Doug Mayo, Jackson County Extension
As the College Football season winds down there is another season that is really going strong, Bull Buying Season. All over the nation there are opportunities to purchase replacement bulls that can improve the quality and performance of your herd. Before you go shopping, however, you need to do some homework.
The first thing to consider is what do you want from a bull? A bulls job is fairly simple: breed, reproduce, work for a number of years, make genetic improvement, and provide salvage value to help purchase a replacement. As you go out to purchase a replacement bull, it is important that you keep these roles in mind to help you make the right purchasing decisions.
Breed & Reproduce
While you fully expect a bull to have the natural desire to breed, this is not always the case. Most of the bulls offered for sale at purebred ranches or bull sales are virgin bulls, so that you do not risk exposure to diseases. Libido is not something that is normally tested, since it is usually not a problem with young bulls. Even so, not every bull has the same libido, so it is a good idea to keep an eye on them once you turn them out to make sure they are willing to do the work you bought them for. Sometimes the issue is not with libido, but actual physical injury or abnormality. In the rare case that you do have a problem, reputable breeders will stand behind their product.
Another more serious issue that is not so obvious is the ability to actually reproduce or father calves. Just because you see a bull out working does not mean he is fertile. Every bull should be tested for fertility prior to purchase. A veterinarian can perform a Breeding Soundness Exams (BSE) to ensure bulls are physically healthy, and can produce both the quantity and quality of sperm to get the job down. BSE’s are normally performed on bulls prior to a sale, but if you buy direct from the ranch you may have to request it. A BSE can’t predict the future, but it can certainly ensure that a bull has the ability to settle a cow. Consider a BSE as breeding insurance. You don’t want to feed open cows all winter only to find that the bull did not do his job.
If you make the investment in a high quality bull, you want him to stay in the herd as long as possible. One of the areas that often gets overlooked is structural correctness. Figure 1 above shows the proper angle for front and rear leg set. While poor structure may have little effect on young bulls, over time as they grow older and much heavier, imperfections can cause a bull to become lame. The act of breeding puts tremendous pressure on the rear legs, and a bull with swelling and pain may not cover all of the cows in heat. Another key factor in the longevity of a bull is temperament. Many bulls are culled early due to bad temperament. Not just the ability to be handled by people, but also their interest in fighting other bulls and jumping fences. While it may be very difficult to asses behavior in just a short drive through, it is important actually walk though a group of bulls and make sure there is not an issue at a young age. In most cases bad-tempered bulls only get worse with age.
For most ranches the greatest improvement to the genetic performance of a herd comes from the bulls they purchase. In just three generations, the bulls that sire calves influence 87.5% of the genes in a calf crop. (Sire 50% + Grand Sire 25% + Great-grand Sire 12.5% = 87.5%). Since bulls contribute so much to the genetics of the herd and are normally purchased from another ranch, they are the simplest tool to use to improve the muscling and performance of your herd. While visual appraisal of physical traits like structural correctness and muscling are very important, indexes called EPD’s are the best tool to use to evaluate the potential performance of a bulls offspring.
EPD’s or Expected Progeny Differences are an estimate of the performance of future offspring of a parent, compared to progeny of other parents in the breed. Today there are numerous traits that are measured and estimated with EPD’s. The numbers can seem overwhelming the first time you really try to compare bulls. The value of EPD’s is the huge data base that allows a fair comparison with every herd within a given breed. It would be helpful if EPD’s were reset to “0” each year. That would mean an average animal would be zero and a negative number would mean below average. However, that is not considered wise marketing by the breed associations So, you as the buyer have to know the averages to be able to judge the potential of a bull. Most breed associations offer a tool to help producers sort out the sea of numbers created for each animal. Percentile tables are available to provide a guide. Figure 2 below is a partial sample of the percentile chart for non-parent Angus Bulls. The 50% line is the average for the breed, so if you look at a young Angus bull with a weaning weight EPD of 53 you can see from the table that he is actually in the top 25% of the breed. But a bull with a weaning weight EPD of 45 would be below average for the breed. This is just one trait and there are many that are measured. This is why it is really helpful to develop some target EPD’s before you start shopping. It also is helpful to view performance data first, to sort out the bulls you are interested in, before going to the sale or ranch. The main thing is to know the numbers that matter before you ever start shopping and fall in love with that beautiful, fat bull that ultimately won’t improve your herd.
If you have not been keeping up with bull prices, they have risen dramatically the past few years. The American Angus Association reported the US average sale price for Angus breeding bulls was $4,627 from October of 2011 through March of 2012. The average price at the Florida Bull Test Sale held in January was $2,858. Several bull sales in the Southeast this fall have averaged from $3,000 to $3,500 per bull. Part of the reason for the rise in price is the demand caused by the expansion of the US beef herd. Another reason is the increase in the salvage value of bulls sold at the market for slaughter. Figure 3 below shows the average prices for slaughter bulls in Alabama the week ending November 16. So you can see why a budget of $1,500 for yearling bulls or $2,000 mature bulls is no longer adequate. Bulls that will truly improve the quality of your herd are going to be much more expensive. As you cull older bulls however, you will also have more money put down on their replacements.
Where to Buy Bulls
There are a number of reputable purebred cattle breeders in the Tri-State region that sell replacement breeding bulls. There are also bull sales that offer bulls from multiple herds. Your County Agent can provide you with contact information for purebred ranches or bull sales in your area. For the 13th year, the University of Florida has evaluated the performance of breeding age bulls in the Florida Bull Test. The majority of the 93 bulls enrolled in the test will be sold at auction on Saturday, January 19, 2013. For more information on the performance of these bulls, and the upcoming sale you can go to their website: Florida Bull Test.
But no matter where you decide to go to purchase your replacement bulls, have a plan before you start. Only purchase bulls that have had a BSE to ensure fertility. Visually evaluate the bulls for muscling, correctness of structure, and temperament. Know the EPD values of your chosen breed and have a cheat sheet to help decipher the above average bulls. Be prepared to pay more than ever before for a good bull that will positively impact the performance of your herd for years to come.