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!
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!
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