1. Know your needs
There is no single “best bull” at the sales. There is the best bull for your farm (and your budget). Before you even think of buying a bull, consider how you could better meet the needs of your market. The right bull can introduce genetics to your herd that will address any shortcomings and lead to greater profits.
Mind you, don’t look to improve every facet of your herd performance through one purchase. That will make finding the right bull nigh on impossible and reduce the gains you can make quickly by focussing on a couple of issues.
You should be considering how you can improve your operation well before breeding season, as you need to buy a bull around three months before joining to prepare it for your herd.
2. Understand EBVs
You can’t judge a bull’s genetics just by looking at him. That’s where Estimated Breeding Values (EBVs) come in. A measurement of genetic potential, they’re used as a guide to a bull’s breeding merit for specific traits.
EBVs are expressed in relation to a baseline comparison. Attributes measured relate to profit drivers such as calving ease, gestation length and birthweight, growth (200 day-weight and 400-day weight) and carcass condition (carcass condition, eye muscle area).
AHDB Beef have an EBV training tool that explains the system in detail, while EBV suppliers Breedplan, Signet, and Taurus Data have guides online. Looking at EBVs makes it easier to find a bull with positive attributes that can have a big impact on your herd.
3. Do a background check
Before going to the sales, study the catalogue – it should be online or you can ask for one to be sent to you. As well as giving you a guide to the cattle on offer (with their EBVs), it will let you know the health status of the herd they come from.
It’s imperative to consider herd health status when bringing new cattle onto your property. While a bull can introduce valuable genetics to your herd, it also risks introducing costly disease – it’s for good reason that some breed society sales are only open to members of a CHeCS (Cattle Health Certification Standards) licenced herd health scheme.
Going beyond the catalogue, research any breeders selling bulls you’re interested in. Talk to other farmers about their own experience, or, best of all, talk to the breeders themselves. Reputable breeders should be happy to answer your questions and may welcome a visit to their farm.
4. See the bulls before buying
EBVs have taken a lot of guesswork out of bull buying but it’s still important to get to the sales and inspect cattle in the flesh. Take particular note of the hind limbs. Both post-legged and sickle-hocked cattle can suffer from poor mobility, and if a bull can’t get around, he won’t be able to… get around. According to AHDB Beef & Lamb, poor mobility and lameness are the biggest cause of premature culling of breeding bulls in the UK.
Also of importance – unsurprisingly – are the bull’s testicles. The bull should have an even pair, without puffiness or abnormalities, that moves freely within the scrotal sac. There’s variance between breeds, but a rule of thumb is that the scrotal circumference should be 32cms at 18 months and 34cms at 24 months.
5. Stick to your budget and breeding plan
You’ve studied your catalogue, inspected the bulls, and you’re ready for the auction. There’s just one more step: making a winning bid.
If you have your heart set on one particular bull, you risk blowing your budget when the price goes too high. Instead, keep a cool head and have a few “back ups” you can bid on. What you don’t want to do is panic about driving an empty float home, and buy a bull that doesn’t fit your breeding plan. Sometimes, it’s better to go home with no bull at all.