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Thursday, March 16, 2006 08:33 am

How to buy a bull

Taking the guesswork out of picking the right daddy for your babies

I know parents who wish they had half as much information about the boys their daughters bring home as cattle breeders have about today’s purebred bulls. The 38th Annual Illinois Performance Tested Bull Sale, held Feb. 23 at the state fairgrounds, was a showcase of animal genetics. Most of the 111 boys sold that day were 1-year-olds who hadn’t yet had their first encounter with a cow. But experts could already predict how well their future daughters would provide milk for their grandcalves, valuable information that helped the bulls bring an average sale price of $2,210. I’ve seen how they take the pelvic measurement of these bulls, to help predict calving ease for their daughters, and I just don’t think our species would stand for it. Besides, it would be unromantic, not to mention un-American, to get scientific about human matchups. But the advantages provided by information are worth thinking about. For example, when you’re buying a bull at this sale, you know that he’s already been checked for proper testicle suspension. You’ll know his scrotal circumference, which must be at least 32 centimeters or he won’t even make it into the sale. In case you didn’t know, daughters of bulls with larger scrotal circumferences have greater lifetime reproductive potential. And you can check out the bull’s weight per day of age — 3.1 to 3.7 pounds for most of these fellas — which puts a 1-year-old at 1,100 to 1,300 pounds. As I say, it wouldn’t work to ask your daughter’s boyfriend to step on the scale and give you his birthdate while you plug the numbers into a calculator. But when it comes to bull buying, statistics take some of the guesswork out of picking a herd sire. Buyers who need to breed many first-calf heifers look for bulls labeled “calving ease direct,” which predicts that their calves will be small enough to come into the world unassisted but will gain weight rapidly once they’re on the ground. Computers crunch numbers to come up with EPDs, or “expected progeny differences,” which predict how good a bull’s daughters will be as mothers and his sons as steaks. There are EPDs for birth weight, yearling weight, and maternal milk. Then come the bull’s ratings for such qualities as marbling (the fat in the meat that makes it taste good), intramuscular fat, and percentage of ribeye area, a grim reminder that cute calves grow up to be carcasses. All this may seem to overemphasize the male side of the equation. But think about it: A good bull will father 20 to 40 calves a year; a cow will parent only one. Still, you have to know how to pick cows, too, or your bull’s work will be wasted. Last year I attended the Beef Cow Efficiency Conference, sponsored by the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension Service. There I learned that a pretty face has nothing to do with it. There are many factors to consider in choosing the right cow to add to your herd. One of the first to look at is structural soundness — feet, legs, shoulders, and so on. You need to see that she walks in a straight line. Then you look at udder and teat conformation. An ideal udder is snugly attached, symmetrical, and of moderate length. The size of the animal is important — not too tall and not too short — but you want good fleshing ability, the ability to put on maximum weight with a minimum amount of feed. Fertility is important. One would hope that the cow has regularity of calving and ability to produce superior calves year after year. Calving ease is important. The cow should be able to produce a calf unassisted. “Mothering ability” is a consideration as well. The cow with mothering ability has the ability to calve with ease, then promptly get the calf up and clean it, nurse it, and protect it. Most who evaluate cows underestimate the importance of disposition. Cows are evaluated on a scale of (1) docile, (2) restless, (3) nervous, (4) flighty, (5) aggressive, and (6) very aggressive. Those in the No. 6 category are known as killers. Australian researchers have evaluated disposition on the basis of “chute exit velocity” — that is, how fast they run to get out of a chute. The presenters said that it’s not worth it to try to train a fast cow or one that jumps your fence: “If you have a wild cow, she’s unsafe to have around. Replace her.” If you’re developing a herd of beef cattle, these are helpful pointers. Whatever you do, don’t try this at home.
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