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RESOURCES AND ENVIRONMENT BUILD BULL POWER

by: Clifford Mitchell

The vocabulary of the beef business has been expanded by knowledgeable cattlemen over the years. They have been well versed in things like product development, quality control and mass production. Recently, market share, customer service and customer base have been instilled in astute cattlemen across the country.

For years the equation has been to produce cattle to meet the goals of the operation. As the beef industry evolved cattlemen have traded notepads for computers, developed marketing plans and started listening to the buyers. This translates to business minded producers looking for every advantage to supply what the customer needs based on the available resources.

Management skills have long been relied on for product development and quality control. To gain the advantage, often times, breeders have had to build market share which ultimately falls on their skills to put a product in front of their buying public that creates interest and gets the job done.

Today, satisfied commercial customers set the standard in the purebred beef business, not the blue ribbons of the past generation. With modern tools of production, breeders can fine tune their bull development program to build a customer base.

Sure there are many components to a sound bull market, but ultimately, product development and quality control are the precursors to every effort made in the marketing plan to increase bull sales. Developing these bulls to an end point, where customers can identify potential sires that will walk the pasture and return a profit, builds repeat customers.

Courtney Herefords of Alzada, Montana relies on available forage resources to grow bulls to coming twos. This no nonsense approach has bulls ready to face the elements and hit the ground running once the commercial man makes his purchase.

“Most of our customers are running in tough country, the coming twos handle it better than a calf that has been pushed to service cows as a yearling,” says Tom Courtney. “These bulls know how to graze and haven't been fed some fancy ration. They can take care of themselves and adjust to their environment better.”

The culmination of this development philosophy may have been helped by the management skills of their customers. The demand for fault free cattle that can withstand the rigors of traveling and breeding cows was a factor in this decision.

“People have to take care of a yearling bull and it is tough to make them work in harsh conditions,” Courtney says. “Our bulls are fed a dry ration and this is a big factor how our bulls work after the customer gets them. They don't fall apart.”

Developing bulls to survive in the rough climate begins at birth at Courtney Herefords. There are no creep feeders when the calves are growing to the first 205 days. This allows for a better evaluation of genetics built in the product.

“I don't creep because I want to know how the mother is milking. Cattle need to be stressed some in a natural environment. I have a hard time evaluating genetics that have never had a bad day in their life,” Courtney says. “We are raising cattle very similar to the way our customers raise their calves. We have to identify genetics that will gain efficiently without a lot of inputs.”

Even though cattle are raised on forages, the weighing periods are still an important indicator of performance. Weights are taken at 205 and 365 days of age and ultrasound is incorporated as a tool to identify genetic progress.

“We record weaning and yearling weights. Our yearling weights aren't going to be as high as a calf on a high grain ration. Our area is drougthy anyway, we can't afford to hide our mistakes with feed,” Courtney says. “We are collecting the data we need to collect and our bulls don't have a lot of back fat and rump fat. Intramuscular fat is highly influenced by diet. We can identify genetics that marble with little feed.”

According to Courtney, bulls are sorted into groups of 30 to 35 head at weaning and penned that way through the winter until it is time to go to grass. The summer grazing period is another test.

“Usually we have 30 bulls on 200 to 300 acres through the summer grazing period. The bulls are 12 to 13-months old when they go to grass and we want them to gain 100 pounds per month when we pick them up in the fall. For cattle to gain efficiently on grass they have to be easy fleshing,” Courtney says. “It takes extra management to run the bulls this way. We lose a few bulls due to injury, but a bull that goes bad on us is a bull that didn't go bad for a customer.”

To some breeders it is probably impractical to carry a bull until he is a two-year-old, but Courtney sees advantages to the process which in the end help his customers. The last 95 days bulls are fed a 75 to 80 percent roughage ration to get them in sale shape.

“The advantage to selling a coming two, is these bulls can change an awful lot in a year,” Courtney says. “We can present a more uniform product that we culled on for a longer period of time at sale time.”

Courtney Herefords guarantees all the bulls to be breeders and they have not replaced a bull in the last three years. The development philosophy allows the firm to put the best foot forward.

“We raise bulls solely for the commercial cattleman. If they aren't sound or don't last, the customer isn't happy,” Courtney says. “It is a very competitive business and we have to keep the customer happy. The only salesman we employ is our bulls, and they go out and do the job.”

