The School of Hard Knocks

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The School of Hard Knocks

by Luke Bowman     |          

Luke BowmanI want to share an important lesson I learned this past year -- a lesson I learned the hard way.

It was grass time around the farm back in Indiana. The calves were a couple of months old, the cows had one round of AI and the lush green growth was calling the herd.

My father wanted to cut back on cows before they went to pasture. Since I live so far away and cannot help out too much on the farm, I volunteered to sell a small portion of the cows that I own.

Not wanting to take them to the sale barn, I called up a friend and asked if he was looking for cattle or knew anyone looking for grass-time pairs. He had space and was willing to take them off my hands. The cows were all a few generations AI-bred, and they had AI-sired calves at side. I knew there was genetic value there, but I was about to learn a hard lesson in herd management and marketing.  

The pairs were sold over the phone at an agreeable price. I didn’t get rich by any stretch of the imagination; I priced each pair the same and I think I even gave a discount if he would take all five pairs I had sorted off.  My friend had the cattle picked up and living in cow country in the central part of the US in a matter of days.

Around weaning time, I called to check in with my buddy on how the calves shaped up at the end of the season. Did they wean off heavy? Which one was his favorite? Did he think they would all make the bull sale in the spring? 

My friend’s reply brought all good news: the calves did awesome, no one got sick, they should all make the sale, and one of them was a “genetic freak,” as he put it. 

We’ll refer to this calf as “Tag 5.” I was glad things went well and before I got off the phone, I asked him what he meant by a genetic freak? He genomically tested the calves, and Tag 5’s EPDs improved with his genomics; however, I was nowhere near prepared for what my friend had to share. He further explained that Tag 5 kept his great calving ease figures (an extremely important trait; I ALWAYS consider CED and CEM when making mating decisions), shot up on growth into the Top 1% of the breed, and also ranked amongst the very best (lowest) in the breed for Mature Cow Weight (editor’s note, based on American Angus Association EPDs)

Now, this was ideal. Calving ease was in check, all the growth we can get in a moderate, not over-sized package. His carcass traits all landed above average too. But I didn’t really put together how good this calf was until I did an EPD search myself. 

If you sorted the breeds database for YW to MW there was no other animal in the entire population even close to him. GULP. I started to sweat.

I continued to stay in touch with my friend throughout the year and the set of bulls developed nicely. I heard there were ramblings about folks finding him on the EPD search tool with typing in parameters to get max growth with under-control size, quality carcass, etc. 

Then came sale day in early March. The bull sold. He sold well. He brought more than $50,000 and was sold to a major bull stud. Lots of money made, but none of it for me! This is what I get for cutting corners and trying to stay cheap, I guess. Had I genomically tested the bull, I would have retained an interest and reaped some of the dollars made not only for his purchase but also semen sales in the future.

The school of hard knocks taught me that bottom line – TEST YOUR CATTLE. Know as much as you can before breeding or marketing them to someone else!


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