Genetic Powerhouse

Pick the Right Bull for the Job

Victoria G Myers
By  Victoria G. Myers , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
Breed associations use the latest technology to take the guesswork out of picking a bull. (DTN/Progressive Farmer photo by Sam Wirzba)

Too much of a good thing can send anyone down the wrong trail. In the case of cattle, making sire selections based off of one or two traits can have unforeseen, negative consequences.

"In the past, when commercial or seedstock guys made sire selections based on EPDs [Expected Progeny Differences], the comment always was that more is better. But from an economic standpoint, that is not always the case," said Jack Ward, executive vice president of the American Hereford Association.

"If you used, for example, milk production as the trait you selected on, and you believed more is better because it increases weaning weights, you could be setting yourself up for diminished profits," explained Ward.

"You aren't factoring in the idea that to produce more milk that female needs more energy. So in this case, higher milk production may well decrease your bottom line by requiring more feed, pasture availability or hay -- even though you sold a heavier calf. Overemphasizing one trait can really be detrimental to the bottom line."

Dan Moser, president of Angus Genetics Inc. (AGI), a division of the American Angus Association, agrees that emphasizing single traits in bull selection can lead to unforeseen problems. The answer is to balance traits in such a way as to build profits while making genetic improvements. It's challenging, no matter who you are.

"Creating a profit-maximizing combination of traits is hard. It's difficult to know, for example, how much weaning weight is offset by lower cow costs that result from reducing mature cow size. Indexes weigh each trait based on profitability, so the ranking is ultimately based on profit. You can actually see the dollars and cents of a decision before you decide on one particular sire over another," said Moser.


Many breed associations today offer trait-balancing indexes to help producers choose sires that will help drive a herd in a desired genetic direction. All of these indexes tend to be based on profitability, and they are plentiful enough to fit different operations. For example, a cow-calf producer selling calves at weaning has a different set of needs than the producer feeding out his calf crop for sale at harvest.

AGI's Moser says two of the most popular indexes on Black Angus now are the Weaned Calf Value ($W) index and the Beef Value ($B) index. Other $Value indexes offered through AGI include a Feedlot Value ($F), a Cow Energy Value ($EN) and a Grid Value ($G)—which includes Quality Grade ($QG) and Yield Grade ($YG). The group came out with its first $Value indexes in 2004. Indexes are based on actual dollars a producer could expect to earn from one bull's progeny compared to another's.

Brian House, beef program and product manager for Select Sires, said when the American Angus Association released their indexes it was a game-changer for the 50-year-old company that provides semen to producers.

"I told the people at Angus they just made it a lot easier for customers to select sires, because it eliminated so many of the questions we hear from people as to what is the best bull," said House. "These dollar values are based on realistic prices of cattle at a given time. It was a dramatic change in thinking for commercial operators, and as the industry has gone forward, people have grasped it. If one bull makes you more money at weaning, you see it. If he makes you more at the feedlot, you see that."


Traits within an index are calculated using EPDs for an animal. An EPD is the foundation of a system used to compare the progeny of one bull to the progeny of another. Using an example from House's Select Sires company: If Sire A has a birthweight EPD of +4.0 and Sire B has a birthweight EPD of -2.0, then calves from Sire B would be expected to average 6 pounds less at birth than calves from Sire A. That is assuming the bulls were randomly mated in the same herd. A percentile ranking (%Rank) tells a producer where a bull ranks within the known genetic base for an entire breed.

The Hereford Association's Ward said their breed indexes, while focused on profitability, are geared toward helping producers who want to bring the power of heterosis to a herd with a Hereford sire.

"If you want to use a Hereford bull on British cows and retain ownership in the calves, but you also build replacements, you'd use the Baldy Maternal Index. It weighs all economically relevant areas for retained ownership of females and feedlot merit. If you are focused on the feedlot and end product merit, you'd look at Hereford bulls with an eye toward growth and carcass end product, using the CHB Index, which we'd consider our terminal sire index."

"Profit Indexes" were introduced by the Hereford Association in 2005. Today, they include the Baldy Maternal Index (BMI$) for those with a mostly Angus-based cow herd, a Brahman Influence Index (BII$) for those with a mostly Brahman-based cow herd; the Certified Hereford Beef Index (CHB$) for those focused on feedlot value and a Calving Ease Index (CEZ$) for producers who need maternal calving ease, often on the heifer side of their operations. �

For More Information:

• Angus Genetics Inc.:

• American Hereford Association:

• Select Sires:

• Red Angus Association of America:

• American Simmental Association:

• American Short Horn Association:


Victoria Myers