Cattle Today

Cattle Today



by: Heather Smith Thomas

When selecting a new bull, the stockman or seedstock producer can utilize information on weaning weights, yearling weights, birth weights, yearling hip height, milk EPD's, etc. Much progress has been made in charting the genetics of beef production; there's lots of data to help choose a bull that will sire growthy calves.

Perhaps most important, however, for breeding profitable cattle, is improvement of the cow herd. Pounds of calf to sell, or fast-growing young bulls that will sire heavy calves, are often the goal, but not as important as the heifers. To be successful, you need fertile, long-lived productive cows that raise a big calf while still breeding back on time to calve year after year -- cows that give peak performance on the feed the ranch produces. The cow herd is your future.

When raising heifers, their sire makes a lasting contribution to the herd (good or bad). The quickest way to change the genetics of a herd is through sire selection. You want that contribution to be beneficial, moving your heifers in the best direction to meet the goals of your breeding program. Seedstock producers are finding that maternal qualities are as important to most of their bull buyers as weaning and yearling weight, and some of these maternal qualities cannot be measured with EPD's. EPD's do not measure many most important traits you need to evaluate when selecting breeding stock--things like conformation, fertility, disposition, udder shape and teat size, for instance.

Research His Background -- It's always wise to evaluate at least three generations in a bull's pedigree; his ancestors must be the kind of cattle you want, in order to get any consistency in his calves, and you need to double check the female side in those three generations to make sure they are the right kind of cows. Try to look at them visually, not just on paper, to evaluate disposition, udders, and structural soundness. If you are evaluating a mature bull, also look at his offsrping. If it's a young bull, do a pedigree search and look at as many ancestors as you can, and half-siblings a generation or two back. Even though the numbers are a great tool, it's just as important to go search out some of the other things that the numbers don't tell you.

Milking Ability -- A mistake some stockmen make in using EPD's is selecting for extremes, thinking one bull is better than another because his EPD for that trait is higher (or lower). There are no "good" or "bad" EPD's, however. It all depends on what you are selecting for in your particular herd. A bull with a negative EPD value for milking ability, for instance, is only "bad" if your herd needs increased milking ability. If you already have heavy milking cows or marginal pasture conditions where heavy milking cows may not get enough nutrition to milk well and still keep up their own body condition, a negative EPD may be what you need in order to continue raising cattle in a profitable manner.

The most desirable milk EPD in a sire will vary from breeder to breeder, depending on the herd's current milk level and the ranch's feed resources -- and the direction the cow herd should be moved genetically. The breeder must think in terms of optimum levels rather than maximum; a beef producer must have a production level (calf size and growth rate) to fit the ranch environment and management conditions. Otherwise you get problems with increased birth weights and calving difficulty, lower calf crop percent and decreased fertility, increased cow size and higher maintenance costs, and decreased rather than increased profits. The seedstock producer has a responsibility to customers, since the commercial cattleman needs bulls that sire efficient cattle -- not just fast-growing steers, but also replacement heifers that will work profitably under a variety of conditions without pampering.

If you select for extremes in milking ability, you may get this trait too high, and have heifers that produce so much milk they are harder to keep weight on, and slower to breed back, especially on range pastures. Every breeder needs to strike a balance, and tailor the cow herd to fit his situation -- and that of his customers when selling seedstock. You want easy-fleshing cattle, and the bull has a big influence on this. Often the highest milking cows are harder to keep weight on.

Birthweight -- Moderate birthweight is often best when choosing a herdsire. Daughters from a sire with big birthweight will have big calves themselves and may have trouble calving, even if they are big heifers. The heifer inherits her own birthweight from her sire and dam; if she comes from family lines with heavy birthweights, she may have trouble having her first calf, even if you breed her to an easy-calving bull. If she had a heavy birthweight herself, her calf may be large. Size at birth is influenced just as much by the female side as by the "easy calving bull" you bred her to. Many ranchers who use light birthweight bulls on first-calf heifers still have calving problems if the heifers themselves were produced from heavy birthweight sires. A moderate birthweight sire is best for producing good daughters that calve easily.

You want genetics that produce light birthweight calves that then grow swiftly. Try to combine low or moderate birthweight with fast growth. A really low birthweight scares a lot of people because often this type of bull has heifer calves that mature too small; they don't grow fast enough to catch up and they'll be hard calvers just because they don't have the pelvic area. But there are also some bulls that have low birthweights and high weaning and yearling weights; you just have to look harder to find them.

All too often high birthweight and high yearling weight go together, because this is many breeders have selected for and perpetuated in their attempt to create bigger cattle. You also tend to see light birthweight correlated with light weaning and yearling weights. Cattle that can combine calving ease and gainability are much more profitable to the cow-calf rancher than heavy birthweight cattle that create higher risk for death losses and more labor-intensive calving. Moderate framed cattle most commonly combine the traits desired by the average stockman, because they tend to mature faster. You want bulls with a high rate of growth, but not a huge mature size.

