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Finding the Good One's

    

The waning summer days are a transition time for seedstock producers across much of beef country. The spring-born calves are growing up fast, with some early calves already weaned or being weaned very soon. Mating decisions that determine the sale bulls and heifers available for the 2020-2021 sale season are mostly completed — the cows have been AI’d, and bulls are in the pastures. Cattle displayed at county and state fairs have been judged, ranked, scored, and discussed. And, the “good” ones are already being sorted from the rest of the calves in preparation for being offered in production and bull sales beginning in just a few months. But, how do we know that we have really identified the “good” ones? How can we be confident that we are selecting the seedstock animals that our customers really need to improve their profitability?

Sire selection is one of the most important decisions affecting the profitability and future of a beef operation. According to Marty Ropp, Allied Genetic Resources, a bull can genetically influence a herd that retains their own replacement heifers nearly 20 years after the bull was purchased. Ten years after a bull is purchased, a substantial number of two- to seven-year-old cows in a herd will be his daughters, and through his granddaughters and great-granddaughters, the bull will still be influencing the herd!

Every customer selects bulls based on different criteria and selection tools. But every customer is at a different level in their ability to use and understand the tools available to assist them in selecting the best bull for their operation. Dr. Matt Spangler, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, speaking at the 2019 Beef Improvement Federation Conference, suggested that “best” becomes a relative concept. “Because sire selection happens only once a year, or even less often for smaller producers, the familiarity with selection tools and the process becomes cumbersome,” he said. And, “a less-desirable bull may be chosen because the purchase price is sometimes (or often) determined by cash flow.”

It has been said that the responsibility for genetic improvement and genetically derived profit rests almost entirely on the shoulders of the seedstock industry. As seedstock producers, we are, in a sense, refining the raw material used for beef production. We have available an evolving box of selection tools to help us accurately identify bulls that are superior in the various traits that our customers need to be successful.  Our customers make their decisions based on their understanding of the tools. To understand our responsibility for our customers’ success, we might think of bull buyers in three broad categories related to their use of sire selection tools:

• Customers in the top group will likely have specific business goals and believe that your genetics are valuable in their program. They don’t need your help in selecting bulls or understanding the data, EPDs, and indexes. They know how to apply the tools as well or better than you do, and thoroughly study the data, perhaps applying individually customized indexes or selection criteria. They may have excellent phenotype judging and evaluation skills — surpassing your own. These could be experienced seedstock or commercial buyers. These are buyers who expect you to provide every piece of data you can collect, and challenge you to provide more.

• Customers in the middle group may also have clear business and profit goals, but have not acquired a confident understanding of data or selection tools. But they are open and anxious to learn and provide you the challenge of teaching them how to apply various selection tools. They expect you to help them understand how and why you applied the tools when selecting the bulls you have offered for sale.

• The third group of customers would include those who have little understanding or willingness to apply objective selection tools. They are likely more focused on excellent husbandry and management to drive profitability. Some in this group will completely trust your selections, and may just ask you to pick bulls that fit their operation.

Each group expects and trusts us to have applied the correct mating and selection criteria. And expects that we have correctly used the best tools to honestly evaluate our bull offering. The first group has confidence that our data completely portrays the cattle. They don’t need our help choosing bulls, but they challenge us to “give me more data next year.” The middle group needs us to be prepared to consult and educate them, trusting that we will steer them toward the best bulls for their needs, and help them understand why/how we made those recommendations. The final group is perhaps where it takes the most patience and integrity. They may not ask for any help from us at all and make their selections on criteria that we believe are misguided or incorrect. Or they may ask us to make the decision for them, sometimes without us fully understanding their needs and goals. If we have honestly selected superior bulls across the spectrum for our offering, even these producers will make genetic progress by using our bulls. But if we use this group as an outlet for inferior or marginal bulls, we must take responsibility for the lack of progress those producers make in future years.

Each bull buyer has a specific market to fill with progeny from the bull and may have very different willingness to pay for the information provided by different tools. For example, if a bull buyer has a business focused on her cattle being competitive in the show ring, visual appraisal may be preferred over ratios or EPDs. Another buyer looking for “never miss” calving-ease bulls combined with the genetic ability to sire high-quality, high-yield carcasses would prefer an all-purpose selection index or may select bulls based on a terminal index with some focused emphasis on calving ease.

As seedstock suppliers, this annual late-summer exercise of picking the “good” ones becomes a serious job that requires using the best and latest tools, careful documentation, complete data, familiarity with our customers, and an honest appraisal. Each selection tool has value — some when applied alone and more when combined with other tools to inform more accurate EPDs and indexes. Our job in this season of the seedstock year is to carefully gather the most complete, most accurate data and observations we can on the calves we hope to offer for sale in the upcoming sale season. We started this process well over a year ago when we made our own sire selections that resulted in the calves we are evaluating now. Thus, the tools we applied and the mating decisions we made in 2018 will affect the genetic value and profitability of our customers’ herds into the year 2037. We have a responsibility to our customers, and to the industry, to do the best job we can using the best tools we have to pick the “good” ones for the future. 

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