It isn’t too early to begin thinking about the upcoming spring bull buying season and assessing your needs to identify that next herd sire.
MANHATTAN, Kan. – With record high cattle prices and evidence of herd rebuilding in Kansas and across the nation, beef producers are likely going to buy some of the most expensive, but highest quality, bulls they have ever bought this upcoming spring bull buying season, said Dan Moser, associate professor and beef cattle genetics specialist for K-State Research and Extension.
“Seedstock producers across Kansas and the country are producing the best bulls ever with the use of technology, expected progeny differences (EPDs) and DNA tests,” Moser said. “That information allows commercial producers to make more genetic progress using the same technology.”
For producers planning to buy a new herd bull this spring, now is the time to begin anticipating the potential high demand and price, while identifying the traits needed in that next sire. Moser said a good place for producers to start is writing out a job description for the next bull or bulls they plan to purchase. This description will depend on the producers’ marketing system now and in the next few years, goals for genetic improvement and their particular crossbreeding program.
Fulfilling the needs of your situation
The cattle industry, Moser said, is currently in a rebuilding phase due to recent drought and market conditions. Many producers who have retained a large number of heifers might view calving ease as a top priority in that next herd sire—a different approach perhaps than those producers who plan to use their bull mostly on mature cows.
For producers who have both heifers and mature cows, another solution might be to use artificial insemination (AI) on the heifers, Moser said.
“Consider heat synchronization of your yearling heifers before the breeding season,” he said. “AI them one time, and try to get a reasonably high number of them bred before turning out a clean-up bull. This might actually lower your breeding costs and shorten the calving season.”
Along with herd inventory, Moser said producers should think about prioritizing the traits needed in a sire to match their revenue stream.
“If they are primarily selling calves at weaning, the traits to prioritize might be different than someone who retains ownership of their calves through the feedlot phase and market their cattle on a grid directly to the packer,” he said.
Also, assessing current genetics, sires used in the past and any possible deficiencies in the herd are important, Moser said.
“In any trait, we can have too much as well as too little,” he said. “Are you where you want to be in terms of mature cow size and weaning weights? With some of the feed cost structures we’ve gone through in the past few years, there has been more emphasis on cow efficiency.”
While some producers might have access to high-quality forages, others might have a more low-maintenance approach for their herd. Still keeping in mind the opportunity for future herd rebuilding, Moser said, producers should think about the daughters of their next herd sire and how those daughters might function in the current environment.
“Depending on how limited your forages might be and your grazing season, cow size and milk level are two big things to consider,” Moser said “As we’ve increased mature size and harvest weights in beef cattle, as well as milk production in almost every breed, we’ve also increased feed requirements. I think we need to ask ourselves, ‘Are we at the right level for our production environment?’”
In addition, Moser said it is good practice for commercial breeders to know the seedstock producers with whom they are doing business and how they manage their cattle.
“Ideally, you want to find seedstock suppliers who manage their cows in the same way you manage your commercial cows,” he said. “If they have a similar nutrition program, you can feel more comfortable that when those genetics come into your commercial herd, they will work for you.”
Improving genetics and profitability
Crossbreeding systems are crucial to increase profitability in commercial cattle operations, Moser said. Heterosis helps enhance traits such as reproductive rate, cow longevity, calf vigor and many others that producers might not notice as easily as pay weight.
“With today’s feed costs, anything we can do to increase calving rate and weaning rate is important,” Moser said. “Crossbreeding is a big part of that.”
In identifying the breed of that next herd sire, producers should study up on the strong traits of the particular breeds they are considering and choose one that compliments the genetics they currently have, Moser said. If they haven’t developed a crossbreeding system yet, producers should keep it simple.
“There are many types of crossbreeding situations and systems out there, but probably a simple two-breed rotation is a good place to start if you haven’t been crossbreeding,” Moser said. “Another good option is the use of hybrid or composite bulls. Those bulls offer heterosis and breed complementarity in a system as simple as pure breeding.”
Knowing the EPDs for each breed and the breed averages, in addition to any profit indexes available, is more important when selecting a bull than any actual data ratios. The EPDs and profit indexes provide information on how the bull’s progeny will perform and offer a greater herd improvement outlook.
“EPDs can be compared ranch-to-ranch, across an entire breed,” Moser said. “So that’s the most objective and accurate information to use in making selection decisions.”
Moser said producers need to understand the EPDs of the breeds they are working with, as each breed has its own scale, aside from Simmental and Red Angus, which are directly comparable.
Examples of profit indexes producers might use include the Angus $W (Dollar Weaning) or $B (Dollar Beef), Hereford BMI$ (Baldy Maternal Index) or Simmental API (All-Purpose Index), for example. Profit indexes help weigh the traits—how much of one trait is worth a unit of another—to emphasize the traits most important to profitability.
“You have to match those values with your production and marketing system,” Moser said. “If you are someone who sells calves at weaning, an Angus $W is the right index to use, but if you are retaining ownership, then $B should be emphasized for that sire.”
Genomic-enhanced EPDs, which incorporate DNA tests of the animal into the EPD calculation, provide for even more useful information for bull buyers, Moser said.
“This is one of the biggest improvements we’ve made in the last few years,” he said. “We’ve had some DNA test information for over 10 years in beef cattle, but that information was not combined with the performance data and pedigree information in the associations’ databases. Now with most of the major breeds, the DNA tests are another piece of information that adds accuracy to EPDs.”
Moser said producers should use the genomic-enhanced EPDs the same way they normally would, but they can be more confident that the accuracy has increased.
“In many cases, having genomic information gives you the same accuracy as if you had five to 15 progeny on a bull,” he said.
After producers have identified the job descriptions and traits for their new herd bull or bulls, they should think about how to make the purchase. Moser said there are different things to consider when buying a bull at auction versus private treaty. It comes down to buyer preference and level of comfort.
“Obviously at an auction there is clearer price discovery, and it’s a very quick process,” Moser said. “At the same time, some producers like to have an extended conversation with their seedstock supplier and get to know their program in more depth. That may require a visit prior to auction or in a private treaty sale, sitting down with the seedstock supplier to make sure their goals and yours are similar.”
Another important tip for producers is to make sure that the young bulls they are buying have been evaluated for breeding soundness, Moser said, so the bulls are ready to go out and work for the producers.
More information about beef breeding and genetics and herd bull buying strategies can be found on the K-State Department of Animal Sciences and Industry website.