Bull selection by the numbers
When it comes to picking the best sire for your cattle, using statistics for your decision is no bull.
"So you've got benchmarks," Kris Ringwall, director of the North Dakota State University Research Extension Center, said Thursday. "Benchmarking is a huge part of understanding where you're at. The problem in the industry is that most producers simply don't have the numbers. They don't collect the weaning weights, they don't have numbers to analyze. They walk with this perception that they're on the right path—and generally they are."
The NDSU Research Extension Center distributes the benchmark numbers for cattle every year, which serves as a broad average across the entire species for cow producers to determine where their individual bulls and cows and calves may fall compared to that average. This data, according to Ringwall, serves as a basis for understanding precisely what sort of bull, with what attributes, a cattle producer may want to invest in.
"They represent what is typical for what a calf should weigh," Ringwall said. "They are the five-year average for what a calf should weigh."
The Beef Cattle Improvement Association, run through the extension center, accumulates these averages using the Cow Herd Appraisal and Performance Software (CHAPS). These benchmark numbers can reveal a variety of important pieces of information, such as what the average percent of cows calve at 21 days versus how many calve at 42 days; it can reveal what percentages of calves are lost and what the average weight of steers, heifers and bulls weigh at weaning age. The most recent figures will be distributed in the next couple of months.
These benchmarks complement the Expected Progeny Difference (EPD) figures, which are individualized figures for each animal. This number functions not dissimilar to a vehicle identification number found on a car—they can reveal the genetic history of any given bull, based upon the amount of calves it has sired, the family line that created it, and can tell a cattle producer exactly how much weaning weight that bull can add to any calf it sires.
"The EPDs come from the breed association ... every breed calculates EPDs," Ringwall said. "EPDs are a refinement. The breed associations have over the decades gotten more data ... it's a classic example of if you have data, you can use it. We're just analyzing what we couldn't analyze before."
The EPDs can be located on the appropriate association website for the breed of bull you're looking up. For example, Red Angus bulls can be looked up on the Red Angus Association website—all that is needed is the registration number found on the tag affixed to the bull's ear, and that bull's genetic history is readily available at the touch of a button.
"They assign a bull a lifetime number," Ringwall explained. "There's a few sold that aren't registered, but most are registered. The majority by far. The vast majority of people when they buy bulls don't keep their registration number."
Ringwall said discarding these registration numbers is tantamount to discarding the data available, though he was clear that he isn't chastising cattle producers who do this.
"I appreciate where you're at and I appreciate your level of knowledge," Ringwall said. "I'm not going to say 'bad boy' because you're not in school anymore. But you are paying for this data, and if you are paying for this data, why not use it?"
EPD data for Red Angus bulls found on the association website not only determines what weaning and yearling weight that bull can add to any given calf, but also what percentage of marbling, what percentage of ribeye area there is and it can even determine whether that bull is better for siring a beef cow or a dairy one.
"Your benchmark may be sitting on the corral, drinking coffee, liking how your cattle look. That's fine. You don't actually know the numbers. If you just like the looks of your cattle, fine ... the registration number gives you (a) line of data on this bull."
This can enable cattle producers to not just pick the best value bull for their needs; Ringwall said the data can be used to plot relative genetic trends, so that over several years a producer can determine how heavy that bull's progeny will be or how much maternal milk they will produce.
"We have a weaning weight for the calf, we also have a weaning weight for all his brothers, sisters, cousins, nieces and nephews," Ringwall said. "So we have all the other associated relatives and how they do. You start running them through a model, then you have his parents, his grandparents ... (breeding associations) can do a trend line."
The bottom line is that for cattle producers, whether they're good with numbers or not, benefit from having them. The process is very simple, and prospective buyers can look up the data in real time as they look at a bull they want to purchase—and the seller of bulls can provide this data to help sell their bulls.
"You have to do your homework first," Ringwall said. "The most underutilized moment is when the lightbulb comes on and the producer realizes 'I get it, I can use these numbers.' That's the bridge. The cattle industry gets caught in that, and I don't mean this in a negative way, but we see a lot of producers who cross the bridge and they use these techniques. (Then) you see a lot of producers who come to this bridge and they don't cross it ... they do fine, I guess, but do you want to steer your program or do you want someone else to steer it? Our goal is to help you steer your program."
There's no downside to using the data, Ringwall said—it only serves to inform what a seasoned cattleman might already know, and it can provide data that the naked eye alone can't glean.
"That is the bottom line, don't be afraid of the numbers," Ringwall said. "They are there for you to use."
The best place to start for any of this is with the benchmark numbers, and the most up-to-date averages can be found here: https://www.ag.ndsu.edu/DickinsonREC/chaps-software-1