There are several important factors to consider when selecting a bull to sire replacement females. The bull makes a lasting contribution to the herd (good or bad); the quickest way to change the genetics of a herd is through sire selection. You want that contribution to be beneficial to your purposes, moving your heifers in the best direction to meet the goals of your breeding program.
Seedstock producers are finding that maternal qualities are as important to most of their bull buyers as weaning and yearling weight, and some of these maternal qualities cannot be measured with EPDs. EPDs don’t measure some of the most important traits you need to evaluate when selecting breeding stock — things like conformation, disposition, udder shape and teat size, for instance.
Mark and Della Ehlke raise purebred Herefords near Townsend, Montana, along with a small herd of purebred Angus to raise crossbred replacement heifers for their commercial herd. “Selecting a bull is a twofold situation for us,” says Mark. “Any bull that we bred ourselves is an easy selection process; we simply look at past production on that cow family.” Their operation has a lot of history behind any bull that they raise.
“If we buy a bull from someone else’s herd, we do as much research as possible, using the internet and checking production records on the cow and grand-dam,” he says. “I also want to see the animals. Over time, we’ve narrowed down to a couple of cow families we really like. We’ve purchased sons and grandsons from those cow families.”
These bloodlines have worked well for their breeding program. “There may be a generation or two of something else in there, so it’s not quite line breeding, but we like to use proven cow families,” says Ehlke.
When looking at the dam of a potential sire, it can be easier to evaluate her critically if she’s an older cow rather than a two-or three-year-old. With age, you get a better idea about how her udder, feet and legs and other physical aspects hold up.
“It’s good to also review all the data you can get your hands on, such as EPDs, and actual carcass data, but keep in mind that all of these are just tools,” says Ehlke. “We don’t recommend selecting for a single trait. Everything needs to be weighed and balanced. Keep it middle of the road. Milk is something that I select against. You have to be careful, with some family lines, that you don’t bring in too much additional milk. You have to match this with your resources.” Some people have selected for so much milk that the cows cannot keep their body condition—putting too much energy into milk production. They don’t rebreed on time in a real world environment.
“This brings its own set of problems,” he says. “Longevity is important. You don’t want poor udder attachments or the udder will go downhill rapidly.” Even if a cow raises a good calf, if she can’t breed back on time or her udder goes bad, she won’t last very long in your herd. Some cows can milk well and still have a good udder in old age, while others will sag and break down.
“Once that happens, there’s never any improvement,” says Ehlke. “If you start out with a bad udder, it’s never going to get any better. You need better-than-average udders to start with. Udder attachment, teat length, and other features are very important in our selection process. We udder score all our cattle at calving time every year, and cull those that don’t measure up.”
Calving time is the best time to assess udders, because some cows’ teats shrink up again after the calf has suckled for a few weeks and the udder may look good, and you forget how big and ballooned the teats can get, until next calving season. “I don’t want to be milking cows or having to assist a calf in getting on a teat,” he says. “That’s not my goal in raising beef cows.”
When selecting a sire, Ehlke says a bull also has to make the grade in looks. “Phenotype is important, and these animals have to be correct,” he says. “We like females with a lot of ribcage and capacity. It’s a complicated selection process, to put it all together.”
Most breeders have a picture in the back of their minds of what the ideal female should look like. There may not be an ideal cow, but some cattle come closer than others. Then you have to put this together with performance. You want everything in a cow’s favour, for performance and longevity.
“We are trying to breed a herd of ideal cows,” says Ehlke. “That’s the exciting challenge of a breeding program, and it certainly keeps your interest, when you can see things that work, or can see you’re making progress in certain directions. It’s always a work in progress, and we keep learning more about breeding and cattle selection, and the cattle themselves are always teaching us.”
HeatherSmithThomasrancheswithher husbandLynnnearSalmon,Idaho.Contact herat208-756-2841