Langford Herefords, a long time breeder, recently changed headquarters from Texico, New Mexico, to Okmulgee, Oklahoma. The change may have refined bull development for this operation a little, but strict culling is the first step to producing sound range bulls.

“The first time we cull is at weaning. If the bulls mother hasn't done a good job raising him or he doesn't have the look of a good range bull we'll castrate him,” says Leon Langford. “We learn a lot from the 25% we steer at weaning because they go to the feedyard and they will usually gain around 3.8 pounds per day during the finishing phase.”

While the numbers and weights are important, Langford relies on a lot of visual selection to help in the culling process. “Bulls have to be easy to look at with a lot of style and class or we don't offer them to our customers,” Langford says.

Performance figures do play a role. This information is used to help customers make their choices and improve the herd. Langford believes he has a good handle on the genetics since the majority of the herd traces to proven cow families.

“We take birth weights, yearling weights, pelvic measurements, fertility test and scrotal measurements. We have taken ultrasound measurements the last few years,” Langford says. “There are some of these figures we think we already know. By recording the data, we give ourselves and our customers' reassurance that we are making progress.”

With the move to Oklahoma, Langford has seen an increased demand for 15 to 18 month old bulls. Bulls are developed on the available forages with some feed supplement to help bulls reach genetic potential.

“Bulls are run on either native bluestem or Bermuda grass pastures. We provide them with high quality hay and 14% cubes,” Langford says. “We absolutely won't push these bulls for high gains. It is not economical to produce fat and fat bulls don't work for our customers. We just want to feed them enough to see what they can do.”

Raising the bulls on high quality forages helps bulls fit in when they get to the new surroundings. Langford takes his job seriously because he knows his customers depend on his expertise through private treaty sales.

“We run the bulls out on pasture in relatively large groups. When they get up in the morning they look around and go to grazing, they aren't waiting on the feed truck,” Langford says. “They acclimate better if they have to eat some grass rather than standing in a feedlot. A lot of our customers depend on us to produce an animal that will work in their environment.”

Bulls are sorted at weaning and go into marketing groups based on price. Bulls stay in the same group until they are marketed off the ranch. Since Langford has been developing his bulls this way, he has learned a few tricks to help bulls get a long once a pecking order has been established.

“We visually put together three or four groups of bulls that go into different pastures to be marketed together. There are social problems running large groups of bulls, but you can cut down on this by giving them plenty of room and keeping them full,” Langford says. “If the pasture isn't real good supplement them with hay. When bulls get a little empty or hungry you are going to have trouble. We run as many as 40 bulls together and you can't change this group once they have established a pecking order.”

Elkington Polled Herefords, Idaho Falls, Idaho also markets coming two-year-old bulls through a January bull sale. These bulls are developed in range conditions and feed grains produced locally during the process. Calves are brought a long slowly to promote longevity until they are yearlings.

“We wean calves on long hay since we don't sell them until they are coming twos. We start them on two to three pounds of oats and gradually work them up to eight to 10 pounds of grain. The ration is primarily oats with a little barley and hand fed,” says Keith Elkington. “Our development philosophy is based on proper feeding and good genetics. We don't push cattle because it is a detriment to their longevity.”

According to Elkington, once the bulls reach a year of age, they are put in large lots for plenty of exercise. The bulls have round bales in each lot and are hand fed their grain for a variety of reasons.

“There are a lot of advantages if you hand feed the bulls and walk through them twice a day. I try to touch them, it gentles them down and gets them used to people,” Elkington says. “I can better manage the bulls. It helps in the culling process because when you walk through them it is a lot easier to identify problems than when you are sitting in the feed truck. The amount of exercise these bulls get helps develop them to do their job.”

The environment these bulls are raised in may also have an effect on how they handle the transition period at their new home. The elevation has positive advantages for these cattle.

“We raise these bulls at 6,000 feet elevation, which along with the way we condition them and structural soundness helps adaptability,” Elkington says. “Just like an athlete that trains at a higher altitude, I think these bulls develop more lung capacity and better digestive systems. These bulls also develop better resistance to disease known to the area.”

Cattle are evaluated at weaning, yearling and the fall of the year to check performance. Ultrasound has been incorporated into the mix, but Elkington throws up the caution flag with this technology.

