Buying a bull at an auction

Chief technician at the Agricultural Research Council’s Beef Cattle Improvement Scheme, Frans Jordaan, discusses the genetic-based guidelines for ensuring the best purchase at an auction.

Buying a bull at an auction
Cattle in the viewing pens at Jan van Zyl’s Kroonvee Brahman auction in the Vryburg district in North West. A buyer should know the genetic information of bulls for sale prior to auction day in order to make an informed decision.
Photo: Wayne Southwood

The days of buying bulls based purely on their functional appearance are over. Yes, of course, functional efficiency is crucial, but what is equally important is a buyer’s knowledge of the genetic potential or merit of the bulls prior to the auction.

This enables an informed decision to be made on auction day.

For both commercial and stud breeders, auction catalogues are not always easy to interpret, especially at an auction amidst much activity and with limited time.

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Being well-informed on the interpretation of BLUP breeding values – which depict the genetic potential of an animal – can be highly advantageous in assisting breeders to meet their breeding objectives more quickly.

The question is: do breeders really understand these figures and the use of breeding values as a selection tool?

It is always risky to buy a registered bull without breeding values, particularly because of its potentially major genetic impact on a herd.

In addition, genetic improvement is a slow process and can be achieved only over generations. The wrong choice of bull may thus be genetically detrimental to your herd; recovery from damage could be costly and a setback to achieving breeding goals.

Although genetic change is easy to achieve, genetic improvement in a positive direction (improvement in weaning weight breeding values, for example) is much more difficult.

If the stud breeder succeeds in achieving genetic improvement, this will also benefit the commercial beef producer by enabling him to increase profitability in his own enterprise.

Often, experienced breeders will tell you that they are familiar with certain breeding lines and bulls, and that they can visually see the qualities that they want in a bull.

However, there are variations within breeds; frame type, for instance, can differ, and young bulls still in the developmental stage can make visual selection challenging. In addition, an animal’s visual appearance does not reflect breeding alone but is a combination of breeding (genetics), management and feeding.

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Poor feeding can hide good genetics and good feeding can hide bad genetics.

Although functional efficiency will always be important, the wrong choice of bull can have a negative effect that may be discovered only after a generation or even later in the production cycle of a calf crop.

A phenotypic weaning index of above 100 does not guarantee good genetic material; rather, it implies that the animal performed above average within its own contemporary group.

It is the genetic quality of the group that will determine the level of genetics, and can perhaps be compared to a rugby game: will the excellent flyhalf playing for Pofadder perform up to par when playing for the national team?

Key questions
The following are important to ask when considering genetic principles:

  • What are my breeding goals? Do I monitor my herd’s progress regularly to ensure I am still on track?
  • What are the possible shortcomings in my herd?
  • Am I aware of serious problems such as dystocia in my herd?
  • Do I know how to deal with such a problem as soon as possible?
  • Can I still improve on growth ability without increasing cow size (which will mean an increase in maintenance requirements)? If an increase in frame size does occur, will it influence reproduction in my herd?
  • How can I improve the average milk production of my herd (cow efficiency), which will, in turn, result in higher weaning weights?

BLUP
Breeding values across breeds are not comparable. Therefore a breeding value of +5 for weaning weight for a Bonsmara bull is not comparable with a Simmentaler bull with the same breeding value.

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Rather, the breed average of the specific breed should be a benchmark to gauge the performance for a specific animal for a specific trait, such as wean direct. It is important to be aware of this, particularly for commercial farmers.

Breeding value indices
There is good news for commercial beef producers who are familiar with indexes. Breeding value indexes also appear on some of the breed’s auction catalogues and these can be interpreted as normal indexes, such as phenotypic weaning indexes.

A breeding value index of 100 means that the animal is average for a specific trait within the entire breed, and not just within its contemporary group. The same principle applies to an animal with a breeding value index above 100, which will be genetically better than the average animal in the breed for a specific trait.

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The commercial breeder will focus more on growth traits because these are of more economic value to him. However, the stud breeder can also ensure that other traits of
importance are captured in young potential breeding animals, which will ultimately be of benefit to the commercial breeder.

Reproduction, the most important trait in genetic selection, should already be captured in the young bull’s genetic ability, and be to the benefit of the bull buyer. If the buyer interprets breeding values correctly, the following selections are achievable:

  • A bull to be used on heifers without the risk of dystocia Choose a bull with breeding values for birth weight at or below breed average.
  • A bull to produce replacement heifers that will improve milk production in the herd. Choose a bull with above-breed average wean
    maternal breeding values.
  • A bull to solve calving problems in a herd. Choose a bull at or below breed average for birth weight direct breeding value.
  • A bull for maximum growth. Choose a bull with above breed average for growth at weaning as well as for post-weaning growth traits. This bull will be used for ‘terminal breeding’: all the progeny will be slaughtered and are unsuitable for breeding.

In this case, the bull will have breeding values above breed average for all the growth traits, such as birth, weaning, one year and 18 months. It is also important to mate these bulls with mature cows to avoid calving problems.

READ Understanding Estimated Breeding Values

A terminal bull will increase cow efficiency drastically without any increase in input costs and an increase in output with heavier weaned calves.

  • Breeding values that are in balance This is important for identifying those bulls to be used for breeding purposes. The bull should produce smaller calves at birth, but not too small. A calf that is too small at birth will grow into a small, undesirable calf at weaning because of the high correlation between birth, weaning and year-old weights. The ideal bull for replacement heifers will be above breed average for wean direct and maternal values.
  • A breeding bull at breed average (at the least) for growth traits such as weaning, year and 18-month weight Beef breeders are primarily meat producers and calf growth in the post-weaning phase will always be important, in particular to feedlots. Be cautious of extreme breeding values for post- weaning weights, however. Weight at 18 months is also an indication of mature weight, and if selection on growth is the only priority, the result will be bigger cows with higher maintenance requirements. If a poor or extensive environment cannot support these bigger-framed animals, calving percentage will be negatively influenced. The feed conversion ratio breeding value is also important for the feedlots. A smaller breeding value or below breed average value is more desirable, as in the case of the phenotypic feed conversion ratio value. The less feed needed to increase live body weight, the more efficient the animal will be in a feedlot environment. Note that feed conversion ratio is a combination of two traits: growth rate and feed intake. It is an indication of how efficiently the animal can transform feed into meat.
  • Improved reproduction or fertility of your herd. Always keep the reproduction statistics of the bull’s dam in mind. In addition, the scrotal circumference breeding value of the bull should be at or above breed average.

Summary
Breeding values in a sales catalogue should be seen as a selection aid, not as a challenge.

Try to obtain the auction catalogue well before the auction and make a shortlist of bulls that fit into your breeding goals. On the day of the auction, you can then select the best-looking bull from this short list.

Be aware of extreme breeding values. A good-looking bull may not have the desired breeding values, but a bull with desired breeding values may be a good-looking bull!

Experienced ARC personnel in the beef industry are available in all the provinces and can be contacted for assistance with any information in this article, as well as for other field-related services such as real-time ultrasonic scanning, bull growth testing and selection of breeding material.

Phone Frans Jordaan on 012 672 9085 or email [email protected].