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Expensive bulls not always the right bulls for the herd

BISMARCK, N.D. -- Kris Ringwall has a secret for people buying bulls: You don't always have to buy the top seller at the sale to get the genetics you want in your commercial herd.

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Don Schmeling of South Heart, N.D., looks over the EPDs of bulls he's used in the past. Schmeling attended a bull buying workshop at the Beef Commission office in Bismarck, N.D., on Jan. 13, 2017. Jenny Schlecht/Agweek

BISMARCK, N.D. - Kris Ringwall has a secret for people buying bulls: You don't always have to buy the top seller at the sale to get the genetics you want in your commercial herd.

Ringwall, the director of the North Dakota State University Dickinson Research Extension Center and an animal scientist, told a small workshop Jan. 13 in Bismarck the secret to buying a bull that will further a herd's genetics in the desired direction lies in the numbers in almost every bull sale catalog: expected progeny differences.

"It's the best benchmark you've got to buy more bulls," he said.

EPDs have been around for about 30 years and have been very accurate for at least the past two decades, Ringwall said. But still, many commercial cattle ranchers avoid using or thinking about the numbers.

"The average person doesn't like math," he said.

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Don Schmeling ranches near South Heart. He's a full-time Realtor but has been in and out of the cattle business most of his life. He bought artificially inseminated Angus heifers four years ago and wants to see his herd improve. So, he thought Ringwall's workshop might help.

"I thought I understood EPDs, but I wanted to learn more," he said. "It can't hurt."

Ringwall will give the workshop again Feb. 3 at the Dickinson Research Extension Center and Feb. 10 at the Beef Commission in Bismarck.

EPDs don't have to be intimidating, Ringwall said. Seeking out bulls with numbers in the ballpark of a breed's average and honing in on desired characteristics is easy and doesn't take much time. But the effort will show up in the success of the herd over the long term.

While the number of EPDs and indexes offered by breeds continues to grow, Ringwall suggests focusing on just a few, at least to start. He likes to use birth weight, weaning weight, yearling weight, ribeye area, marbling and milk.

Ringwall explained that the Dickinson Research Extension Center keeps track of the EPDs of the bulls it uses. They compare the average of the numbers to breed averages, which can give them a good look at what traits they are lacking.

A few years ago, they decided their herd was lacking in ribeye size, Ringwall said. So, they began selecting bulls with large ribeye area scores.

"It has worked," he said.

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EPDs, unlike live weights, take the environment and management decisions on the part of the breeder out of the equation, Ringwall said. If two bulls have identical genetics but one grows up on grass and the other is pushed with grain, naturally the second one is going to weigh more. But that doesn't change the genetic potential of either bull.

"If you buy only on actual weight, you have no way of deciphering that," Ringwall said.

The best way to approach bull sale season is to set benchmarks for what kind of EPDs you are seeking, Ringwall said. A rancher who sells calves at weaning and is interested in increasing calving ease should focus on lowering the herd birth weight EPDs and increasing the weaning weight EPDs. Set thresholds, such as only considering bulls with negative birth weight EPDs and above average weaning weight EPDs. Then, only look at the bulls that meet the criteria.

"Don't look at the bulls first," he warned. "You're buying genes, not looks."

Given the current low prices in the cattle market, ranchers who are looking to save some money should be especially interested in using EPDs to find the right animal for the right price, Ringwall said. If a $10,000 bull and a $4,000 bull have the same EPDs, there is no reason for a commercial operator to buy the more expensive animal.

"That has nothing to do with what you need," he said. "Don't pay what you can't afford."

And don't be surprised if you don't see results the first year. The focus should be on improving the herd down the road.

"Genetics is always gradual," Ringwall said.

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