Whether you're a beef producer or seedstock producer, bull evaluation is an important skill. Steve Paisley, beef cattle specialist at the University of Wyoming, has completed extensive research related to bull evaluation. Scott Keith, Wyoming seedstock marketing specialist, also has insight on the topic. He believes it's important for beef producers to avoid information overload when they're researching bulls.
"Most producers don't thoroughly understand expected progeny differences (EPDs), residual feed intake (RFI) and DNA," Keith says. "A balance of traits is what people need to look at. Keep in mind that everyone's trait balance will be somewhat different. If you're a commercial producer and selling calves at optimum price is your goal, your balance of traits are different than someone breeding for carcass quality. With recent technologies and capabilities in the genetic industry, we've created information overload. It's okay to study some of that data, but don't forget the basics, the tools we've always used."
One of the simplest tools Keith recommends using is a solid relationship with a seedstock producer. He believes a buyer will purchase with confidence and be able to find the right genetics when the supplier understands his production goals.
"Seedstock producers need to know what kind of environment their client works with and what they hope to get out of their herd," Keith says. "Genetic traits need to match that environment and production goals. A cattleman in South Dakota will want different traits than one grazing cattle in Wyoming. You have to take time to build that relationship of trust. And talk to more than one seedstock producer. Get the perspective of several different people, then make the decision that's best suited to your production goals. You can't just go on the Internet and look at numbers, or work through a catalog and then make a decision. You need to know that seedstock producer's goals, too. Why is he producing the genetics that he has? Do his goals match yours?"
Keith also cautions buyers against focusing solely on the bulls that seem to possess the top-rated numbers. He says many bulls, rated just below the top animals, can provide equally good genetics at far less cost.
"Don't overlook the lower-level animals," Keith says. "You don't necessarily need the newest, biggest thing in the industry to successfully produce beef. If you're a producer who does have a thorough knowledge of bloodlines, it may be important to study the bloodlines and review all the data. However, you can still select a quality bull without analyzing all that information. Numbers may not always be what they seem to be. If you've done your homework and you have a relationship with your seedstock producer, you're going to know how much faith you can put in the numbers you're reviewing."
Paisley's latest research project involved studying RFI. He says research outcomes were interesting.
"We had two bulls who both gained 3.1 pounds per day. If you were evaluating them in a standard manner, based on performance, you'd say that both bulls gained an equal amount of weight and should be evaluated similarly," Paisley says. "However, if you look at the RFI, one bull ate 17 pounds of feed per day to gain 3.1 pounds. The other bull ate 34.5 pounds of grain to gain the same weight. This illustrates the difference of evaluated bulls based on performance instead of efficiency. We haven't had RFI data in the past. It could prove to be valuable tool in the future.
"In my mind there are two, maybe three types of efficiencies," Paisley adds. "I may be over simplifying it, but production efficiency for the cowherd and feed efficiency are critical. Feed costs and those associated costs are 65-70 percent of yearly expenses, so feed efficiency is very important."
The immediate reaction to technology such as RFI is that it will be a great tool to use and should be capitalized on. However, Paisley notes beef producers still need to do their homework before diving into the "newest and best" in technologies.
"Feed efficiency is important, but you also need to keep in perspective what is making your ranch profitable as well. Production efficiency is also important. A lot of different things come into play, such as the fertility of your cows. Do they breed back every year? If not, then you put feed into that cow for almost a year and if she stays open, that creates a big inefficiency in your herd," Paisley says. "Longevity is also important to production efficiency. So you need a broad overall perspective on what makes your ranch profitable."
While it may sound like a broken record, Paisley believes one of the best methods to improve herd fertility and cow longevity is a crossbreeding program.
"As an industry, we're kind of stuck on one-breed rotation right now," Paisley says. "Looking at any type of crossbreeding program would help there."
Performance, feed intake, feed efficiency and RFI are four areas Paisley advises buyers and breeders to evaluate when examining the traits of a bull. While negative RFI can be a positive trait, that alone won't guarantee satisfactory performance in any animal.
"The first cardinal rule of genetic selection is don't single-trait select." Paisley says. "The dairy industry did this for milk production and they ended up with a bunch of different problems because of it. There are a lot of factors that go into play when looking for the efficiency in your herd. The big question is how effective are your cows already? By selecting a bull that doesn't match the environment of your current herd, you could take several years of progress and end up going backwards with the wrong bull."
Paisley affirmed Keith's insight, noting that every beef operation will have a different focus that aligns with production goals.
"I do think feed efficiency should be in that mix," Paisley says. "I believe that trait is going to be critical to production success as we move forward. Beef producers should be aware of how their animals are rated in regard to feed efficiency and move toward efficient bloodlines."
Paisley admits that one hard question to answer in searching for an efficient bull is how much is the bull worth? Purchase of the highest-priced animal is no guarantee of reaching production goals.
Since 2008, Montana State University extension beef specialist John Paterson has compiled information gathered from the Midland Bull Test, which was developed by the McDonnell family in Columbus, MT. The test calculates true feed utilization, measuring differences in metabolic efficiencies.
Paterson has used his collected data to compare RFI scores (as well as other traits) to the actual sale price of bulls to determine if there is a premium for negative RFI bulls, and what that premium is.
"That data would suggest that buyers do recognize the value of negative RFI, but in perspective of all traits, buyers valued growth, birthweight and age traits more than RFI," Paisley says. "I think this demonstrates that there is definitely value with improved feed efficiency, but it needs to be used in the context of overall production efficiency."
Paisley agrees with Keith that buyers should not rely on data or visual evaluation alone. A long-time important component of bull evaluation is talking directly with seedstock producers and breeders. It's wise to talk to more than one seedstock producer to help make accurate bloodline/sire selections for a herd.
"Prior to the sale, talk to one of the breeders and ask questions, voice any concerns you may have," Paisley says. "Consider the recommendations they may have. All of this is valuable information when making bull selection."