Before stepping into a bull pen or opening a sale catalog, cow-calf producers have their work cut out for them on taking the proper steps to improve their herds.

From the February issue of Drovers CattleNetwork.

One by one they sort through bull sale catalog after bull sale catalog that fill up their mail boxes. Some are eagerly anticipated, grabbed from the mail carrier like a kid waiting on a toy catalog, while others are quickly skimmed through and tossed aside. Numbers are pored over meticulously, pages are flagged, Xs are made, notes are written and key players are starred.

Then one by one, they leave their ranches, all with the same objective in mind: To purchase the next breeding stock for their operation. Some arrive days before, sorting through lots individually, taking time to pick the herdsman’s brain. Others wait until the morning of the sale, catching up with neighbors and old friends as they look the offering over like a hawk, finalizing their decisions.

With catalogs marked and a plan of action in mind, they take their seats around the ring. Energy builds as the sale begins. Skillfully, they keep a close ear to the auctioneer’s chant, while processing everything before them. It’s organized chaos as bids are called and minds race. Then, with just the slight nod of a head, it’s all over — and the genetic direction of their herd has officially been made.

First things first

“Buy a bull to use for five years, and he’s going to have a lasting impact upwards of 15 years on a cow herd,” says beef specialist Matt Hersom at the University of Florida Extension.

Fifteen years — that kind of impact makes purchase decisions critical for any cow-calf producer. But where to begin in the selection process?  

According to Hersom, producers must first evaluate their goal or end point. When is the calf going to be marketed? Are replacement females going to be kept? What resources are available for raising these calves? These are the types of questions producers must be able to answer before proceeding forward.

Next, evaluate the cow herd.

“Evaluation of a cow herd is a continual process,” John Menzies says. The farm manager with Fort Worth, Texas-based Farmers National Company, is a cow-pen veteran specializing in herd management in the southwest part of the country.

Menzies first starts with evaluating the body condition of individual cows, noting how well she adapted to the environment through changing seasons, looking for a body-condition score (BCS) of 5 or higher. Then he sends her through the palpation cage. Depending on the market condition and cow’s history, open cows are either rolled to the next breeding season or sold as a packer cow. He then moves on to the frame size of the herd.

“It’s important to take note to keep frame size from getting too big,” he says. “And if that’s the case, steps have to be made in the bull selection process to pull the herd’s frame score back.”

Then, it’s on to the calf crop.

Menzies says to look at growth and compare it to previous years and where it is expected to be. They key question is: Did they grow?  Heifer calves are then evaluated for potential replacements.

“It’s important to begin to find shape. Are they deep-sided, handy-made, muscular cattle? Or are they thin-boned, narrow cattle who have a pretty profile but aren’t much to look at when they walk toward you,” he says. “To me, those lack in resilience.”

Recordkeeping is essential, Hersom says, noting that keeping records doesn’t necessarily have to be on a sophisticated system. He recommends producers match cows to calves in recordkeeping, tracking as much information as they can gather on things like progeny carcass data and weights, along with the cow’s BCS and calving success.

“Without measurements, the right decisions are harder to make and it becomes guess work,” he stresses. “Time must be spent on data capture, even if it’s just taking notes on individual cows on an index card.”

Long-term success

With the end point in mind and a good handle on the state of the herd, it’s time to look at what traits are needed to optimize performance and make genetic progress. According to Hersom, moderation is everything.

“If you swing for extremes in EPDs, you’re going to end up with extremes on the ground. Those outliers are going to be what cause problems,” Hersom says. If a producer goes after too much growth potential, cows may not be able to keep up with milk production — or when it comes to selecting replacement heifers, the frame size of the females may be too large.

“We don’t get one trait without breaking another in terms of growth rate on calves we want to market. If we’re taking siblings as replacements, those genetics are getting put right back into the cow herd,” he reminds. “That is going to have long-term implications on the cow herd management.”

Consistency also plays a huge role when it comes to selecting for genetic progress, Hersom says, especially since one bull has such a lasting impact on a cow herd. While it may be tempting to chase after the “latest and greatest” genetics receiving a lot of hype, staying disciplined to what work’s for a program is crucial.

Making the sort

For Menzies, the sorting process on potential herd sires is ruthless. When the sale catalogs roll in, numbers are heavily evaluated to determine if the seedstock producer has the type of program he feels will benefit the cow herd he is purchasing for — not touching anything that doesn’t rank in the top 30 percent of the breed. He even goes so far as to sort the herd information in Excel spreadsheets to create a filtering process based off indexes. He also does quick culls based off frame score and scrotal circumference.

“I’m quickly able to find a group of 10 to 15 bulls that will fit my program,” he says. “Then I can go in and narrow down even further, while being able to keep in my price range. That way I’m still in the deep end of the gene pool.”

Rule of thumb: When it comes to paying for a bull, he should cost you the same amount as what five calves are worth, Hersom says.

“That number this year is a whole lot different than it was 10 years ago, but everything is worth more,” Hersom says.

Proper bull selection will bring producers improved performance in the cow herd through offspring — capturing premiums with calves that are sold and sinking quality genetics back into the herd with replacement heifers.  

“A bull is not a cost; he’s an investment,” he concludes. “Genetic selection should be a high priority for producers, because it’s an investment back into their production system.”