The annual bull-selling season is a time when many people seem to ask questions about EBVs. The questions are not restricted to the usefulness of EBVs. They also include what do they mean, how do we actually use them and most frequently, why bother with them!
This year I was tagged on Facebook to make a comment on an American article that questioned EBVs, or as they are known in the US EPDs (which is Expected Progeny Differences). It was a pretty long article that questioned the science and mathematics that underpin the calculation of Breeding Values.
I had to read the article about three or four times to properly understand it! However two lines stood out for me. The first asked if EBVs were a tool or a toy. The suggestion was that EBVs were a dangerous toy being used unthinkingly and that it was a cult like behavior! The second was the summary line quoting a Tom Lasater, founder of the Beefmaster breed who said: "Breeding cattle is easy. The difficult part is keeping it easy!"
The article made me think a lot about my advice and the work I’ve done with producers for over 20 years. The comment about breeding cattle is easy, and the difficult part is keeping it easy is a good place to start.
Breeding cattle is easy! You can buy a bull and leave him with a group of cows all year. You don’t need to spend a lot, and you don’t really have to do much.
However, breeding cattle and making a profit is not so easy! Profit is driven in beef herds by the average price you receive and the kilograms of beef you produce per hectare. The average cost to produce a kilogram of beef in Southern Australia is $1.74 and in northern Australia its $1.75
So to be profitable, you can either increase your average price per kilogram, or reduce your costs or increase your kilograms of beef produced per hectare. Of these three options, the one with the greatest variation and the most potential to be manipulated in the kilograms of beef you produce per hectare.
Increasing your kilograms per hectare requires you to focus on two key areas. Nutrition and genetics. I actually find it hard to prioritise one over the other. In most situations, nutrition often limits the genetic potential of cattle. I have seen many herds with genetics that were capable of producing more kilograms of beef, but those genetics were never going to be expressed with the level of nutrition on offer.
Conversely genetics offer the opportunity to increase the ability of animals to grow faster, to be more muscular or more fertile or to have the traits that contribute to market compliance. It’s just as important to ensure your animals can fully utilize the nutrition you provide, so that investment in pastures, crops or feed isn’t wasted.
Increasing your production is a result of focused nutritional management and clear genetic improvement to capture the traits that help you produce cattle that suit your environment and your markets.
The difference between this and a basic, ‘simply put the bull out with the cows program’ is the simple option remains unfocussed. Cows calve when they calve. Weaners hit weights at varying times. Marketing is done ad hoc! Essentially this is a commodity production system where breeders have little opportunity to take advantage of market specifications or industry programs that can increase the average price per kilogram.
So in my mind, profitably breeding cattle isn’t simple! You need to manage the complexity of nutrition in varying seasons and localities. You need to consider market specifications as well as programs such as MSA that can increase your average price per kilogram. And you need to invest in genetics that will allow you to lift your production to be profitable.
The hardest thing with genetics is you can’t actually see them in an animal. When you look at a bull or a cow, you can see its physical appearance. It’s a direct result of its individual background, its nutrition and environment allowing it to express its genetics. Will that be the same in your business? How do you know? You have at best a guess that he may or may not suit your program.
The use of EBVs and particularly those that have high accuracies mean you have a better estimation of the genetic potential of that animal to contribute those traits into your herd. High accuracies mean that data on those genetics has been recorded on numerous programs and environments. This offers you a better insight into the genetic potential of an animal and therefore an opportunity to make a more informed selection.
I’ve never considered an EBV as a crystal ball. Its an estimation based on recordings and analysis. I would never consider them a toy! I use EBVs as a tool that help me select a number of bulls that would contribute the genetics my clients require to increase their production of beef per hectare. Once I have those bulls identified, I need to physically assess them. If the bull is unsound, or has a poor temperament or displays attributes unsuited to my client, I don’t recommend him!
So when I’m asked how useful are EBVs, I always answer that EBVs are a very useful tool. And that tool is to help refine your search for a sire down to a manageable number that you will then physically assess.
Breeding cattle is simple. Being a profitable cattle breeder takes a bit more work and focus. However if you want to be profitable there are tools to help make your job a bit easier. Every tool has a limitation, and if you know the limitations and use them as they are meant to be used, I reckon you can make breeding profitable cattle a bit easier than some people make them out to be!
This time of year my mailbox fills up with catalogues for bull sales being held across the north west of NSW and southern Queensland. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad to be on the mailing list for so many different operations. Its important I know what bulls are being offered and its important I'm able to know these things if I'm going to do my job properly advising clients of what sire decisions they should consider.
One thing that stands out for me, is the number of bulls available each year, and the overwhelming amount of information that is now available for producers. Its impressive and exciting that we can make decisions about the genetic potential of a bull and not be wholly reliant on visual observation and pedigree.
