Monday, January 31, 2011

Bull sale season

The season of bull buying is upon us in Wyoming. Starting around the first of the year it gears up, peaks in February and March, then tapers off in April. It's a great time of year, spent marking stacks of catalogs, looking through pens of bulls, and potentially buying one or more in the auction.
Purchasing bulls is how we introduce new genetics into our herds. Bulls need to be replaced every few years (4 in our case) to prevent inbreeding in a herd. They're how we make genetic improvement, and are my big area of responsibility within our operation.
A lot of information and technology is involved in buying bulls today. Different bulls are bred different ways on purpose. Some are bred to produce outstanding female calves, others are bred to produce steer calves that will grow faster than average calves will. Some bulls are really big, others are smaller. Some will have calves that are born weighing 100 or more pounds, and others will produce calves that weight 60 pounds at birth. It's all about selecting what works for your operation, and buying bulls that will take you in the direction you want to go.
It is my belief that you can buy bulls that will do everything you want them to in your herd. With all the advances in technology and breeding today, I don't think you have to sacrifice in one area to excel in another with cattle. We take this approach when selecting bulls for our herd, and are only interested if they meet our standards in a number of specific areas.

Commercial producers also utilize Artificial Insemination (AI) to breed cows, but bulls are used more often where I'm from.
Seedstock producers raise registered cattle, which means they record their pedigree information, work with a breed association, and keep specific data on individual animals among other things. These producers use AI a lot in their herds to gain access to the most current and progressive genetics, and for a number of other reasons. They typically offer their bulls for sale in an auction each spring, and some sell heifers and/or cows in the fall. Bulls are typically between one and two years old when they're sold. They list each bull, his pedigree, and performance information in a catalog, which they mail out to potential customers.
There are well known sires that have specific traits of merit that are popular each year. Pedigrees are one important area, and you want to make sure you select animals with pedigrees you like, and avoid those with ancestors you don't like, or have used a lot in recent years.
There are also Expected Progeny Differences (EPD's) calculated on each bull. These are a series of numbers that explain how a bulls offspring are expected to perform in comparison with other bull's progeny. They predict how much a bull's calves will weigh at birth and weaning and yearling ages, how much milk their daughters will produce, and how calves will exhibit carcass traits as compared to other bull's calves. They are the most widely used form of predicting calf performance out of a specific bull today. It's important to understand and be familiar with the EPD's, and their implications.
There are also ratios, which show how a bull performed compared to other bulls within the herd he was raised in. A ratio of 100 is average, so if a bull is over 100 in a given trait, he is above average in the herd.
Actual measurements are also taken on individual bulls. These include things like scrotal circumference, which has a direct impact on fertility and the age a bull's daughters will reach maturity. A number of carcass and feeding traits can also be measured, and supplied to help customers decide which bulls to bid on.
Here is one sire that you might buy sons out of at a bull sale this year. Here is another, if you want to compare. Every number you see has a specific meaning that is related to a performance, carcass or maternal trait, like growth, milk production, or marbling. Each of these numbers also has an accuracy number associated with it, and as bulls sire more progeny, their accuracy goes up.
Breed associations and producers work together to compile all the information necessary to calculate these EPD's, and keep track of pedigrees.
At the bottom the page you can see their pedigrees. The names all have a meaning, and typically go back to old, well known and respected bloodlines of cattle. The individual letters, or first word in the name, represent who bred that particular individual. Some seedstock breeders are famous nation, or worldwide, and their cattle will all have their initials, or their last name, in front of each animal's name.
We take a three-prong approach to buying bulls - we look at all the performance data, the actual animals, and the price.
For our operation I go through each catalog, and select bulls that meet our strict requirements based on their EPD's, ratios, performance data, and any other information presented. I mark these, and if a sale has enough bulls the meet our criteria in this area, we will go.
When we go to a sale either myself, my dad, or both of us attend. We look at all the bulls, and make notes about them. We look for things like structural correctness, balance, width, depth length, eye appeal, and a number of other, more specific things.
This is the fun part, and its also interesting because my dad and I like different things in cattle. He likes really long, smooth and well balanced bulls. I like massive, wide, expressive bulls. It keeps us on our toes trying to find individuals that we both like.
If a bull meets our standards based on his looks, and he was checked in the catalog for his EPD's and performance information, then he is one we will potentially buy. We also rank bulls after we've looked at them, and select our top one, two or three to buy based on everything in combination.
Then the auction starts, and each animal is sold one at a time in a live bidding situation. We have a strict budget of how much we can spend, and if we're both in attendance we will discuss our limit on our top few bulls. We bid on the bulls that have passed our visual and performance inspection, and if they're within our price range we might buy them.
I find it a fun challenge to keep on top of all the pedigree and EPD information, and find bulls that combine everything we want, for a price we can afford. It's a a great time of year!

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