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Learning how to select better bulls

Triple M Red Angus BullNorth Coast Local Land Services has been holding a series of farm based technical days for commercial beef producers across the region. The Field Days are being held as part of North Coast Local Land Services commitment to providing integrated agricultural advice to the region. 

During the recent Field Days, the North Coast Local Land Services team covered off a range of herd health and management issues including what to look for when selecting bulls.

Nathan Jennings, Senior Land Services Officer said, "There are four key areas for consideration when buying bulls: reproductive fitness, temperament and structural soundness, muscling, and estimated breeding values (EBVs).

"There are many ways to improve beef herd productivity and profitability, and one of the most obvious is to select better bulls.

"Other people may change the order of importance of these factors, but the order I like to consider them in is firstly reproductive fitness; temperament and structural soundness; muscling and finally estimated breeding values (EBVs) ," Nathan said.

The bull has to be reproductively sound so he can produce an adequate quantity of good quality semen and also have the willingness to serve cows.  A good way to ensure this is through a Bull Breeding Soundness Evaluation (BBSE). This is not a genetic evaluation but a physical assessment of the bull's reproductive performance. 

A lot of sale catalogues present their bulls as 'vet checked' and it's important to clarify what 'vet checked' means - does it just mean their health status is okay, or does it mean both their health status and reproductive fitness have been assessed? 

In terms of temperament and structural soundness, the bull has to be of good temperament and structurally sound. If a bull is of poor temperament he will be a problem on farm and it's very likely his progeny will follow in his footsteps. It's also important for a bull, as he gets older, to be fit enough to walk and trot across distances and not become sore, which may prevent him from wanting to serve cows. 

As most producers know, the most important structural areas to be aware of are around the hind legs. Look out for post legs, or straight legs, as that exposes a bull to hock problems and arthritis in the hip and stifle joints as he gets older. A sickle hock bull also tends to be a little clumsy when mounting or dismounting from a cow, especially as they get older and heavier. 

Producers also need to be mindful of any extremes in shoulder thickness, which may lead to calving difficulties. In Bos indicus bulls the length of the sheath is important – bulls with long pendulous sheaths are greatly exposed to injury - resulting in one of the main causes of reduced working life in Bos indicus bulls. Average sheath depth in 2 year old Bos indicus bulls is 200mm.

A bull should be well muscled, which helps ensure their progeny will have adequate muscling as well. Better muscled cattle have heavier carcase weights, tend to have higher dressing percentages, meat yield will often be higher and there tends to be a more even fat distribution over the carcase. Obviously muscling needs to be balanced with a farm's environmental conditions, however Beef CRC research showed that in British-bred cattle increasing the muscle score of a cow from D to C had no adverse effects on her reproductive performance.

Any new bulls you're looking to buy should have superior genetics to bulls you've purchased in the past. Estimated breeding values (EBVs) are the best tool available to help provide that genetic information and, therefore, gradual genetic improvement. 

Many experienced cattle producers feel they are capable of visually selecting a good quality bull, but when it comes down to choosing between two bulls with similar age, weight, muscle and fat scores, and both have passed their BBSE, then EBVs can show which is actually the better bull. 

Finally, when using EBVs for genetic improvement, there are four criteria that need to be applied:  the trait has to be of economic importance to the producer; it has to be at least reasonably heritable; the producer has to be able to measure the trait in the progeny and there has to be variation in the trait, so you can expect to make some gain.

Beef production is the North Coast's biggest single agricultural earner, with a gross value of $234 million to the region (ABARES 2011-12).  North Coast Local Land Services is committed to providing programs that improve productivity and support agricultural best practice for this vital industry.

Media contact:          
Nathan Jennings, Senior Land Services Officer Phone 6623 3926

Photo caption: 
Bull selection is crucial in breeding choices
 Image Credit:  Triple M Red Angus, Kyogle