With the availability of EBVs, we now have much more information regarding the genetic potential of a bull to improve herd performance in numerous traits. That information can be vital in making progress in your herd. Especially when you remember that genetic improvement is both long term and cumulative in your herd.
However, in practical terms how do you work your way through a catalogue, let alone several catalogues that may arrive on your desk? I thought I might spend a bit of time offering a few suggestions to make sure you use your catalogue to its full potential, and the bull sale vendors get a return on their investment of producing the catalogues in the first place!
The starting point, as obvious as it seems, is to know what breed you are actually interested in looking at for your next sire! In my case I have a lot of breeds to be across. But for most producers there is really only a need to worry about bulls from the breeds they use in their herds. This is important because you shouldn't be attempting to compare the EBVs of breeds against each other! While the traits recorded may be the same, the EBVs that are published have different values.
When you choose a sire, you should be looking for a sire that will contribute the genetics to move your herd in a specific direction. So ask yourself what is it you want to achieve with your herd? Do you want to improve your growth rate to turn steers off earlier? Do you need more fatness? How big do you want your cows to be in your herd, and so what is the mature size potential of a bull daughters? There are plenty of questions to ask, and you need to have the answers in mind.
With these answers, you can start to look at a catalogue! The front of the catalogues contain valuable information about the sale, and buying conditions. They also contain the information on the breed EBVs. This includes breed average as well as in the breed leaders across the traits. This is designed to help you know if a bull is likely to offer you a genetic advantage in the traits you may be looking for.
The following pages contain information such as reference sires, and this often helps you determine what pedigrees and what breeding objectives the bulk breeder has in mind.
The majority of the catalogue is then made up of information on each bull on offer. Each description includes the Lot Number, Registered Name, Pedigree and Breedplan information (EBVs). Most entries also contain the breeders comments or thoughts.
There are different considerations here. If you are following pedigrees and using specific sire lines in your herd, the pedigree is important information.
Most people in a commercial operation don't need to spend a lot of time on pedigree. Instead look at the EBVs.
The EBVs you should look at are the ones that are important to your breeding direction! If for example you want to improve yield and eye muscle area, these are the EBVs to look at! If it helps, highlight the bulls that fall within your desired range. Often this will be the bulls that have a high accuracy of EBV data and are above breed average in that trait.
If the bulls don't have the genetic potential for your herd direction, then don't spend time worrying about them!
The reality is, most sale offerings of bulls will only have a small proportion of bulls suitable for the direction of your herd. Its not to say there are bulls that are no good. It means not every bull will suit every operation. So spend time looking for the right one. Remember a bulls influence can last up to three generations, so choosing the right one is important.
There is another way to find the sires in a catalogue. The electronic version is to use the BreedObject website. BredeObject allows you to search the catalogues in your breed, and rank animals on either $ Index values, or around the EBVs that you have identified as important in your herd direction.
Basically BreeObject lets you automatically search the bulls being offered and identified them. When you have a result, you can highlight those bulls in the catalogue and take that list of bulls to the sale.
The most important part of the process is to not worry about all the other bulls on offer at a particular sale!
Trust your list and your identified set of animals. These are the ones you know will be genetically most suited to your herd direction and production goals.
When you get to the sale, take the time to look at the bus you have identified. This is your chance to look critically at each bull and assess if his physical attributes are best suited to your herd.
If you have any doubts or you can clearly see the bull doesn't suit your cow herd, then yo can move to the next bull on your list. By the end of the process you should have a purchase list of bulls in order, and it should be a list you can have a lot of confidence in, based on the genetic information available and on your physical assessment!
Its true this approach is perhaps a little more structured than many people are used to. But if you want to make the best decision and purchase a bull to take your program forwards, then I reckon you should do a bit of preparation! If you're not sure where to start, then feel free to give me a call and get some advice. When you do put the work in, you will find your catalogues to be a key stone in the preparation and on the day you buy your next sire.
There's no doubt the prices for cattle have been a major talking point in the last two months. The average sale yard price for cattle of all descriptions are significantly higher than the average over the past 36 months. In some cases records are being broken and many people are struggling to remember if prices have ever been so high.
With this strong market, I've received a lot of requests from people wanting to buy and sell cattle, as well as people looking to understand the industry a little better, to advise them on what an animal is worth.
In the case of commercial animals, I rely on the NLRS market reports, that are available online every day. These are the reports you hear on the ABC Country Hour or read in your weekly rural papers. I reckon these reports are the most useful guide on current market prices, and when we are looking at cattle in a paddock, its the best option to work out a value.
But how do you put a value, or budget on buying new breeding stock such as a new bull or some new cows?
There's lots of people who have an opinion on what a new bull should cost you. As you can imagine the range in opinions is pretty broad! I had some comments on the RaynerAg Facebook page on this topic, with suggestions about buying from smaller studs where the price will be lower, through to the importance of recognising the value of long term genetic improvement.
