Friday, February 3, 2012

Buying Bulls

 I've shown our bulls before, but realize the majority of my focus tends to be on the cows, and their calves. Today I'm highlighting the men of the operation.
Bulls are half of the genetic contribution to each calf, and while a cow is very important in a lot of ways, she raises just one calf a year. A bull, on the other hand, will sire an estimated 25-30 calves per year (some do less, some do much more). One key area of importance with bulls is their genetic influence within a herd, and the fact that it will last for decades.
Because of the ability of a single bull to influence a herd, we spend a lot of time and effort and money making sure we buy bulls who will sire both bull and heifer calves we like phenotypically, and who will excel in specific performance related areas that are important to us.

First, we do our research. We check out potential sires of the bulls we will buy in semen directory catalogs, or online (you can check out one website I use here). Shown above is a page from a semen directory, with two popular sires. Producers can purchase semen from these bulls, and artificially inseminate their cows to them. This system is one way both registered and commercial cattlemen can have access to the best and most elite genetics available in the cattle industry when breeding their cows.
We buy registered Black Angus bulls, which have a lot of information recorded on them, including pedigree information, and a plethora of production related information, and how likely he is to pass those performance traits to his offspring.

Here is some of the information on the bull from the right page above, who is called Bismarck. Every bull has a name, that often includes numbers. You can see his pedigree over by the picture of the cow. The first three capitalized letters proceeding the actual name represent the ranch or people who bred the bull. For instance, SAV, stands for Schaff Angus Valley. Bismark's dad is GAR Grid Maker, and his mom is SAV Abigale 0451, and SAV Abigale 0451's dad is Schoenes Fix It 836, and her mom is SAV Abigale 6062.
Pedigrees are one part of our research. We like some bloodlines of cattle, and won't buy bulls with too much influence from other bloodlines. This is usually due to one or more traits a bloodline is known to carry, and pass on to their offspring.
Then there are the numbers, perhaps you noticed them at the top of the photo? Every two or three capitalized letters are an abbreviation for a genetic trait of importance. The number highlighted in blue is that bulls performance indicating number for that trait, and the number below that is his accuracy for that trait. The percentage number at the bottom of the grid is how he ranks in the breed.
For example, CED stands for Calving Ease Direct, and is a measure of the ease, or difficulty, this bulls calves will experience when being born. In this trait, a higher number is better, and his 13 (that's a high number in this instance) means his offspring shouldn't have any trouble. The .93 is a high accuracy for the trait, which means there is a lot of data recorded on actual offspring of this bull that were used to calculate his performance. But, you have to use all the numbers in combination, and weigh and measure them against each other to get the perfect mix that you want in your herd. Going right from CED, BW = Birth Weight, WW = Weaning Weight, YW= Yearling Weight, and so on. Each of these traits, (CED, BW, WW, YW), is called an EPD (Expected Progeny Difference).
Every breed has EPD averages for every trait you see. The numbers are a comparison of how that bull compares to other bulls in his breed, and how is progeny will differ compare to those sired by other bulls. As a rancher, I have a good idea what the breed average is for each trait, and I have my own requirements of what numbers a bull must have in each of those traits before I will buy him.

After we do our research on sires, we get out our catalog and mark any bulls that work for us on paper. That means they have the right numbers in all of those different traits for us, and their pedigree doesn't include certain individual's we don't like. Different ranchers will have different requirements based on the environment their cattle live in, how they market their cattle annually, and what their feed program is, to name a few examples.
Ranchers who sell bulls often have a sale, and they will send you a catalog if you request one, or have purchased from them in the past. Catalogs are a compilation of information on all the bulls in the sale, with their pedigrees and how they perform in all those EPD areas.

If a producer has enough bulls that meet our requirements on paper, we may attend their sale. At the sale we look at all the bulls for physical traits of importance.
First, they must structurally correct. Just as different humans have different bone and joint problems that limit their mobility, so do cattle. If we buy a bull that has an unsound skeleton, he is significantly less likely to hike over our rough terrain, and make sure he gets as many cows bred as possible in a breeding season. And, let's be honest, that is his one job each year. Structural incorrectness increases his odds of personal injury, and he can pass those problems on to his offspring. Just like your dad passing his bad knees on to you...
There are also physical attributes that indicate how a bull will perform in certain areas. EPD's, and all that information I showed you, is relatively new to the cattle industry. It's been used heavily since the early to mid 1990's. Some people still don't use EPD's as a selection tool when buying bulls, but we believe in using as much information as possible to make the best and most well-informed decision.
One thing to check out physically is the shape and size of a bulls shoulders, and the shape of his head. These are typically among the "problem spots" when calving. If a bull has smooth shoulders and a relatively long, narrow head, he's likely to pass them on to his calves, and they will be born with ease compared to calves with big, bulky shoulders and a big, fat head. Usually.
Third, a bull has to have the style and look we like. As in all things, different people have different taste, and cattle are no different. I'm really not kidding. All black cattle do not look alike.
You can get short, wide, massive bulls, or long, narrow, tall bulls. Obviously those are extreme examples, but you get the idea. My dad and I both have very specific tastes, and also as with most things, if we're going to buy a bull, we much prefer him to have the look we like. This is the "cuss and discuss" part as we call it, and we will give each other a very hard time about specific traits that one of us likes and the other doesn't : )
As we find bulls that meet our physical requirements, we write them down, with notes for areas they excel or are weak in.
Then, we combine our physical picks with the bulls who made the grade when we looked at the catalog. Any bull that passed in both areas is one to potentially bid on. We will have favorites rise to the top as we go through this process, and they will be our top picks to purchase.
A budget is set based on how deep our checkbook is prior to attending any sale, but upon arriving we will discuss how much we would be willing to spend on each bull we have marked. Dad and I like to go together, but either one of us will also go alone to bull sales.

Then the sale begins. Each bull is sold individually, in an auction-style method. Some sales are held at a local sale barn, and some ranchers have their own set of facilities on their place. You have to pay attention, and make sure you understand what price the auctioneer is at if you're bidding. If he's a good auctioneer it's not hard once you get the hang of it.
Then if all goes as planned, you will leave with your top choices for well under budget : )
Not everyone buys bulls like this, and there are lots of successful ways to buy good bulls. But, if we're buying bulls at a production sale, this is the process we go through.
To give you an idea of what bulls cost, most Black Angus sales in our part of the world averaged $3,500 - $4,500 per head last year. So far this year they are higher than that, with some averaging over $5,000 per head.
We use bulls for four years. Any longer and you run the risk of inbreeding, and the potential for sexually transmitted diseases increases. Plus, introducing new genetics is a good thing. A percentage of bulls you buy will not make it to their fourth year, and some don't even make it through their first breeding season due to death or personal injury.
The bull sale season is hitting high gear right now, and there are sales every weekend for the next several weeks. I literally have a stack of catalogs and flyers from different producers that is several inches thick.
This is one of my favorite activities in ranching, because it is how you introduce new, "better" genetics, and improve your herd through selecting bulls with specific traits and attributes. I love the entire process.


  1. I always find your posts so very informative, and of course, the pictures are wonderful!

  2. Very nice! As always great info and great pics!

  3. Thanks again for this very informative post!
    I'm reading the workingranch magazine online and was always looking for a good explanation for the individual numbers. Thanks for that!
    Is there any webpage you can recommend were you can find all the abbreviations including a 'guide' in what range of the numbers is a bad/good/excellent animal (like the '13 is a high number')?
    Thanks! K.