What Does a Good Bull Look Like? Do You Know?

by Allan Nation

In 2003 Gearld Fry and I visited a large ranch that seemed to be doing everything right.

They had shifted their calving to June 21, had stopped making and feeding hay and had taken over the responsibility for providing for their own herd genetics.

They had an elaborate record system designed to identify their "elite"cows that were the source for the replacement heifers and bulls. These cows had to breed back every year with no hay or supplementary feed to even be considered as worthy of genetic replication.

The market cattle were grown to heavy feeder weights and ownership was retained so that quality grade and yields could be collected. Nearly 90 percent of their cattle were grading Choice.

This all sounded wonderful, especially when the manager described the tight management protocol the ranch was following.

After a few minutes of riding through the pastures of the ranchís bull development center, Gearld's good mood turned as black as the bottom of a Kentucky coal mine.

The bulls all looked like steers. There wasn't an overtly masculine animal in the bunch.

The head of the bull development center was the young son of a prominent seedstock breeder. He read The Angus Journal on the john and when you cut him he bled black.

"What criteria are you using to select your bulls?" Gearld asked.

"Well, the first thing I do is that any bull born with big shoulders is castrated immediately," he replied. "My Daddy always said those kinds of bulls are what causes calving difficulties."

Gearld bit his lip and then gently tried to explain that a big head and large shoulders are a primary indication of masculinity and that he was purposely selecting for sub-fertile bulls.

"A highly fertile bull will look like a buffalo," he said. "It will have a wide chest, a large head and big shoulders."

Gearld quickly went through his other criteria for identifying hyper-fertile bulls. The kid was polite but his mind was closed and we quickly left.

While that young man didn't learn anything from the visit, I certainly did.

I learned that the biggest deviation in Nature's plan we have made is that today humans decide which male gets to breed rather than Nature. This is a huge responsibility.

In Nature, the biggest, toughest, most masculine bull gets to breed most of the cows. The wimpy, smooth muscled, semi-steers we had seen would have all been pounded into fecal dust by a real bull.

While it's true a good cow can largely clone herself in her daughters, she can never improve upon herself. To do that it takes a male genetically superior to the cow's own father.

Highly masculine males create highly feminine daughters. The shape of a cow's udder is determined by the shape of her father's scrotal sack. Big shoulders on a male create a big butt on a female. It's the yin and the yang. Good males create better females.

Luckily, females are resistant to human tampering.

Gearld said the slender thread holding America's beef industry together is cytoplasmic inheritance. This is a big word for the ability of the female to produce a good daughter regardless of how awful the male she is bred to is.

Most of us are like that Western rancher. We are getting all of the basics right except the most important one. The bull. We are slowly genetically unraveling our industry.

Here's the big problem.

Do you know what a good bull looks like? Most of us don't and most seedstock breeders don't either.

At one of the Stockman Grass Farmerís Grass and Genetics schools, we took our attendees to the Dixie National Livestock Show. This is one of America's leading livestock shows and had hundreds of seedstock animals on display.

Gearld told the attenders to go through the barns and try to find one bull that showed an overtly masculine phenotype. After two hours of searching, the attenders came back and reported they had not found a single one.

Not a single one!

However, there were many bulls with twisted testicles and other overt manifestations of sub-par fertility and even overt infertility.

And yet these bulls were winning prizes as the best there were!

Just as many human male models are chosen by fashion magazine editors for their smooth muscles and pretty nearly feminine faces, today's seedstock males are largely chosen for similar "fashion" reasons totally unrelated to turning grass into dense protein.

Tall and black is this year's flavor of the month. In five years, it will be something else. Just as hemlines have to go up and down to keep the fashion industry profitable, cattle fashions have to change as well. What's hot today, will not be, cannot be, what's hot tomorrow.

While most of us are totally disgusted with the seedstock industry, what are we going to do about it?

Number one, we all need to learn what a fertile bulls looks like and burn this into your brain. You can then, at least, recognize masculine characteristics in the bulls you seek to buy and avoid the overtly sub-fertile phenotypes.

While some seedstock breeders are learning to "talk the talk" of grass and genetics as a marketing ploy, much of this is just talk and their bulls are the same old near-steer in a different wrapper. You need to know what you are looking for so you can personally sort out the hucksters from the real breeders.

Once you find a real breeder you need to encourage him to stay the course, stick by him with your own bull purchases and tell others about him. If you can't find one, you need to be one.

The bottom line is that once you give the responsibility of choosing which male gets to breed to someone else it is incumbent upon you that you be as genetically knowledgeable as he is.

© by The Stockman Grass Farmer

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