So how do you value the cost of a bull?
Well there are a few things to consider. The first thing is you are investing in an animal that will have an influence on three generations of your herd. So you need to recognise that you are buying an animal that offers value over a long time.
More importantly, the traits or genetics that bull has, may allow you to produce more kilograms of beef more quickly, or hit your market specifications more efficiently. These improvements in your herd can earn you more, so spending on genetics might well be justified.
I reckon there are some things to think about when determining your spending limit. Firstly how many cows will your bull be joined to in his working life? Unfortunately the average working life of bulls is only around 3.5 years. Many bulls seem to break down physically after this time. This means if you want a bull to have a longer working life, you need to focus on structural soundness as much as on genetic potential.
How many cows will your bull be joined to? On average most producers join bulls at a rate of 3% to their cow groups. Some bulls get slightly higher numbers, but this is pretty much a common joining rate in southern Australia (NSW, Vic, SA, Tas and southern WA). From that we can work out that a bull will probably sire 30 calves a year for 3.5 years. Which means an average bull may sire about 105 calves in his working life.
According to Beef Central, the average price for a bull across all breeds in 2014 was $4639. on current market prices, the salvage value of a bull, that is what it is worth at the end of his working life is around $1500. From this we can work out that the bull is actually worth about $3,139. From this, you can work out the value of every each calf he sires. In this example the cost per calf will be $29.89
If that is the cost of an average calf, then why would you spend more? It now comes back to how much you want to improve your performance. Not every bull is average! Some bulls will grow faster, be leaner or fatter at the same stage of growth, some have better temperament and some have more muscle.
Genetic differences are the key to how productive your herd is. Finding a bull with the genetic potential to move your herd can now be budgeted.
It might be that if you can produce calves that will grow slightly faster than the average, you could turn your steer progeny off 3 weeks earlier. This earlier turn off might allow you to capture a higher market return, and the extra value on those steers justifies spending more than the average on a new bull.
I reckon the challenge in determining how much it costs to buy cattle, isn't about the round figure sale price everyone likes to quote. Instead I reckon its about working out:
how much your calves cost you?
can better genetics help you achieve your target more efficiently?
is there a financial advantage to be had - either in the paddock or at sale time?
If you can answer those questions then I reckon you can work out the price you can afford to spend on bulls. And if you don't really know how to start answering those questions, I reckon you should give me a call and I'll help you come up with some results to take you forward.
There are some questions which seem to be, in current terms, the trending questions. I've shared a few in recent Rayner Reckons. The latest trend is associated with the upcoming round of northern NSW bull sales. I'm pretty sure most people have been asked "are you coming to our bull sale?"
In my previous career with the NSW DPI, as the District Beef Cattle Officer, getting out to bull sales was an important part of the job. There were a few reasons for this. Being at sales gave me a chance to catch up with producers, see what was happening in the seed stock sector, and get a feel for the optimism people had for the year ahead.
Being at a sale was also a great opportunity to talk to producers about how to understand EBVs; what to look for in structure or muscle and even to create some discussion about target markets.
In many ways being at a sale also helped the vendors.
There's no doubt the lead up to and the morning of a bull sale are some of the most demanding times bull breeders will face. They need to speak with existing clients; meet and get to know new clients; make sure the agents are fully briefed on the day and arrange countless other things to make sure the sale goes to plan!
So having the local beef cattle officer at the sale was a good thing. The vendor & agents would often encourage producers to chat to me about those things such as EBVs or the merits of bulls, confident their clients were getting good reliable advice which may help producers buying bulls at the sale.
In developing RaynerAg, attending bull sales is still one of the key services I like to undertake. However, I've had to make some decisions about how and why I go to sales. The simple matter is my business is to provide advice to clients to help them run their business more effectively. When I attend sales now I have to do so to provide that service, and I now have to make that a business decision.
Quite a few bull breeders have asked me if I will be coming to their sale this year.
Several have offered me an opportunity to receive a rebate if I bring clients along who purchase bulls a the sale, similar to that offered to agents introducing new clients.
I've actually chosen to decline this offer.
I'm determined to offer my clients advice which is independent, and not driven by the need to earn commission on sales, be it bulls or animal health products etc.
Instead I've offered the vendors an alternative suggestion. For a fixed fee I will attend their sale day and be on hand to provide purchasers with advice on the bulls. This includes understanding EBVs, comparing bulls in the catalogue, caring for the bull when it is delivered, as well as other questions the purchaser might have. Because I'm not working on a commission purchasers can feel confident in asking me to compare bulls and also to present advice which is truly independent.
The vendors can also feel comfortable knowing that they can steer clients towards me to address their questions and concerns about bulls. This just gives the vendors a chance to work through their sale day with some more support and be confident their new and existing clients are not being neglected!
