Selecting the Right Bull for Your Herd

— Written By and last updated by Elisabeth Purser
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Black Bull Standing in FieldSelecting the right bull for your herd is an incredibly important decision. In fact, sires will account for about 90% of the genetics in a herd over time. Today, we have tools like EPDs to help us make the best decisions, but with so many traits and numbers it can become complicated quickly. 

Make sure you are selecting a sire that is the best fit for your specific herd. Every producer will have different goals, markets, and environments. There is no “one size fits all” in this decision. It is important to define your goals and create priorities for specific traits. Then you will be able to decide which bulls line up with your priorities. A cow calf operation that is retaining heifers may focus more on maternal characteristics, while someone marketing the beef at a farmers’ market may select for more carcass characteristics. 

Be careful you don’t select for a single trait and ignore all others. Selecting for only calving ease can lead to calves that stay small at weaning and yearling weights, which means less money in your pocket at sale day. However, you cannot select for every single trait, especially since some traits are inherently opposite. Consider how traits interact when making decisions. 

In the same vein, more is not always better. Selecting for the biggest or smallest number may not be the most economical option. For example, selecting for overly high milk production can lead to issues with mastitis. This is a good example of a trait should be optimized, not just maximized. Every farm will have their own optimal values for each trait. 

It’s easy to get distracted by the physical appearance of a potential bull. And while structure is incredibly important in selection decisions, genetic information should not be ignored for favor of a “good looking” animal. Be sure to go over a bull’s EPDs and compare them to your priorities. Remember that EPDs are a comparison within a breed and cannot be read accurately across breeds without first converting the numbers. 

Index EPDs are a very useful tool that combines multiple traits into a single number for easy comparison. For instance, the $M index stands for Maternal Weaned Calf Value. This is the expected value of future progeny due to genetics from conception to weaning. This index will be very helpful for cow-calf producers who are retaining replacement females. The $B is the Beef index, which captures the post weaning performance and carcass value. The $C is the combination index, which combines both the $M and the $B traits into one number. These are just some examples of indexes available to cattle producers.

Understanding EPDs and how they can be used can make a huge difference when purchasing a bull for your herd, which will impact your bottom line. Take the time to develop your goals and do a little research before making an important decision.

If you have any further questions or would like additional information, please contact Union County Livestock Agent Rachel Owens at 704-283-3739.