said.
For example, a herd may have problems such as calving difficulty or lack of
carcass quality.
“We would then tailor which EPDs they'd want to look at when it comes to bull
selection,” he said.
Expected progeny differences (EPDs) are perhaps the best and most fair way of
comparing bulls and the traits they carry, Strohbehn said.
If a producer wants to sell calves at weaning, he would look at the weaning and
yearling weight EPDs of a bull. Or, if a producer wants to buy bulls to breed to
heifers, he might look for a low birthweight EPD.
“EPDs allow producers to compare bulls within the same breed based on what
the expected performance of the calves are,” Walker said.
Recently, several breeds have added carcass quality EPDs. Each breed
association publishes percentile breakdown tables for their young bulls.
“If you want to select a bull in the top 10 or 25 percent in the breed for a specific
trait, those percentile tables will give you a benchmark number to compare bulls
to in order to find out if a bull has the desirable genetics for a specific trait,”
Strohbehn said.
Doing the homework to narrow down the choice of bulls before the sale allows
time there to visually appraise other traits, such as scrotal circumference for
fertility, structural soundness and disposition, Walker said
Good disposition is a trait many buyers overlook.
“A lot of people don't want to deal with cattle that are wild or have bad
dispositions, so that's a big bonus for trying to breed good disposition into your
herd,” Walker said.
Temperament has also been linked to cattle performance in ways such as how
fast they gain, feed conversion, carcass quality and even meat tenderness,
Strohbehn said
Buyers must make sure the bull they're purchasing has had a breeding
soundness exam, or fertility testing, Walker said.
“The cost is very small compared to the results that could happen if a bull was
infertile,” he said.
Setting a budget figure that will allow producers to meet their breeding program
goals is important before making a bid. If possible, producers should figure costs
per cow in setting that budget, Walker said.
“Pay attention to what the current markets are, see where the averages are and
establish based off of what that market is some kind of price range that you're
willing to trade in. You have to set your limits,” Strohbehn said.
It's possible to purchase bulls at sale barns at what seems to be a very
reasonable or even cheap cost, Walker said. But those bulls may not have been
tested at a younger age to know their actual performance.
On the other end of the spectrum, bulls at purebred sales can be very expensive.
“You have to really watch the type of audience a sale is attracting. Some sales
cater more toward purebred breeders, which are going to pay more than
commercial buyers,” Walker said.
At the top of the cattle price cycle for the past two to three years, buyers could
probably pay more for bulls because calf prices were good. The cycle is
expected to head downward, however, Walker said.
“So, in turn, when calf prices start to go down you need to be more conservative
buying bulls. But it's always been said, never cheat the bull side of the breeding
program,” Walker said. “You will see differences in results if you spend $800 for a
bull versus $2,000 or $3,000 for a bull, if the genetics back up what the cost of
the bull is.”
On the other hand, Strohbehn said there are “sleepers” meeting a buyer's
acceptable EPDs that other cattlemen don't recognize.
“That's part of doing your homework prior to the sale,” he said. “I think you'll find
that there are going to be bulls that will meet your pricing objectives.”