BeefTalk: Buy Bulls Based on Data Not Pictures

By Kris Ringwall, Beef Specialist

There certainly is no shortage of bull pictures. Have you ever wondered just how
many bull pictures can be printed in one magazine? A lot, and despite the added
color and enhanced graphics, bulls still look like bulls. Yes, there are some
subtle differences. To the trained eye, those differences may be notable, but
still, there seems to be more similarity than differences in many of the bulls.

We enjoy pictures, but we also should enjoy data. Bulls may be very similar in
phenotype, in other words the picture, but their genotype may have no similarity
at all. Even the color, although fairly indicative of the DNA on one chromosome,
may have no indication of what DNA is on the other chromosome. Because all
chromosomes are paired, the calves that the bull produces each will be products
of only one of the chromosomes. Therefore, black cattle certainly can sire red
calves.

In terms of the many other traits, the variation within the particular lot of
bulls can be extreme, even though all the bulls look alike. Some bulls have
high-growth DNA, others low-growth DNA. Some bulls will have DNA more likely to
produce prime to choice grade calves, while a very similar looking bull may only
produce select or low choice grade calves.

Although muscle quantity and expression may be observed in the phenotype or
picture of the bull, the ultrasound data indicating rib-eye area, often
expressed as rib-eye area per hundred pounds of live weight, certainly will tell
the same story.

The point is that true bull selection rests with understanding the data. The
action of buying bulls should be a process of sorting through the data first and
then looking at the bull. Every single piece of data is directly connected to a
strand of DNA somewhere on the chromosome. Positive selection pressure on the
correct traits will increase positive DNA within our bull stud. In turn, this
DNA will combine with the DNA available in the cow herd to produce the calf
crop.

Therefore, the process of buying bulls actually is, or at least should be,
fairly methodical. Although data terms may baffle a bull buyer, always check out
what the trait abbreviations and the many expected progeny differences (EPDs)
values mean. The breed association websites have good glossaries or just ask
other breeders.

A personal pet peeve: If there is room for the picture, there should be room for
labeling conveniently the various numbers to make the reading of the information
more doable. All of these notations lead up to some very important notes. Right
up front, a herd should present in the catalog the average EPD values for the
various traits the breed evaluates followed by the average EPD values for the
bulls and heifers being sold.

Additional information could be provided for the breed, such as the trait values
for the top 25 percent of the breed or maybe even the top 1 percent of the
breed, depending on the strengths of the bulls or heifers.

For the new bull buyer who is not aware of the breeders within a breed, those
producers who are willing to print the average EPD values for the calves they
are selling make the initial screening so much easier. Of course, one does need
to look at the individual numbers.

However, there is something to keep in mind. Why not start with those herds that
are selling bulls or heifers that are above average for the desired traits?
There is no quicker or easier way to evaluate the expected future performance
authenticity of potential bull candidates. Once the overall performance of the
herd has been determined in relationship to the breed as a whole, one can select
the desired bulls within the sale offering.

Now that one knows the average value for all the traits analyzed within the
breed, the process of finding and sorting bulls based on their ranking within
the breed is relatively easy. The job is to find the sale prospects by scanning
all the sons of the reference sires that meet our criteria and then scanning all
the bulls for their own performance because the cow and bull ultimately
determine the genetic value of the bull.

Through the years, one vote of confidence is that it is obvious more people are
picking the top bulls because the bidding dollars seem to jump quickly on bulls
that lead the data. That is a good thing for the industry but a little
frustrating when the wallet doesn't have an equivalent roll of money.

Keep in mind that no picture is going to relay the information that is needed.
Only breed association EPD data will, which is critical in making long-lasting
bull decisions. Great bulls have great numbers. Learn to read them and just
don't bid on poor bulls.

May you find all your ear tags.

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