Cows and calves

A nice group of Washington county calves sired by a bull selected largely based on his genetic merit. Utilizing performance data to select genetically superior bulls is a critical step to improving the genetic potential of a calf crop.  Photo Credit: Mark Mauldin

Experience has shown me that lots, if not most, cattle producers don’t enjoy studying genetics. You don’t enjoy patching fence in the cold, rainy weather either, but your hand is forced, because you know the consequence of not fixing the fence. Unfortunately, when it comes to making selection decisions based on genetic merit your hands are not forced – the day-to-day operations on the farm won’t change, you’ll still have calves to sell regardless if genetics are ever considered. That lack of perceived necessity costs many producers more than they may ever realize.

Like it or not, genetics impact the bottom line of all cattle operations. For simplicity sake, think about it this way, the genetic potential of a calf (how good or bad the genetics are) sets the upper limit for how good that calf can ever possibly be. Granted, it takes good management to allow the calf to reach their potential. Less than ideal environments and/or management mean that not all calves will perform up to their genetic potential. Conversely, calves with limited genetic potential will never perform beyond that limited potential, regardless of management. I find the later scenario to be quite troubling. I work with producers that put real effort and money into producing “good” calves, but they can’t tell you anything about the genetics of their herd beyond the predominant breeds. That’s a sizable investment with very little information regarding the possibility of return.

A probably too lengthy analogy to help further the point: When I was in high school, I drove a well-used 1992 Ford F-150. The truck was the absolute base package; six-cylinder, five speed, vinyl seats, etc., you get the idea. In my infinite high school aged wisdom, I put a performance air filter, dual exhaust, and a few other do-dads on the truck and thought I had really done something. But as all of us who have made it passed high school know, I really didn’t accomplish anything in terms of what that truck was or what it could do. If I wanted more performance, I needed a better truck.

The situation is pretty much the same with calves. Spending more money (creep feed, high end mineral supplements, etc.) on genetically inferior calves is seldom going to produce a high enough level of performance to offset the costs. Calves with greater genetic potential can make better use of the resources allocated to them, and have greater overall performance. Improving the genetic potential of your next calf crop is akin to upgrading trucks in the analogy above.

The science of genetics is really complicated. The good news is that the application of that science to a cow-calf operation isn’t nearly as complicated. 30 years of scientific research on the biology of cattle performance has gone into making genetic improvement simple enough to make progress much more attainable for cow-calf management.

Biology 101:

  • The genetic makeup of an individual cannot be changed, genetic change (hopefully improvement) happens from one generation to the next.
  • Each parent provides ½ of the genetic material for the offspring.

Cow-Calf 101:

  • We expect a cow to raise a calf each year; allowing for a new generation with the possibility of genetic improvement each year.
  • We have way more cows than bulls allowing for a relatively small number of individuals (bulls) to have a large impact on the genetic potential of the calf crop.

All of this boils down to the fact that the genetic potential of your calf crop can improve dramatically from one year to the next simply by using genetically superior bulls.

Most cattlemen are fairly confident in their ability to evaluate a bull based on their appearance. You can look at a pen full of bulls and pick out the bulls you like the best. This is a valuable skill and will always be a big part of selecting breeding stock. However, to utilize genetically superior bulls, you’ve got to be able to evaluate a bull’s genetic merit and not just his looks. You’ve got to be able to look at a catalog full of numbers (all the performance data in the sale catalog) and be able to pick out the bulls with the best genetics to meet your goals.

This added chore may seem frustrating at first, but remember how important it is to the success of your operation. I promise it’s really not that difficult; like anything it will be somewhat challenging at first and will get much easier with time and practice. Moreover, I’m offering my personal assistance. I probably can’t go to the sale with you and pick bulls, but I am more than happy to go through the performance data in any sale catalog and help you determine which bulls would do the most to improve the genetic potential of your next calf crop. Give me a call or send me an email and we’ll set up a time to pick some bulls.

Mark Mauldin

Additionally, I will be presenting a webinar on Thursday, January 14 @ 6:00pm central time. The first part of the webinar (6:00-7:00) will cover some of the basic concepts related to applying performance data to bull selection. The second part of the webinar (7:00-8:00) will be a fairly detailed review of the performance data in the 2021 Florida Bull Test Sale catalog. If you’ve already got the basics down, feel free to join at 7:00 for the catalog review. If you would like to participate in the webinar, just send me an email and I’ll respond with the link to join.

Putting a little time, effort, and yes, money into getting bulls that have the right genetics can go a long way towards the financial sustainability of your operation. Utilizing performance data to guide your selection decisions may seem difficult, but it’s worth the trouble and there are plenty of resources and people out there to help.

Additional resources relating to selecting bulls based on genetic merit:

VRDEC Bull Selection Tool 

Effectively Using EPDs for Bull Selection – It’s All About Context

Bull Buying – Focus On Value Not Just Price

EPD Basics for Bull Selection (video)

Mark Mauldin