When buying a bull, it’s important, to look not just at what you’re spending, but also at what you’re getting.
“A lot of times,” Brett Barham, University of Arkansas Extension professor of beef cattle breeding and genetics, told Ozarks Farm & Neighbor, “when producers are shopping for a bull, they approach it like a car. They have a specific price point that they have in mind, and that’s what they shoot for. They tend to not spend any more money than what that price point is.”
Barham said that may not be the right strategy; he called it assessing the value of a bull relative to its cost, and said much of that comes down to looking at the traits that are important to the producer. For many producers, that will be weaning weights. “Not every $1,500 bull is going to give you the same amount of values in calves as another one,” he said. “A lot of people think, ‘I can’t make any money on a $3,000 bull.’ Well, you can – if the extra performances out of the calves of that bull are going to more than outweigh the extra cost. And a lot of times, they do.”
Producers can take a pencil, or a computer, to the EPDs and determine the difference in pounds of calves likely to be produced during the productive life of the bull. If the bulls are of different breeds, USDA produces a crossbreed EPD table so the traits can be fairly compared. “I’ve actually read an Excel spreadsheet that lets you compare up to four bulls,” said Barham. “It’s pretty simple – you have drop-down menus. You pick your bulls and type in what your initial purchase costs are and their published weaning weight EPDs; the spreadsheet does the rest of the calculations for you.”
Since the breed associations’ averages change every year, USDA has to recalculate the table annually. It uses Angus as the base – since the American Angus Association has the most registrations, that leaves the fewest adjustments for producers using the table – and lists the conversion factor to add to or subtract from other breeds. Said Barham, “If you take a Hereford EPD and the adjustment factor for Hereford is +15, you just take that EPD, add 15 lbs to it, and that puts it on an Angus base.” USDA computes the table for 16 breeds, so most of the seedstock producers may use would be represented.
Barham said it’s definitely worth the effort for a smaller producer, who may use just one bull or two at the most, to compare the crossbreed EPDs. In fact, he said in some cases producers can make more money with a $3,000 bull than they would if they procured a bull with questionable progeny traits at no cost. “Cheap is not always the best,” he said. “For a lot of smaller producers, the one way to make sure that you are cost competitive is to make sure that you are getting maximum performance out of those calves, and so bull selection probably has the biggest impact.”
Barham said he tries to get producers to pay less attention to the individual bull’s EPDs. “A +25 for a particular bull for weaning weight doesn’t mean nearly as much to me as how it compares to the rest of the breed,” he said. “If the breed average is +35, that tells me that that bull isn’t a very good one because he’s 10 lbs below average, and that probably should raise a red flag.”
The important thing is to use EPDs as a tool to your advantage. “A lot of people get turned off of using EPDs,” Barham said. “I think it’s because they’ve been confused to the point that they just give up on it.” He recommended focusing on the average EPD in that breed for the trait you’re keying on; that way, by comparing a bull to that average, he said, “you can know in an instant if that’s the bull you’re interested in.”
For a link to the USDA crossbreed EPD table, visit our website at www.ozarksfn.com.


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