Frame Size -- If cattle are large, they may be too high in their maintenance requirements. It takes too much feed for that kind of cow. This goes hand in hand with milking ability. You can end up with big, heavy-milking cows that can't produce very well without a lot of extra feed. Big-framed cattle won't work out on the range or in relatively rough conditions and won't work for most bull- buying customers.

Have a target goal for frame size. If your cow herd's mature size is large enough already, don't buy bulls with high EPD's for growth. Judge the potential performance of a bull by your own needs. The important thing is not how plus or minus a bull is compared to breed average; pick a bull that when crossed with your cows will produce offspring on target for your own conditions, market, and future cow herd. You don't want replacement heifers that grow too large to be efficient producers in your herd.

Conformation And Stuctural Soundness -- No matter what records and performance data a bull has, there are still some things about him you can only judge by looking at him, including conformation and structural soundness. Breeding soundness and fertility are very important. Choose a masculine-looking bull. Bulls should look masculine and cows should look feminine, for best fertility.

Structural soundness of a bull is very important, especially feet and legs. A bull's conformation is crucial to his breeding soundness (affecting athletic ability and breeding function) and to his offspring; you want daughters that have good conformation and durability (able to travel and stay sound for a long productive life). You don't want conformation problems that might make a cow a cripple, or "old" and arthritic before she gets to culling age.

A bull should be long, but not sway-backed. A sway-backed bull is not as strong and athletic, and may not hold up. A sway- backed bull may also tend to be pot-bellied and sire daughters with this type of conformation. When selecting a bull to sire heifers, also be critical of his tail set. A little downward slope or level rump is preferable to a tipped-up pelvis with high tail set. If a bull's daughters have a tipped-up pelvic area, they may have more calving problems than cows with a more normal or sloped-down rump.

When the calf is born, he has to come up out of the uterus and into the birth canal, in an arc up over the pelvis. If the cow has a tipped-up pelvis (high tail set), the feet of the calf tend to jam up under the backbone and tail head, making a more difficult birth and/or more pain for the cow. As a cow gets older and saggier, this problem is accentuated.

Cows should have a fairly level topline from hooks to pins and extra width in the pins, when looking at them from behind. She generally has a larger birth canal if the pins are wider. She should have a strong topline with no swayback. A cow needs some capacity but not look tanky or have too much gut. She should have a straight barrel -- indicating that her steer calves would be high yielding without a lot of gut. Cattle with a little extra length generally don't have too much gut. A bull with length, good topline and smoothness (no "belly") will tend to sire daughters with these characteristics.

Scrotal size and shape are important to fertility. There is also strong genetic correlation between scrotal size and fertility (as measured by earliness of puberty) of the bull's daughters. A bull with small testicles is often slower to mature and his daughters will be slower also.

Look At The Bull's Mother -- One of the most important factors when selecting a bull to raise daughters, is a close evaluation of his mother -- her milking ability, udder shape and teat size, general conformation, fertility, hardiness, disposition, longevity, mature ize and fleshing ability, and nutritional needs for optium roduction. A cow may be of no value to your herd if she is eficient in even one of these categories -- so take a good look at he bull's mother and other female ancestors and their records.

Also check any carcass data that's available on the female side of his pedigree, to give you an idea what the cow side will contribute to the offspring. If cattle have the ability to produce -- good maternal AND good carcass characteristics--and it's in there for several generations, you can be pretty sure they will breed true and produce what you want.

The history of the bull's mother and female line are very revealing. Does the cow get big teats at calving time? Did she reach puberty at an early age and settle quickly? Has she had a calf every year, and does she calve easily? Does she have a manageable disposition? All too often you only have information on the sire, or a breeder is only interested in showing you the male relatives and their records. You must have information on the female line as well; a bull's daughters will show those traits.

Always look at udders and teat length and size. The bull's mother is important because his daughters will have udders a lot like hers; udder structure and teat conformation are generally passed from a bull to his daughters. Some cows are good milkers but they don't have a balanced udder, or have teats that become too large or long for a newborn calf to suckle.

Disposition also tends to be inheritied. If a bull's mother is flighty, there's a good chance his daughters will be, too. Always take a look at the bull's mother, if you can, for she is the most important individual in his pedigree to critically judge. If you don't like her, you won't like her granddaughters. She'll have more influence on your replacement heifers than any other single individual, since the female characteristics the bull passes to his daughters are predominantly those of his mother. If she is an outstanding cow, with traits you want in your herd, there's a good chance those traits will come through in her granddaughters.


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