Management topics

Apr 6, 2012

A quick EPD update before buying bulls

Everyone likes to look at bulls. It should come as no shock to anyone who has looked, however, that a bull can get a lot of attention because of his expected progeny differences (EPDs), then turn out to be a dud at the sale. The key point is that he gained attention based on his performance and resulting EPDs. That is just how the industry works now.

The first and most important traits are reproductive.

Calving ease sires are needed for breeding heifers and most breeders use Birth Weight (BW) to predict calving ease. This is a mistake.

Most breeds have Calving Ease Direct (CED), which includes the BW of the individual being looked at if he is a yearling, plus the calving ease scores from first calf heifers of his relatives. CED just takes some time getting used to by going to the breed website and using the percentile table and comparing it to the BW table you have been using. In my opinion, it is best not to get too greedy on growths when buying young bulls as calving ease sires for first calf heifers. Big spread bulls generally got that way by being short gestation. Without a proof, you might find out they are not consistently short gestation and the few calves who run over gestation projections can be whoppers.

The next area is weaning weight—which for most is payweight—although, many will background or retain ownership. There are two components of weaning: weaning weight direct (WW) and weaning weight maternal milk (MK). If these are your payweight traits, it is great to have as much of these as the environment will allow, but what the environment will allow is a big factor to consider.

Early work by U.S. Meat Animal Research Center researchers Ferrell and Jenkens in 1985 determined that genetic capability to grow had little impact on feed requirements per pound. On the other hand, genetic propensity to produce milk did significantly alter maintenance requirements per pound with high milk potential cows needing more feed. This means it is extremely important to custom fit milk to your environment. Especially, since in my mind, many breeds have gotten way carried away with this trait. For instance, probably the most popular maternal has gone from average 2 MK EPD when that research was conducted to 22 today. MK EPD should not only fit the environment, it should leave some wiggle room for drought, etc. I am afraid, as an industry, we are starting to over do milk in many environments.

The same goes for WW. The cattle must have the nutrients to express the growth. If I am sitting in the Midwest, rotationally grazing cool season grasses, pastures and feeding corn silage in the winter, you better believe I would want a bull equipped with after burners! However, that’s not so much the case if I am eastern Oregon.

Some breeders are looking to background their calves while others want to retain ownership and go straight to the feed yard. This takes two slightly different animals; the calf to be backgrounded needs to have a moderate frame, with moderate growth potential while the calf going to the feed yard needs some growth and enough frame not to dud out at an early carcass weight. With packers accepting up to 1,000-pound carcass weights, this is important.

Many breeds have carcass weight EPDs, but there are no acrossbreed EPDs available. This must be balanced with cow size. Red Angus and Angus have cow metabolic energy predictions, and I think a couple more have mature cow weight (CW) EPD. This allows a producer to weigh the expense of a Red Angus’ Mature Cow Maintenance EPD against EPDs like MK, WW, and CW.

This is purely observational, so take it for that. I have observed that whenever a breed or certain ranches stabilize their birth weights, mature weights also level off. Granted this is more on a population, but I think it might be useful to use to moderate BW bulls on the cow herd. Please note I didn’t say heifer bulls. It is hard to give up that 10 pounds and extra vigor between a heifer bull and one meant for the cow/herd.

One EPD that has been around since 1995 but is just catching on with other breeds is the Stayability EPD. Stayability EPD is percent probability differences between sires’ daughters remaining in the herd producing to 6 years of age. Between 5 and 6 was thought to be the breakeven age of a commercial cow.

Yearling EPD is certainly a payweight for some and close to a payweight for many of your customers. Keep in mind, though, that if the calves are to be backgrounded, the need for a high yearling weight goes down. Remember, whether you are retaining ownership or selling your calves to the feed yard and wish to develop a reputation as a quality supplier, you must have cattle who perform adequately after they leave your gate. The same goes for carcass traits. Although they are the least important of reproduction, growth and carcass, when you go to sell on the grid, it becomes pretty darn important. Plus, everyone should be breeding for decent carcass traits because we ultimately are dealing with a food product that we want consumers to enjoy!

If you are financially capable, maintain at least some small interest in your calves. Nothing will give an education like owning cattle from birth through grid marketing. Just be prepared; sometimes you make money, sometimes you lose. — Dr. Bob Hough

[Dr. Bob Hough has served as the executive vice president of the Red Angus Association of American and more recently as executive vice president of the North American Limousin Foundation from 2009 to early 2011. He is now a consultant, freelance writer and semiretired.]