BeefTalk: Bull Selection for Moderate Growth?


Kris Ringwall, NDSU Extension Service Beef Specialist


I did some pondering as I traveled to and from recent commercial bull-selection

The travel time offered some time to ruminate on current news regarding the
management of growth in the beef industry and related beef carcass size. Once
home, dangling thoughts remain.

Bull-buying season is a great opportunity for beef producers to steer carcass
size through sire selection, and as long as a producer is at the steering wheel,
that is what one should do.

But first, what road does one want to be on? Even when one picks a road and
arrives at an intersection, it seems to be rather congested. In fact, some days,
the traffic light isn’t even working, and all one gets is a lot of honking horns
and lots of opinions.

This is very different from the day the bull quietly walked out to summer
pasture to mate with the grazing cow herd. Perhaps we should “take the bull by
the horns” and fix the issue, remembering we used genetics to remove the horns
decades ago.

Can we not tackle the size issue as well? Maybe the time is right to get a
handle on the perpetual size race. The cheer “May the fast-growing bull win the
race!” needs to quiet down.

I apologize for using the exclamation point. Many producers know that bull
buying is more than growth, but those growth traits are hard to resist.

At recent commercial bull-selection workshops, after reviewing historical
bull-selection criteria, a common scenario often evolves. Producers use expected
progeny difference values for weaning weight and yearling weight, but then
revert to using actual birth weight based on their personel preference.

Note: Many producers still select on actual weight for birth, weaning and
yearling weight. In a nutshell, this commercial bull-selection scenario is very
common. Traits such as maternal milk and carcass quality randomly follow along
because the auctioneer declares the bull sold.

This is not to say producers are not selecting on other traits; however, the
growth traits are the focus, restricted primarily by the pocketbook. The
opportunity to purchase sires from sires that excel in weaning and yearling
growth, even with a limited pocketbook, is evident throughout the industry.

Recently, and in times previous to recent times, a foreboding media message
appeared; it said that the beef industry needs to monitor carcass size. Bluntly
put, cattle have gotten larger, and excessive carcass size is an issue.

At the same time, as one meanders through cattle producer gatherings, maternal
cow size often is questioned. Once again, bluntly put, cows have gotten larger
and producers are concerned with excessive cow size within cattle production

As the circle completes, continued emphasis on selection for growth only will
perpetuate larger and larger cattle. I am not trying to be difficult, and I do
get it. One could not have been in the beef business for the last few decades
without realizing the desire and need to establish what one would call
“efficient” cattle. Current cattle are a product of this massive movement within
the industry.

Whether by design or not, the goal was fast-growth cattle, selecting for greater
average daily gain, weight per day of age, weaning weight, yearling weight,
harvest weight, carcass weight and other traits contributing to the development
of beef mass. The main constraint to the accomplishment of the current beef
population was simply time and the long generational interval of cattle.

Think about how the concepts of “growth” and “excellence” have been connected.
Produced education supported the ongoing hypothesis that increased growth was
improvement. The concept of improving industry efficiency meant improved growth
and has been embedded doctrinally in the industry.

Well, perhaps the industry has arrived at an imposed finish line, even if the
finish line was not ever set. Is the time here to rethink that concept and
encompass the complexity of more traits? More than anything, modified selection
goals and tools, once implemented, will appease the need to expand economically
balanced traits within the industry.

But first let’s accept the concept that the growth goal is achieved. Moving
forward, the challenge is to first recognize perpetual-focused selection of
those sires that excel in growth traits for the purpose of expanding commercial
cattle growth curves may need to be altered.

Does the commercial cattle industry continue to produce a product that must be
modified to fit desired specs? Or does the commercial cattle industry seek
genetics that will produce a product that will fit the desired specs without
significant modification?

The bulls that will buffer growth within the cow populations, expand efficient
growth during the growing and finishing phase and, once again, buffer carcass
size do exist. The industry has to want to want to change. That is not a
negative statement, but it is a difficult statement.

May you find all your ear tags.

For more information, contact your local NDSU Extension Service agent
( or Ringwall at the Dickinson
Research Extension Center, 1041 State Ave., Dickinson, ND 58601; 701-456-1103;