It's hard not to get sticker shock when purebred bulls are going for $10,000 to $12,000 a pop. On the flip side, it is hard not to get caught up in the excitement and competition of a bull sale and suddenly find yourself way over budget.
Exactly how much should you pay for a bull for your commercial herd? Like most things in the cattle business, it depends.
There are rules of thumb for buying bulls; some say don't pay more than 2.5 times the price of a feeder calf. But Florida's Ken Griner doesn't give those rules much weight in his cattle operation.
"We can spend a little more than some commercial buyers because we retain ownership," he says. "We get paid for the quality we create. On the other hand, we can't be frivolous and compete with seedstock breeders unless we are buying the bull for our seedstock herd."
Finding that perfect animal is something Griner says he really enjoys. He joined the family operation, Usher Land and Timber, some 30 years ago. Once bull buying became one of his responsibilities, he says he's been trying to build the perfect animal for this hot, humid environment.
SETTING THE PARAMETERS
The Chiefland, Florida, rancher wants to see maternal characteristics in the heifers they produce that include calving ease and fertility, a moderate frame, good structure, an above-average scrotal circumference, (an indicator of age of puberty in the heifers sired by a bull), marbling, rib eye size, and disposition.
"You have to have disposition," he stresses. "You can see the results of our selection. We have bred for this so long, sometimes at processing you have to get off your horse to move the calves, or otherwise they'll just stand there and look at you."
Disposition is also a trait that University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension beef genetics specialist Matthew Spangler likes to start with when it comes to genetic selection.
He says it's important to ask questions like, "What in your herd are you trying to improve? Do you retain your own replacements? How do you market your calves? How does the herd perform now?"
When it comes time to buy a bull, Spangler also asks, "How much better genetically is one bull in a sale, than the others?"
"How many cows will you expose him to? You can pay more if you can spread him out over more cows. If you have 20 cows you can't afford to spend as much as someone who can expose him to more than 20 cows," Spangler advises. "If you can get him custom collected, use him as an AI sire, and also as a natural service sire, you can pay more because you're able to spread the cost over more cows."
A PROCESS FOR SELECTION
In Griner's case, he, his son, Korey, and long-time friend R.D. Skelton, each go over sales catalogs with those points Spangler makes top of mind.
They start by choosing the seedstock supplier they want to buy from.
"It is important to have a relationship with a seedstock provider that knows your operation," says Griner. "We build those relationships, the seedstock producer learns our business and helps us along the way."
As for the exact EPDs they require on a bull, that will be determined by whether the bull will be used on replacement heifers, in their terminal cross herd or in their composite operation. They are looking for bulls that are well above average for their respective breeds. Griner notes, "We can't buy average bulls and grow the kind of calves we need."
After the three narrow their selection down, whoever goes to the sale gives those bulls the once over.
"They have to pass the eye test, too," says Griner.
Next comes the hard part. The person at the sale takes a seat in the stands and tries to practice patience. Griner says they have a leg up on others who have to buy a large number of bulls. Even though they run around 800 cows, they do quite a bit of AI, plus the bulls for their terminal cross herd are supplied by the company that contracts for their calves. This means they can wait for a bargain.
"Most of the time, you can be patient and some of the good bulls will fall through the cracks. If you don't actually go to the sale, you can't do that."
Griner points to a yearling Angus bull in a catalog. He got a thumbs up from both Ken and Korey on that bull. It came from a cow family they favor, and it passed the eye test. The young bull was a bit lower down in the sale order. While Griner expected to pay at least $5,000 to $6,000 (and would have paid more) Korey was able to get him for $4,000.
For the Charolais bulls that go into their composite breeds, as well as Angus bulls for their heifers, Griner says they rely on a Kansas breeder. "He eliminates the opportunity for me to make mistakes. He takes care of legs, udder, structure, then I don't have to worry about them."
An Angus breeder in South Carolina also supplies bulls for clean-up duty after the Griners AI their replacement heifers. "They like what we like. Good, proven genetics from proven cow families, moderate framed cattle. They work."
Travis Mitchell, Clemson University area livestock and forages agent, says when he's buying bulls for his own 200-cow commercial herd, he too places a lot of value on the seedstock producer.
"I understand the importance of good genetics. A bull can add a tremendous amount of value to a calf crop with heavier weaning weights and increased maternal value. Buying the right bull is critical. I'm going to pay what I have to pay," he says.
"My seedstock supplier works tirelessly for their customers, and the sale doesn't stop when the bull leaves their farm," he adds. "They stand behind the bulls and help find ways to market the offspring from their genetics. That counts for a lot."
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