One of the more rewarding jobs I’m asked to undertake for producers is to select their replacement females. The rewards for this job come in various ways. Firstly it’s great to be trusted to make decisions that will impact on the long-term direction of a herd. Secondly, I find a great deal of satisfaction in participating in a process that has a direct impact on the financial returns from a breeding herd, not to mention influencing the overall productivity of that herd.
I’m often surprised in the way many producers approach selection. I often encounter herds that have only one criteria for selection, which is that cows must have a calf every year. Now there’s certainly nothing wrong with this criteria. But that’s only one area to consider.
So what should you consider during selection?
Structural soundness is fundamental in a herd. The ability of your cattle to walk and forage directly impacts on their individual performance and on your herd’s productivity. Cattle that have poor leg structure suffer from arthritis; are prone to lameness and find walking distances to access feed and water more difficult, especially as they get older.
The flow on effect of this is a reduction in the ability of individual cows to meet their feed demands for maintenance, growth and production. Cows with a lower condition score at calving take longer to start cycling again. A late cycle puts the cow further behind in calving, and this cascades to a point where she may have only cycled once in the 12 week joining period.
Her ability to deliver a calf unassisted is also impacted on by structure. The angle between her pins and hips has a direct influence on calving ease, as does the width between her pins.
Teat size and udder structure are also important in the structural assessment process. Achieving the genetic potential of your calves to gain weight to weaning is greatly dependent on the cows milk supply. Poor udder attachment, badly sized teats are common causes of everything from poor suckling to mastitis and reduced milk production.
Maturity pattern should be a focus in selection. In the back of your mind you need to consider if the cattle you are producing will have the right level of fatness for your target markets. But you also need to think about the cows and their energy demands. Larger framed, later maturity cows require more feed, and if you don’t have the feed to met those demands you will either have lower fertility levels, or you will have to run less cows.
It’s equally important to have an even group of cows. Evenness will help you manage feed supply to your cows more effectively. You will find the process of managing joining and calving more efficient than if you are trying to juggle the different needs of big and little cows.
Lets not forget that having a range of cow sizes will also mean a range of weaner sizes. If you are trying to manage for a drought, not to mention hit a specific turn off time or weight, various sized weaners will cause you no end of headaches.
The Other Traits
Temperament is one of the most important traits to select for. I really don’t like cranky cows, flighty cows, or those cows you just can’t trust! Selecting out the quieter, less nervous cattle will improve your handling experiences, for both you and your cattle!
And never forget that quiet cattle produce a quieter calf. This in turn that is directly related to their eventual eating quality.
I also use the time to select for those cattle that have the traits that add value to your turn off. I try and select cattle that have superior growth for age (within the maturity pattern suitable for the area), and for cattle that display a higher degree of muscularity.
Can you put a price on it?
Its actually not that hard to put a price on the benefits of improved selection. Not so long ago I ran a comparison on a clients herd. I looked at the impact selection had when we changed operations to keep cows in the herd for 2 more years, and to tighten calving from 16 weeks to 12 weeks.
Focusing on an early maturity pattern did help us tighten joining. We also managed nutrition more effectively during joining so that the cows were on a rising plane of nutrition.
These changes impacted a number of areas across the herd. It changed the number of replacement heifers we were keeping, changed the age structure slightly in the cow herd, and changed the value of the weaners being sold. The value story was interesting as this was the influence of having a greater number of cattle at a similar age and weight, rather than smaller numbers across a couple of different weight categories.
When we I ran the numbers I found we had actually increased the gross margin by 19%! That was a huge lift in productivity and profitability, and we really hadn’t done anything other than change some selection criteria.
Now this was a pretty big shift, and I reckon not everyone will get a huge lift. Although there are gains to be made trough the sale of more surplus females, tightened joining, improved time management and so on.
Ultimately I reckon it proves that focusing on these traits is financially worth doing. And as someone who enjoys doing this work, I’ll always be happy to come and do it for breeders. Its one job I know more than pays for itself!
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.
How do you benchmark your livestock against other people? Seedstock producers are fortunate to have Breedplan which provides breeders with a way of measuring and comparing the genetic potential of their animals through EBVs. Without doubt EBVs provide a chance to assess genetic potential for the commercial traits essential to improving a beef enterprise.
So where does the show ring fit in todays commercial world? As someone who has been involved in agricultural shows for over 25 years as an exhibitor, steward, judge and organiser, I think about this question a lot!
I reckon the show ring still provides plenty of learning for producers, either in showing their cattle or just from watching the events.
