Bull Selection

— Written By Tom Devine and last updated by
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It’s never too early to start thinking about purchasing your next herd sire. Bulls provide the largest proportion of genetics to the calf crop, making bull selection one of the most important parts in determining the profitability of beef cattle operations.

For most beef producers in our area pounds at weaning is the biggest factor affecting profitability. An ideal bull for commercial cattlemen should produce fast gaining calves that require minimal assistance at calving and do so for as many years as possible. When trying to find a bull that will give you these results, basics to evaluate include: breed type, physical appearance, and genetics.

There are over 60 breeds of beef cattle in the United States. Knowing the strengths of different breeds can help you narrow down your search. For example, Continental breeds (Simmental, Gelbvieh, etc.) are typically large-frame cattle with high growth rates, while British breeds (Angus, Hereford, etc.) are typically moderate framed cattle with lower maintenance requirements. 

Regardless of breed type, evaluating physical appearance is a must. When analyzing physical appearance the first thing to evaluate is structural correctness. The way a bulls skeleton is put together will greatly affect his longevity as a productive herd sire. In addition to being structurally sound, bulls should look masculine, be heavily muscled, and have a bold, deep center body. Bulls should also be able to pass a breeding soundness exam performed by a veterinarian. The basic breeding soundness exam consists of physical evaluation, examination of reproductive organs, measurement of scrotal size, and evaluation of semen quality. If a bull can not pass a breeding soundness exam, don’t buy it.

When evaluating a bull’s genetics, Expected Progeny Differences (EPDs) are a helpful tool. Expected progeny differences are predictions of the genetic transmitting ability of a parent to its offspring. Buying bulls without EPDs can be very risky. I have seen many cases where bulls excel physically but produce calves that do not perform well or cause a number of calving problems. Evaluating EPDs can be confusing at times, mainly due to the sheer number of EDP categories out there. To keep it simple, focus on the more important ones. These include calving ease direct (CED), birth weight (BW), weaning weight (WW), yearling weight (YW), maternal milk (MM), and a few of the carcass and efficiency EPDs. Additionally, if you are making comparisons between two bulls of different breeds, you need to add or subtract the appropriate adjustment factor from the across-breed EPD chart produced by USDA Meat Animal Research Center. And finally, choose a bull that meets your requirements. If you are breeding heifers, choose a low birth weight bull. By low birth weight I don’t mean negative birth weight EPDs either. Lower positive EPDs will be fine. If you are breeding only mature cows, you can be a little less concerned with birth weight EPDs and concentrate on bulls with higher growth weaning weight EPDs. If you never keep or sell replacement heifers, the milk EPD is of little or no concern to you.

There is not a one size fits all approach to selecting bulls. Every operation has its own production goals and management strategies. However, evaluating the three basics mentioned above is crucial for selecting the best bull for your operation. As always if you have any questions please do not hesitate to contact me at 828-652-8104 or at tom_devine@ncsu.edu