Gather Information Before Purchasing a Bull

Know Before You Buy

Jennifer Carrico
By  Jennifer Carrico , Senior Livestock Editor
Ross Havens, marketing coordinator for Nichols Farms, provides customers with a host of information on each bull to help them make the right choice. (Jennifer Carrico)

Purchasing a bull for your herd can be a big job with so much information to sort through and analyze on each animal. It also can be one of the riskiest decisions made in a cattle operation, since a bull represents half of the herd's genetics.

"A bull has 10 times the impact on a herd as a single cow, and then if you keep replacements out of that bull, it becomes a lot more impactful," says Troy Rowan, assistant professor of animal science at the University of Tennessee. "Price is the No. 1 driver of a bull purchase, but producers need to look at it as an investment in their herd."

Rowan says a producer can justify spending more on a bull if it delivers extra genetic potential to the herd and provides profitable daughters that stay in the herd for six or more years. Conversely, buying the wrong bull can also put a herd behind, so he suggests knowing what your bull is providing.

"Know your goals in animal breeding visually, genomically and phenotypically. Make selections by using all of these and knowing where your cow herd currently is," Rowan stresses. "Isolate the heritable components. Selecting on phenotype alone can be risky."


Ross Havens, marketing coordinator at Nichols Farms, in Bridgewater, Iowa, says they have customers who have purchased bulls from them for over 50 years. Nichols Farms sells more than 450 bulls each year from Angus, Simmental, South Devon breeds and composites of these breeds. "Any and all information are available on our bulls. We provide weights, feed efficiency and EPDs (expected progeny differences) for each of the bulls, as well as the genomic information," he says.

Providing customers with this kind of information gives them what they need to make an informed decision for their herd. Bulls are put on feed using the SmartFeed bunk system to measure individual feed efficiency. The automated cattle feeder gives each animal an average daily gain EPD, a relative feed intake EPD and a Nichols Efficiency Index. This index combines both average daily gain and feed conversion for economic gain.

"You want a lower feed intake and a higher average daily gain. The index was then developed through the genetic division at Neogen (a genomic testing company)," Havens explains. "This is new data for our customers, and we do have to educate them a bit on what to look for. We can identify the bulls with the outstanding index and use them in our own herd to keep making improvements."

They hope customers will continue to see improvements in their own herds, and it leads to the sale of their calves and into the feedlot. Nichols Farms helps promote its bulls' genetics when being sold at area sale barns through a listing on its website. Havens says some of the local sales will sell Nichols-bred cattle in groups within their sales, and feedlots like to purchase these groups because of their consistency and good feed efficiency.


Besides feed efficiency, health is an important part of the Nichols program. Bulls are kept at the southwest Iowa facility until April 1 and must pass the Breeding Soundness Exam before pickup or delivery, as well as be current on vaccinations. This year, they also have implemented the Nichols Health Shield on bulls that qualify.

"Dave (Nichols) went to the BIF (Beef Improvement Federation) Conference in 2015 and came back with this wild idea that we could start identifying genetic lines that are resistant to certain health conditions," Havens says. Nichols recently passed away but was always known for his forward-thinking in the beef industry and wanting to provide customers with important information.

The Nichols Health Shield is given to bulls that are in the top 30% of Nichols Genetic Evaluation for resistance to bovine respiratory disease (BRD), one of the leading health problems in weaned calves. The probability is listed as a percentage of a calf not being treated for respiratory disease postweaning. BRD is the costliest disease in beef cattle in the country and can last up to two weeks, causing a major setback in performance.

Ear tags were used to identify the cattle getting sick, first a fever tag and then a more sophisticated tag that also triggered a signal when cattle had less movement within the pen.

"We've seen cattle with a high temperature still going to the bunk to eat, so if we could know there was a chance they are sick, we could treat them to prevent further loss," he says. The tags have a blinking light to indicate a fever for longer than 6 hours and a lack of movement. The tags send information to the computer, and the farm staff has a list of cattle to pull first thing in the morning. All calves -- bulls, heifers and steers -- are monitored for the first 90 days after weaning.

Nichols Farms started matching sickness information with genomic information through the help of Neogen. This genetic evaluation has information on 13,000 head over the past three years to identify the cattle more resistant to BRD.

"We keep a lot of our own bulls to use, and we want to use bulls in the top 30% of the Health Shield group and have the best feed efficiency," Havens says. "But, we also are looking at the bulls phenotypically to ensure they are sound on their feet and legs for longevity and stayability, because they pass all this on to their offspring"

Rowan agrees. "Producers have to remember what traits will affect the bottom line and look for bulls that put that all together. First, that means a live vigorous calf. Weaned pounds are easy to evaluate, but we have to look at herd profitability and maintenance."

The amount of data available can be overwhelming. Rowan says for each producer to identify what they want by thinking about how they sell calves and then find the range that will work.

"Having a trusted source for our customers is so important. We send bulls all over the U.S., and many of these customers trust our opinion to find them what they need," Havens says. "They become like family when they've been here so many times. And, they show up when we need them, too."


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