Observing animals closely, as they walk around a ring, and as they stand still for judging, lets you get up close and personal to observe the physical characteristics which the animal has. Questions like the shape and angle of feet and legs, the size of testicles, the placement of teats on the udder. These physical features are as important as the genetic potential of the animal.
Comparing animals of the same age and breed against each other gives you a chance to see how the animal has expressed their genetic potential when they receive the nutrition they require.
Being able to compare your animals in an environment where you will be exposed to an outside opinion does challenge you! But any challenge is also an opportunity. It is a chance to see what your breed is doing, and to see if there is much variation in the breed type, as well as what your animals look like at the same age and weight as animals of other breeds.
Its important not to underestimate the importance of networking with other breeders, and producers at a show. The show ring remains an important publicity tool for your program and for the type of cattle you are seeking to breed. Many producers are looking to make contact with breeders and to see how animals compare against each other. Its part of the information gathering process many people undertake when they are looking for new genetics.
I find producers enjoy supporting their bull breeders at local, regional and state shows. There is a degree of pride in seeing the breeder who supplies you with genetics, being prepared to display their animals and compete for recognition in a public arena.
To me it, by exhibiting your livestock you are saying you are proud of your animals and are prepared to showcase them publicly which we all know can be challenging as you are exposed to public praise and public critique.
Generally most people will remember seeing you in the ring and remember the chats they have with you in the cattle sheds more than they will remember where you placed in the class. This recognition and awareness can underpin your sale in coming months.
Judges at shows should be able to offer you an independent observation on your animals compared to their peers in a class. True it is a subjective opinion. But don't forget, people who haven't seen your animals before may notice something which you haven't really noticed, or because you see it so often, you take it for granted. Most judges will be happy to chat after the event, so take the time to meet the judge and discuss their comments. Its often the outside view that can help you piece together an idea which really benefits you in the long run.
For me, the show, be it the local show or the Royal, is a chance to spend some time with people who are enthusiastic about breeding cattle and who have a vision for their business. I look forward to being around passionate and enthusiastic people and I draw a lot of energy from them.
The show ring does give you a chance to showcase your animals, to benchmark their performance, and most importantly, it lets you mix with people who will share ideas and passions which you can use to boost yourself towards new goals.
In the last few posts I've talked about the things you should consider when you are looking to purchase a new bull. Its great to hear from several clients who said they found that advice helpful as they look for this seasons new sires.
Several of the producers I've been working with have already bought bulls in preparation for Spring joining. I reckon its important to mention the things you need to consider when you bring your new bull home.
The first thing to remember is you own the bull from the moment the hammer falls, so think about how you want him to be cared for and transported home. Consider some transport insurance as well.
When you do get your new bull home, remember he will feel pretty unsettled. Its best to let him into the yards with a few steers or some older cows for company.
If you have bought bulls from different properties, you need to make sure they are put into separate yards.
Give your new bull some hay and make sure there is water in the yards and then leave him (or them) alone to settle down.
Its important to undertake routine health treatments, and you need to speak with the vendor before hand regarding any treatments for worms, fluke, lice and health treatments such as 5 in 1 and Vibriosis vaccinations.
Remember your new bull will take a little while to settle in to his new home.
So when you work him through the yards give him space and time to learn the new way of doing things.
When you do let him put of the yards, let him into a well secured paddock with good feed and water with a few steers for company. Not only do the steers provide some company, but they will help your new bull find the water and settle into his new home with much less stress.
The other good thing to do is to have a quick follow up call to the bull breeder. They do like to know that you and the bull got home safely as well as knowing about how he has settled in to his new environment.
Its great to hear this week of a record price being paid for a Poll Hereford bull. I reckon this signals not just great confidence in the bull, but confidence in the beef industry.
Investing in new genetics does pay off. New genetics offer your herd a permanent and cumulative effect. Which can be a good thing in many instances. But, if you don't do your homework, you can introduce some less desirable traits as well. One bull can influence up to three generations, so it pays to look at all aspects of the bull and make sure you select the right one for your herd and your environment.
I'm looking forward to the Northern Beef Week, which kicks off from the 17th of June, 2013. I reckon its a great chance to drop in and look at some great cattle before the bull selling seasons really kicks off. I have a few places to go and see. I am looking forward to visiting Nick & Prue Lee at Pine Ridge, as well as Bruce & Helen Scrivener at Yarrowitch.
If you are planning on visiting a few places, or you'd like a few suggestions, I'd be happy to help you!
- Are you feeding enough?
- Have you really considered what you are feeding?
- Dont rush to judge during this drought
- Critical decisions for your cows
- Some drought feeding tips
- Using fat scores on farm
- What’s the point of recording that?
- How do you prioritise risk?
- Water has no nutritional value!
- Profit - is it a numbers game?
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