Note: This post has lots of agriculture terms that you may or may not know. As a refresher, here are some quick definitions – “cows” are the moms, “bulls” are the dads, and “calves” are the kids. A “cow-calf operation” is the most popular type of cattle farm in the U.S., and it means a farmer owns a cow herd that lives on the farm year-round and the goal is to have a calf every year that can be sold for income. Want more in-depth info about these terms? Check out this previous post about raising grass fed beef.
Buying a bull is a really big deal for any cattle farm for several reasons. Since we were at a bull auction a few weeks ago and because it’s been awhile since we’ve talked about bulls, we thought we would share why it’s such a critical purchase for a cattle farm and what we look for in a bull.
Why buying a bull is important for a cow-calf farm
First, and this may seem really obvious, you can’t have a calf if you don’t have a bull. Since our farm is a cow-calf operation, we rely on our cows having calves every year and that takes a bull.
Second, bulls are expensive. The bull sale we were at had individual bulls being sold between $3,000-$13,000. And sometimes, bulls go for much more. The record was recently set at $1.51 million for an individual bull.
Third, and most important for our farm, 65% of the genetic makeup of a calf comes from the bull, not the cow. When we buy bulls, we are trying to naturally improve the genetic potential of our herd.
It’s all in the DNA
If you’ve read this far, you may be wondering about that last sentence. What does “naturally” and “genetic potential” really mean?
On our farm, “naturally” is just what it sounds like. Our bull and cows mate in a wide open field. We won’t go any deeper into a birds and bees conversation here – you get the idea!
What’s the genetic potential? It’s the expected characteristics of the calf, such as its future weight, ribeye size and fertility. We know talk of genetic potential may sound crazy, but it’s similar for humans too. For example, an Olympic athlete is more likely to have a child with natural athletic ability. It’s all in the DNA.
With cattle, we can estimate future characteristics because of something called Expected Progeny Differences (EPDs), which is genetic data available on purebred bulls.
There are a variety of ways to look at EPDs, and every cattle farmer does it differently based on what he wants his herd to be. On our farm, our goal is to produce the highest quality beef so we look for things like high marbling, ribeye size, and growth (how big the calf will become). Other farms may select for things like milk production or feed conversion (how much feed it takes for 1 lb of weight gain).
Why do we buy bulls instead of raising them?
We like to purchase at bull auctions hosted by farms that specialize in raising bulls. There are several reasons we do this, but one of the most important is so that we don’t have inbreeding in our herd, which can cause genetic problems in the calf.
How would inbreeding be possible? Keep in mind that on a cow-calf farm like ours, we have a herd of cows that stay on our farm their entire lives (about 10-12 years), and they have a calf every year. If we raised one of their male calves to become a bull on our farm, that bull would begin to do its “job” in about 2 years when it was mature.
If that bull were let in to the field with our herd of cows, there would be a high probability that it would breed its mom, sibling, or even child. We eliminate this possibility completely by buying bulls from other farms that specialize in raising bulls, and that gives us new DNA in our herd.