“We don't push cattle to have high weaning or yearling weights, but we look at ratios more than weights. Some years we have better yearling weights because the calves weaned heavier,” Elkington says. “We have done some ultrasound, probably not as much as we should have been doing. The thing I don't like about ultrasound, it is related to the feed they have been on. I think it is useful, but more as an in herd comparison.”

Developing bulls until they are coming twos offers some different advantages to Elkington Polled Herefords than if they were marketing yearling cattle. The development process tells the whole story rather than just the first few chapters.

“When you develop bulls the way we do, you see the whole growth curve rather than just to 365 days. Our customers like a coming two that hasn't been overfed, rather than a yearling that has been forced fed to get big enough,” Elkington says. “Bulls with good ratios at weaning and yearling that can still grow will through the process sort themselves to the top. We have to develop bulls that can handle the range environment because they know how to survive in it.”

Boyd Beef Cattle, Mays Lick, Kentucky strives to produce fall yearling and yearling Hereford and Angus bulls for their customers. All fall bulls and spring bulls are developed together in their respective contemporary groups in large pastures.

“At weaning bulls are put into their respective groups. There will be 25 to 30 fall bulls and 50 to 60 spring bulls. We will sell about 70 bulls in March,” says Charlie Boyd. “We run both breeds together in contemporary groups. From the day they are weaned they run together and we have had no problems with bulls getting hurt.”

Nutrition, in a vast majority of the Eastern states, begins with fescue grass as the basis of any forage program. The advantages and disadvantages of this grass have been well documented, but cattle that can perform on this hearty forage have a built in tolerance for the endophyte toxin. Once the fescue cycle has been broken with other forage components, cattle tend to do better.

“If they can make it on fescue, they can make it on anything. Fescue, orchard grass and clover are our primary resources,” Boyd says. “Fescue is the only grass that can tolerate large groups of cattle and keep coming back on an annual basis. We love the fescue after the first frost in the fall, but we hate running bulls on it in July.”

Once bulls are sorted into their designated groups there is a little different plan to develop the fall bulls and the spring bulls. Fall bulls are grazed after weaning through the summer and then all bulls go on feed in the fall to prepare them for the sale.

“We feed the bulls a by-product ration cut with salt to limit the bulls to 2.5 pound per day gain. The genetics behind the bulls allow us to feed them this way and have them ready to work,” Boyd says. “The fall bulls, after roughing them through the summer, kick it into high gear when they go on feed.”

By-product feeds are not available to a lot of producers in different parts of the country; however, when available, they are a viable resource to keep input costs down during the development stage. Self-fed rations also have many advantages from a cost standpoint.

“We feed corn gluten, soy hull pellets and corn, cut with salt as an intake inhibitor, in the ration. It is a super feed and contains a lot of fiber. There is no way we could raise our own feed and compete with the by-products from a price standpoint,” Boyd says. “We use the self-feeders because there is no way we could pack that much feed to the bulls on a daily basis with time and labor constraints.”

Because the bulls are maintained and treated the same in large contemporary groups throughout the process, Boyd feels his customers can get accurate information. These figures are recorded and printed sale day for customers to help make buying decisions.

“We take weaning weights and yearling weights and rank the bulls on ratios. We get an accurate read on all the traits we are trying to measure and top sire groups are easily identified,” Boyd says. “Fall bulls are ultrasounded in September and all the spring bulls in January. The IMF is never as good on our fall bulls because they are run on grass during the summer.”

The limit fed ration is the key to getting the bulls ready to handle their future duties. An exclusive program in Kentucky has also helped smaller commercial breeders realize the value built-in top genetics.

“By sale time there won't be any difference in the fall bulls and the yearlings. With this ration we still get maximum growth and keep a lot of the fat off. They are ready to breed cows and are highly fertile, with good semen quality because they don't have a lot of fat built up in their scrotum,” Boyd says. “The Phase 1 Tobacco money has helped smaller breeders realize what good genetics will do for them.”

There is no exact science to bull development. A combination of genetics and available resources, unique to every environment, will turn out commercial bulls that meet customer needs. Listening to customers is the only thing successful breeders from different parts of the country have in common when it comes to skills needed to create a product for the cow/calf man. The different recipes available for developing bulls could fill many management seminars. Bottom line, the customer is always right. Breeders that create repeat buyers through an open door policy, good product development and quality control will stay in business a long time.

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