James Coffelt, owner of Ohio Land and Cattle believes that breeding is simple. “Use the absolute best bulls you can find, and cull the heck out of the cows!” Artificial insemination (AI) is an increasingly popular way for beef producers to access “the best bulls.” However, AI sire selection should involve much more than just flipping through a catalog in search of the best EPDs. Ranchers sometimes don’t exercise the same diligence when choosing semen as they do when buying a live bull.
I have been experimenting with online dating lately, and I see a lot of parallels between that and picking AI sires. A dating website is a good “catalog” to start with, where you can search through profiles, find someone who looks interesting, and chat with them electronically. However, you won’t have any real idea whether or not this person is a good match for you until your first date. You can’t observe their mannerisms or their interaction with you and others over the Internet. Often they’re much different from what you expected, either for better or worse.
AI sire selection to me should be the same way: start with the catalog, but don’t commit to using a sire without meeting him in real life. If you’re unable to visit the bull, try to contact the person who owns or takes care of him every day. A sire catalog will tell you nothing about the following traits, all of which must be part of your selection criteria if you ever want to breed up from “average” cattle to “excellent” cattle.
HORMONAL HEALTH: Endocrine function is the root of every economically important trait in livestock, including but not limited to feed efficiency, disease resistance and fertility. According to Gearld Fry and James Drayson, visually observable haircoat and testicle characteristics reveal all you need to know about a bull’s hormonal status. You can’t conduct any inspection of these traits using a catalog picture. (You can find Fry and Drayson’s books in the On Pasture Bookstore in the “Resources We Use” category.) It’s also impossible to evaluate libido, breeding behavior and temperament in a bull that is kept penned up at a stud farm. Therefore, I recommend looking for sires that are turned out with a real cowherd. If a bull is not a tireless and efficient breeder, especially at a young age, hormonal status is likely subpar. The status-quo folks are so obsessed with selection for gain alone that they have bred the endocrine system right out of cattle. You don’t want to perpetuate this genetic inferiority in your calves.
STRUCTURAL SOUNDNESS/MOVEMENT: Watch bulls walk and check for skeletal correctness. You need to see the entire hooves on concrete, gravel or bare ground, without grass, manure or bedding covering the toes. Check for correct pastern angle, toe shape, size and symmetry, long and wide stride, full range of joint motion, and any evidence of injury.
MANAGEMENT/SUPPLIER: Get an idea of how close the bull’s diet and living conditions are to those that his calves will be born into on your operation. This helps you figure out whether good EPDs are due to exceptional genetics, or simply expensive feed and pampering. PCC sets a great example for seedstock producers by being transparent about all aspects of their business. They welcome questions about how their bulls are raised, and strive to help ranchers better themselves through educational programs like the bull workdays and e-mail publications. Choose semen suppliers who fit this mold.
SEMEN TEST RESULTS: Have your veterinarian evaluate sperm count, motility, and morphology. Only a small percentage of abnormal sperm cells can impede a bull’s ability to settle cows. Make sure test results are less than a year old. Malnutrition, illness and increasing age can render a once-potent bull subfertile.
PROGENY PRODUCTION RECORDS: Balance EPDs with actual production data from a bull’s offspring whenever possible. Look for semen suppliers with complete herd records that tie calves’ performance back to their sires and dams.
If you want to be a leading seedstock producer or create significant improvement in your herd, attention to every detail is imperative. Research how an AI sire lives and works in the real world before you commit to him. Integrate production records and semen test results with visual observations. After all, you’re choosing a significant other for your cows. A bull may look really cool in his catalog pictures, but you won’t know if he’s “The One” until that first date!
Previously published in the Pharo Cattle Company Newsletter.