I reckon this service may not be for every bull seller this year. However for the breeders I am working with, they have told me their clients were happy they had the option (if they wanted it) to seek some help or to bounce some ideas off when looking at the bulls in the catalogue.
I'm looking forward to the sales I'm going to this season. I definitely looking forward to continuing to help producers and bull breeders achieve their goals in buying and selling bulls which will make a positive difference in beef enterprises in the next few years.
The last few weeks have seen plenty of bulls sold into southern Australian breeding herds. The general feedback I'm getting from vendors and others appears to reflect a sense of confidence and optimism for the direction of the beef industry into 2014.
I reckon that sense of confidence is great news. Its very easy to become overwhelmed by the frustration of the drought and the challenges of the industry in northern NSW and northern Australia.
One story which did catch my eye this week came from Victoria. You may have seen the story about knee surgery being performed on an angus bull. Not just any bull, but one which was sold for the record Australian Angus price of $91,000.
I reckon there are lots of things people could say about this story. Its an extraordinary operation on any large animal, and its exciting to know this capacity is available in the right circumstances.
No doubt, the bull has been used to collect semen from for use in AI programs as well as being well insured.
And there is probably plenty of speculation among his owners and managers as to how he injured himself and what will happened in his rehabilitation.
When I read this story I was prompted to think about what lessons I could take from this for myself and my clients, particularly in the current southern bull sale season and as my northern clients go looking for this years sires.
Firstly without a doubt, assessing you bull for his structural soundness is an over riding priority. If you have chosen him for his genetic potential, based on his EBVs then you need to balance that with carefully checking your intend bulls feet, legs, shoulders and hips. I reckon I say this to people every week, but I don't think I can ever say it enough. If your bull has trouble with his feet and legs, he will have trouble walking to cows, mating with them and worse still, putting the genes for bad structure into the herd.
Don't neglect to plan what you will do when you bring your bull home. How will you introduce him into the herd? And more importantly how will you manage him as he integrates with the other bulls in your sire battery? Last year I wrote about bringing your bull home, and there are some useful pointers in that blog.
I reckon the other point this article re-enforced for me was the importance of regularly inspecting your stock for injuries and for general health. If you can't prevent something happening, quick action can ensure the problem doesn't get worse. Of equal importance is the fact that if you catch a problem early you can also start planning on what your backup options may be.
As with most things, if you plan early and think through the implications of an event, you give yourself time to develop good strategies to minimise the impact of a problem on your business and allow you to be proactive rather than constantly reactive.
Late July, August and September are three exciting months in the annual cattle calendar. Calving for most herds occurs over this time. At the same time, the majority of the regions annual bull sales take place.
Buying new bulls is exciting. The chance to acquire new genetics to lift your herd performance should be exciting. Having said that, I reckon buying a new bull is a process that should start well before sale day.
In earlier posts I've discussed the impact a bull will have on your herd over a few generations, and on the importance of putting a plan in place to bring your bull home from the sale. Planning shouldn't start when the catalogue arrives in the mail. It should be on going as you monitor the growth of your cattle; their performance and suitability for your environment and your target markets.
This close attention to production indicators will help you select potential bulls from a catalogue based on their genetic suitability to your enterprise. Not every bull in a catalogue will suit you. When you have found those bulls, try and have a look at them before sale time. As I've said before most bull breeders will be very happy for you to have a look.
If you don't get a chance to see the bulls before sale day, you really need to make plenty of time before the sale actually starts to get into the yard and check your selected bulls out properly.
Ideally you are looking for a bull that displays the physical attributes which complement the genetics identified in the catalogue.
I reckon you need to be assessing each bull for his maturity pattern; structural soundness; testicle size and sheath; muscularity and for temperament.
You should spend your time looking at the bulls which you've selected from the catalogue. By doing that you will be looking at bulls which you know have the genetics you require for your herds development, and you wont be distracted by bulls which might look good, but genetically don't really suit your enterprise.
Its never a bad thing to take someone along to the sale with you to bounce ideas off and to make sure your assessments don't miss anything. It can be hard and really isn't fair to ask the vendor on sale day to give you time to go through the bulls. Some vendors arrange to have an independent industry advisor on hand to help you make your assessments. Its a role I'm undertaking for several sales this season. I'm looking forward to helping producers choose the right bull for their operation and environment.
Once you've made your choice, make sure you have a chance to have a cuppa and catch up with other producers. Be relaxed and bid only on your chosen bull when the sale starts. If you do miss out on your chosen bull, don't bid on anything! That desperate last bull may set your operation back a long way.
If you do miss out, chat to the vendor about what you were looking for. That personal contact might help find some options which really suit you and your operation.
If you make your plans and know what you are looking for, get good advice and find the right bull, you will make an investment which will take your herd forward to a new level of performance.
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