One of the most frequent questions I’m asked is the simple “what do you think of this bull?” For such a simple question, there isn’t a simple answer I can give. Occasionally I am tempted to say “not much” but if I am stalling for time I might fall back on the standard “I haven’t really thought about him yet”. Either way, the question is one that is a challenge and requires a little time to consider a proper response.
My greatest challenge with this question is the context it’s being asked within. Selecting bulls is a key task for any breeding program. The decision made to use a bull is the start of a process that will effect up to three generations of cattle and play put over 15 years.
In that context, decisions around bulls need a lot more time than a quick “what do you think of him”.
Ultimately I try to get the person asking me that question to share more about what they are trying to achieve at home. In simple terms, what are they breeding for? What are the traits that matter to them. Are there issues in the cow herd they want to focus on. Is there an issue with suitability to their markets or the environment.
These are all the basics of a breeding objective. If you know that, you can start to determine if the bull is suited to their program or not.
The other challenge is when a producer comes up to ask what do I think of a few bulls, brandishing the raw data that is provided on the bulls. I have to be honest and respond that I need a lot more information before I give a comparison. Quite simply I don’t find raw data all that helpful, except to provide me with a weight of each animal on the day. Other than that, to me it doesn’t offer anything terribly helpful in determining how a bull will fit into a programs objectives.
It’s very easy to compare bulls for visual traits. In fact I think that’s essential. So I am very happy to assess the muscle patterns, structure and gait of a bull as he walks around the pen. I can look at his maturity pattern and make some comparisons with his sale mates.
And I can see what his individual temperament is like as I follow him around assessing his physical attributes. But, what I cant see and compare, is the genetic potential those bulls offer without accurate data.
Raw data that is often provided at bull sales shouldn’t be seen as an insight into the potential of the bull. With these supplementary sheets it's important to remember that these sheets record what the bull as an individual has done to that point in time.
So when you look at that data, or when I have it shown to me, its important to acknowledge the role that nutrition and the pedigrees have in determining a particular bulls phenotype, these are not the only two areas to consider.
There are many additional influences, ranging from the bulls age; the age of its dam; was the bull a single calf or a twin or if it was produced as a result of ET?
These are all non genetic influences on the bull that impact over and above nutrition and genetics. And when you are standing in a paddock looking at those bulls, it’s very difficult to know what these additional influences are or how to account for them in a selection decision.
My greatest concern is that often producers end up selecting on differences that are a result of these multiple factors, rather than for the genetic differences in animals. Selection on raw data is further complicated by the heritability of individual traits. Highly heritable traits such as coat color can be an easy selection decision, as these traits can be easily passed on to progeny.
However, as a trait becomes less heritable it is harder to see these differences reflected on the basis of raw data alone. Producers attempting to manipulate traits to meet breeding objectives in areas such as female fertility have a harder job to select for improvement when they are reliant on raw data and visual observation. Its not an impossible task, however it is a much more difficult, and drawn out process over several generations.
As if this isn’t difficult enough, there’s something else to remember! That’s the relationship between the trait that has been recorded and the traits that are the focus of particular breeding decisions?
Not all traits follow linear progressions. A good example is scanned data for EMA. The size of EMA at a particular point in time may not be reflective of increased muscularity, but rather a result of growth rate to that point in time. A larger EMA may be more reflective of the growth and weight of the animal when it was scanned.
It really concerns me when producers place all their emphasis on the raw data of animals as the basis for their selection decisions. Without knowing the cumulative impact of the environment, feed, and other non-genetic factors, bulls are being selected more on reflection of the year’s circumstances, rather than on their genetic capability. This often works in a counterproductive manner to selection pressure placed on the breeding group at home.
So if you are choosing bulls, you need to make this a project and allow yourself some time to make decisions based on research and preparation, rather than a comparison of animals on the day of the sale! There is tremendous value in spending time considering what you want as an objective for your herd, and looking at a range of bulls to help achieve that goal.
Breedplan figures and the search tools in Breedplan can help you find the bulls that could suit your program. Then you can go and look at them and see if they physically have structure, the muscularity and temperament to suit your program.
If you do that then when you ask me what do I think of these bulls, I’ll be able to have a focused and hopefully more helpful discussion with you!
As cattle producers, we are focused on the production of red meat that can be used to feed people. I’m not sure that many people really know just how much red meat comes from their cattle. I think it is an important trait to consider and work on improving. After all increasing red meat yield per animal is a more efficient way to use your feed resources and be more profitable in the long term.
When considering Red Meat Yield, its important not to be confused with Dressing Percentage. Dressing percentage is commonly talked about by people and confused with yield. In simplest terms, Dressing Percentage is simply the carcass weight of an animal as a percentage of its live-weight.
Dressing Percentage is a useful tool to measure and to understand, particularly for producers who are looking to market cattle direct to abattoirs. Knowing how your animal will dress and so fit a payment grid can make a big difference in receiving the grid price or suffering a discount for being over or under the weights.
It is important to remember that Dressing Percentage is influenced by factors associated with an animals live-weight. In particular the length of time off feed and water. A simple rule to remember is that as live-weight decreases, Dressing Percentage will increase. Other factors that can have an impact include pregnancy status (cows and heifers) as well as grain or grass finishing programs.
So Dressing Percentage is something that has to be considered and managed in order to achieve optimum returns when livestock are sold over a grid. However focusing on the yield of red meat should be a major focus for producers.
In basic terms yield is generally described as Saleable Meat Yield (SMY). It is defined as the proportion of the carcase that can be processed and sold to the consumer. This includes all the bone-in or boneless cuts that we commonly see at retail level, plus manufacturing meat that has been trimmed to a desired fat coverage or level.
The level of Saleable Meat Yield (SMY) can vary dramatically among animals. A real issue for processors or butchers is this variation will impact the efficiency of processing or retailing. It basically costs the same to process a carcase into its primal and retail cuts.
Lower yields either as a result of less muscle or over fatness, quickly become financial issues for that portion of the supply chain. In the longer term it reflects back on the producer who may find their lower yielding cattle are purchased for lower prices or avoided all together.
As producers the challenge is to increase the amount of saleable red meat each animal produces. There most effective methods are to focus on meeting specifications for fatness. Over fat animals require more trimming, and this impacts on the amount of product for sale after processing.
The second and major way is to focus on selection for muscle volume within the herd. This can be done using both EBV’s that address meat yield, and to visually select animals for their muscle score.
Over many years, NSW DPI has researched the impact muscle score has on saleable meat yield. One of the key findings from this research showed that selection for muscle score was a skill that could be used in all beef herds.
More importantly the research highlighted that for each increase in muscle score at the same live weight and fat depth, dressing percentage increased by 1.7%.
Saleable meat yield as a percentage, increased by 1.5 to 1.7 % and lean meat yield (denuded of fatness) increased by over 2%. In lightweight steers, this equated to 10–15% increase in value.
The research looked at this over three steers that were all the same live-weight and fatness. The additional increase in yield of saleable meat through increased muscling was a significant contributor to the value of those animals to both producers and retailers.
In the last few weeks I’ve been working through these concepts with several producers to improve their herd’s suitability to several emerging markets. We have also been looking at the breakdown of a beef carcase and the proportion of red meat from each primal cut. Selection for muscle has a positive impact on increase the amount produced as well as improving the shape and appearance of these muscles when they are processed into retail cuts.
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