Six Vital Question You Must Ask Before Buying a Herd Sire

By Tom Elliott (2015 updated by Saige Albert)

The purchase of a herd sire is a major investment, both financially and in terms of the genetic makeup of your herd. Even though a bull only contributes 50 percent of his genetic material to each calf, the number of calves he sires dramatically increases the magnitude of a bull's contribution. Furthermore, producers tend to place greater selection intensity on bulls because they select a smaller percentage of bulls, change bulls more often than cows, and can cull more bulls. In fact, the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center estimates that 80 to 90 percent of the genetic improvement in a herd comes form bull selection.

Under the best of circumstances, there is always some risk that the herd sire you purchase won't accomplish your goals. We've all experienced these disappointments. To help reduce that risk, I've put together this article exploring some of the most important questions you need to ask prior to purchasing a new herd sire. I've also asked a number of my colleagues in the seedstock industry, as well as other leading experts, to share their thoughts in order to give you the best possible advice and balanced perspective. While this article is intended for registered cattle breeders, most of this material is also applicable to commercial producers.

Over the years when I was at the N-Bar, we bought many herd sires ranging in value from $2,500 to $120,000, and most were good genetic additions to our herd. However, we made a few mistakes along the way. I want to share some of these mistakes with you, and offer solutions to help you avoid making the same mistakes. I also want to give you some common sense guidelines to increase the effectiveness of your herd sire purchase and to help you add value to your breeding program.

The most common mistake producers make, as outlined in our previous article, "Five Costly Bull Selection Mistakes and Their Solutions," is failing to establish goals.

Before you do anything, you have to determine your priorities and what you want to accomplish within your herd. Random selection of bulls will result in random production results. Begin by assessing your herd's present strengths and weaknesses. Then select the breed, a breeder, and finally a bloodlines and the specific bull that will take your herd in the direction of your goals.

Lee Leachman of Leachman Cattle Company in Billings, Montana agrees with the notion of choosing a breed, selecting a breed, then selecting a bull. Further, he states, "One of the first things is determining priorities in terms of breeding objectives and having a sense of where the cowherd is today and where you want it to be tomorrow. Pick the breed that will do that for you. Then the tough part starts."

Determining Breeding Objectives

1) What are my breeding objectives? Planning for success in the cattle business requires the thoughtful development of goals. Begin by assessing your present strengths and weaknesses. The benchmark competitive production parameters such as cost per pound of calf weaned per cow exposed to bulls, calving interval or yearling weights. Develop a vision related to the direction of the industry, your personal view of the landscape and the resource base to be managed. State this vision in terms of specific goals, and then develop strategies which can move you toward those goals.

When buying a herd sire, "Pick breeders who have a program in the direction that you believe in," says Lee Leachman.

"Select herd bulls from a program like yours or like you would like yours to be," agrees Dave Nichols of Nichols Farms in Iowa. "Then choose a bull that excels in traits you want in your herd."

"In genetic all animals revert back to the breed average and average of the herd which bred them," continues Nichols. "For example, if the breeder you are buying from has no selection criteria for udder soundness, the chances of getting a bull that will improve that trait in your herd are slim - even if his dam has a good udder. You a re better off buying a son of an average udder quality cow from a herd that emphasizes this trait if indeed udder quality was one of the traits you are looking to improve."

Nichols says to closely analyze selection criteria of a herd before you ever start looking at the bull. EPDs are the best tools to verify the traits that relate to calving ease, growth, maternal traits and carcass.

As pointed out earlier, random selection of bulls will result in random production results. Similarly, selection for too many performance traits will reduce the likelihood off successful results. To significantly improve production efficiency and income, registered and commercial producers need to document their present level of production and establish goals for five to 10 years in the future. An effective long-range goal answers three questions: What do you want to accomplish? Why do you want to do it? How will you accomplish the goal?

Performance of any cowherd must be measured in both economic and production terms. Beef production on a commercial scale is generally a function of growth management. The four major growth responses that can be impacted and most easily measured are:

  1. Percentage of calf crop weaned per cow exposed,
  2. Length of calving season,
  3. Weaning weight, and
  4. Yearling weight.

Factors that contribute to total growth in the herd are reproduction, survival rate, genetic potential and environment.

Other genetic selection traits that are critical to the production environment are:

  • Milk production,
  • Mature size,
  • Ability to store energy (fleshing ability),
  • Adaptability to stress,
  • Calving ease, and
  • Lean yield and carcass traits.

Selecting a Breed

2) What breed of bull will help me achieve my objectives?

In this article, we have assumed that you have already made this choice. At the N-Bar, we recommend Black Angus as your foundation breed. But many breeds offer a wide range of positive qualities. Study those qualities and select the bred that will bring your herd closest to realizing your goals. Then move on to the complex challenge of selecting a breeder and herd sire.

Selecting a Breeder

3) Does the breeder have a line-breeding philosophy that coincides with my own?

Sinclair Cattle Company operates under the philosophy of line breeding, which recognizes that there are 4,000 genetic differences in genetic brothers. To improve, the gap in those differences must be closed, and line breeding can accomplish the goal.

Heterosis, a benefit can be gain from crossbreeding that is free. That benefit has been lost in the mongrelization of the nation's cowherd, but operations that perpetuate heterosis allow some benefits.

4) How long has the breeder been in business?

The length of time the breeder has been in business makes a difference. The average Angus breeder's life is seven years, but those that have weathered the test of time, through the ups and down of the cattle market, are ones to look at.

Operations like N-Bar, Jorgensen, Gartner-Denowh, Dale Davis and Graham's are several breeders who have had a true commitment to genetic improvement.

5) Does the breeder give me a good explanation of where his program is headed?

"Pick a breeder who will provide you with lots of reliable information in the form of performance testing information," says Lee Leachman. "Write for a breeder's information catalogue or brochure."

"There are dramatic differences out there among breeders," Says Leachman. "Some have a clear idea of where their program is going, and they explain it to you. Others don't explain t to you and often don't have a good idea. If you can't get a good explanation of where a breeder is going, it may be because he doesn't know.

Study the pedigrees of bulls that make contributions in the cattle business, and seek out those breeders for advice. Dave Nichols says read catalogues and advertisements.

"Look at what the breeder is presenting," says Nichols. "If he's showing you a photo of a show bull, but promoting 'range-ready, proven young bulls' - what is he promoting? What are you really going to get from his program?" Nichols says call or write breeders who seem to have a program you have an interest in, and ask them to send you all the information about their herd.

"Do your research well before you're going to need the bull," says Nichols. "Not 'let's see what's coming up at the sale this Thursday.'"

6) Does the breeder I'm considering buying from have a reputation for integrity?

"Don't buy a herd bull from anyone you wouldn't trust with your credit card," says Dave Nichols. "You should only buy a herd bull from a breeder in whom you have total trust. You need to know that their records are accurate and honest, and their birth weights are honest - because, in effect, you are handing your checkbook to that person. That sire can have a tremendous effect on your financial outcome for years."