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Everyone likes a bargain, but bulls are generally not a good place to pinch pennies. Buy young and you'll probably pay less because he's unproven. But do you really know what sort of calves that bull will produce once he's fully developed?
Genomic testing is as close as the industry has come to being able to answer that question before a bull's first calf hits the ground. It's all about progeny equivalency.
Without genomic testing, a bull has to produce a certain number of calves before anyone can judge how close that young bull's EPDs (expected progeny difference) are going to be to his true genetic potential. But a genomically tested bull's EPDs, depending on the trait and the breed, will have a progeny equivalent value of anywhere from five to 20 calves. This allows a commercial cattle operation to invest in a bull as a yearling, or even younger, relying on these genetically enhanced EPDs (GE-EPDs) as a guide to how that bull will affect herd genetics.
At Collins Farms, in Cusseta, Ala., GE-EPDs are important tools for Jim and his dad, Jimmy. They put a fine touch on a program that was already heavily invested in the idea of balance and consistency.
The father/son team moved the cattle operation's emphasis to heifer development in 1992. They have long had a high degree of consistency in their heifer crop thanks to a focus on bulls that are genetically close. They often use flush mates and three-quarter brothers on the cow herd, creating herds of females that are basically half siblings. Jim said this makes it easier to select outcross matings while staying within the Angus breed.
The Collinses rely on young, Black Angus bulls with GE-EPDs to ensure their herd of around 400 cows keeps producing high-quality heifers, as well as steers that will perform well in the feedyards. They breed about 200 heifers annually.
"On younger bulls, this technology helps you improve confidence in your bull choices," Jim said. "You can see, by trait, a comparative number of calves. It increases accuracy as if I had turned in birthweight data on, for example, nine or 10 calves."
Each year, Jim said, they develop between 25 and 30 bulls, selling 10 to 15. The goal is to always have next year's lineup on hand. They generally have 30 to 35 working bulls. Breeding soundness exams are done each year by their veterinarians, ensuring the genetics are backed up by ability and good health.
Heifers calve first in September. Cows calve after that, finishing up by early December. All calves will be weaned and preconditioned, with heifers ready for sale the first of May as bred replacements. Heifers are sold private treaty at the farm, as well as in the University of Georgia HERD sale (Heifer Evaluation and Reproductive Development) and consignment sales in Alabama, including the BCIA sale (Beef Cattle Improvement Association). Jim said the operation has working females in herds in Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and, of course, their home state of Alabama.
The important thing when choosing bulls, Jim said, is balanced trait selection. That's something Matthew Spangler stresses every time he speaks to producers about genetics. He wants to avoid the perils of single-trait selection, always aiming for balance when using EPDs.
Spangler, University of Nebraska beef cattle genetics Extension specialist, explained that for commercial cattlemen, GE-EPDs mitigate risk.