Bull buying season is starting!

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Farm Forum

I know we’re now in February because the bull sale catalogs are arriving and the papers are full of ads promoting the newest crop of potential herd sires. For me this is one of my favorite times of year and one of the parts of the cow/calf business that I like the best. It’s a bit like the start of baseball or football season; the catalogs are loaded with young breeding stock that are full of potential. In fact it’s far too easy for me to spend time looking at catalogs rather than getting some tasks on the “to do” list accomplished.

I believe that all that looking at studying isn’t just wishful dreaming and window shopping (in spite of what my wife might think!) The genetics of a herd determines to a large extent what is possible for production and performance. And while we discuss cow records and using that information to make culling decisions, the fact is that bull selection plays a far larger role in moving the needle in a cowherd’s genetics.

Over 85% of the genetics of your calf crop is determined by the last three sires used to create that calf. For herds that are raising their own replacements, you’ll be dealing with the consequences of bull buying decisions for a long time, both good and bad. Perhaps a saying that I heard a lot growing up describes this best; “A good bull is half the herd, and a poor bull is all the herd.”

At this point you’re probably expecting that the rest of this column is going to go over the nuts and bolts of EPDs, selection indexes, breeding systems and the like. But I’m not going to go into those technical details today. That information is easily available and frankly, most producers I work have an excellent understanding of the terminology and how that applies to evaluating bulls. What I will do is encourage producers to think about some of these questions:

What’s my target? There’s another old saying that says “when you don’t know where you want to go, any road will take you there.” There’s plenty of evidence that a well-thought out goal combined with genetic selection can rapidly move a herd in a desired direction. But if those goals aren’t well thought out, or if your targets keep changing, you’re very well apt to end up with little to no progress and a muddled mess instead.

Who will I travel with? On occasion producers ask me for recommendations on particular breeds or bulls in a breed, but I believe that who you’re sourcing the genetics from is at least as important as which bull or breeds you buy, maybe even more important. The philosophy and direction that the seedstock producer is following will determine what path as well, so your goals should match up with what that breeder is pursuing. I think that this area might be one of our greatest advantages here in the Northern Plains. We really do have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to the caliber seedstock producers.

How will I know when I’ve arrived? Genetic selection can be a powerful tool. So powerful that we can wind up overshooting our target if we’re not careful and end up in the “Land of Unintended Consequences.” Pursuing extreme levels of traits such as growth, milk, and even calving ease can result in a cowherd that doesn’t function very well in a given environment or management systems.

Reach Warren at 605-882-5140 or Warren.Rusche@sdstate.edu.