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October 2003

More Bull?

It's springtime, it has rained (a bit) - it's time to buy a new bull.

Judy and I have been associated with cattle all of our life. Judy's ancestors started breeding cattle on "Sarina" station near Mackay in the 1860's. My ancestors started breeding dairy cattle near Dunedin New Zealand at about the same time. My father drove a bullock team in the Kyogle district of NSW before buying a dairy farm on which I was brought up. Almost all of the descendants in both families followed the cattle trail. (We are the only traitors to have added sheep.) We have thus made most of the mistakes you can in cattle, so maybe you can learn from our experience.

A regular problem in cattle breeding is choosing a bull. We have bulls for sale now, and have put together all we know on how to go about choosing a bull, even if it is your first bull.

The easiest and cheapest way to improve your herd is by buying a better bull. How do you decide what bull to buy? Four factors are of paramount importance in determining the profitability of commercial cattle breeding operations - fertility, longevity, ability to thrive in your environment without chemicals and supplements, and what the customer wants.

So how do we set out on the adventure of buying a bull? Below are some things to consider:

1. Which breed?

This depends on your goals and the breed of your cows.

The choice of breed is beyond what we will discuss here, but questions to answer are:

  • Do you want beef, milk or versatile cattle?
  • What market are you aiming at? Butcher, store, export, specialized?
  • Do you have any personal preferences on breed or colour?
  • Do you want to breed stud cattle?
  • What are the weak points of your breeding herd now, and what do you want to change in them?
  • What climate will your cattle need to cope with?
  • What feeds will be available - natural pasture, cultivated crops, irrigated crops, grain-based supplements, other supplements?
  • What is important to you - parasite resistance, drought tolerance, heat tolerance, docility, fertility, growth rate, size, popularity, polled or horned?
  • Do you understand what is meant by the terms - pure bred, cross bred, hybrid vigor, composite breeding, and line breeding?

2. Which Breeder?

Assuming you have decided what breeds to choose from, the next decision is, which breeder to choose.

If you have no knowledge of the market for bulls, it is probably worth talking to two or three breeders to see how they choose their bulls, how they feed their bulls, how they handle their bulls and how they record and identify their cattle. Are they helpful with information? Will they be helpful after you have bought the bull? Will they give pedigree information? How quiet are their cattle? What are their culling criteria?

It is also a good idea to buy your bulls from long term breeders in tough environments - that will have weeded out the poor performers.

3. Bull Sale or Paddock?

You can buy bulls from an organised bull sale or straight from the paddock. Pro's and con's are:

  • Sale bulls are usually overfed, often on grain. Grain feeding a ruminant animal decreases its fertile life span as well as causing other problem such as arthritic joints. If you take a pampered grain-stuffed bull from a stud-bull feed lot, and drop him onto your hungry hills to survive on sparse natural pasture, he will be too stressed for some time to even notice your curvaceous heifers.
  • Sale bulls are usually covered with a layer of fat, and carefully groomed and spruced to look their best. Under such conditions, even a poor bull can look OK.
  • However, organised bull sales give you an opportunity to see a range of bulls in one spot, talk to a number of owners, study catalogues and get an idea of market values.
  • Buying from the paddock gives you a monopoly on the time and attention of the breeder. Usually he will tell you honestly the good and bad points of various bulls he has for sale. You can see them in their natural environment, judge temperament, see what they are being fed and judge the character and competence of the breeder.

4. Which Bull?

Eight things are important in selecting a bull:

  • Fertility and Libido - this is the number one of bull selection. If he is not fertile, nothing else matters and he is hamburger material.
  • Temperament - quiet cattle produce tender meat. They are also easier and safer to handle.
  • Structural Soundness - does he have the body shape, skeleton and muscles to allow him to do all the things required of him and his offspring in calving, in the paddock or in the feedlot?
  • Genetic Potential - are his genes likely to improve your herd?
  • Parasite Resistance - will he and his offspring survive your parasites without needing chemicals, losing condition or dying?
  • Climatic Tolerance - your bull needs to thrive in whatever climate you plan for him.
  • Meat Quality - there is great variation in taste, tenderness and marbling between breeds, and within breeds.
  • Age - do you buy young, mature or proven (used) bulls?

Let's look at each of these in more detail:

Fertility & Libido

The secret to profitable beef breeding is a high reproductive rate - you need more live calves per cow, and that requires a fertile bull. A bull that is queer, timid, impotent or infertile is about as useful as more sand in the Sahara.

  • Our bull must be masculine. He must look like a bull, not like a steer or a cow. He should have a big head and shoulders, and darker colour on his head. The hair on his head should be coarse and sparse, not long, thin and silky. He should have a strong poll and crest, and an eye for the ladies. Highly masculine bulls create highly feminine cows and promote fertility in the herd. A feminine looking bull is probably a sub-fertile bull.
  • His essential equipment must be sound. His penis should not dangle down where he will step on it, catch it on logs, or get it full of spear grass. The sheath should be tight. His testicles should be large, parallel, not twisted, symmetrical, football shaped (point up) and the same size. They should not be fatty or held close to the body where body heat will kill sperm. Nor should they dangle so low they will trip him or get bruised when he runs.


Nervous or savage cattle are a danger to themselves, to handlers and to other animals. They lose weight during handling and transport, cause bruising, take a long time to settle into yards and feedlots, and produce tough meat ("dark cutting carcass") if slaughtered when stressed. Feedlot statistics show that flighty animals don't gain weight or convert feed as well as calm cattle, thus reducing profit. Temperament is also heritable, so it is important to choose a bull with good temperament. Things that may help in assessing temperament:

  • When you look at a mob in a yard, the quiet animal will be out in front, looking at you calmly. It will have a relaxed look and may even chew a cud. The timid one will be hiding up the back. The stirrer will be pushing the mob around with a wild look in his eye. The mad thing will be crashing the fence or putting handlers onto the fence.
  • When you put animals into a crush, the quiet animal moves in calmly and stands waiting to see what will happen next. The stirry animal will snort, shuffle and try to turn around. The mad thing will take an age to get into the crush and then snort at handlers and try to charge the gates.
  • When you let animals out of the crush, the quiet one walks out in their own time. The stirry one runs out with relief. The mad thing rushes out, hits its hips on posts and runs to the far corner of the yard with a wild look over the gate.
  • When you walk towards an animal, the quiet one will let you come close before moving off. The nervous one will keep as far away as possible and watch you all the time.
  • Look at the whirl of hair on his nose. It should NOT be low down on his nose - preferably higher than the eyes.
  • Any bottle fed animals will be very quiet, even walking up to humans, but are best avoided unless they are perfect in every other way. Because of the bottle feeding and the excessive and kindly handling, they have lost their fear of humans. They will be difficult to drive and in certain circumstances could become dangerous (a bit like the kid that has never been smacked).

Structural Soundness

Things to look for here are:

  • Is he horned, scurred or polled? Dehorned cattle are safer to handle and more acceptable to most buyers. Dehorning is one unpleasant job you can avoid or reduce by using a polled bull.
  • Are his hooves straight, strong and black? Overlong, crossing or crooked hooves may need trimming on soft ground.
  • Is his muzzle broad? If so, he and his offspring can take more grass per bite.
  • Looked at from front and back, is his body symmetrical? Is it wide and deep?
  • Are his legs strong and easy moving? He may end up weighing a tonne - will his legs hold up? Avoid straight "peg legs". When he walks out, back feet should end up close to the front footprints.

Genetic Potential

These are the things you cannot see clearly, but the seller may have information on. Various genetic and other measurements may give you ideas on what the bull or his breed will contribute to:

  • Birth weight - it is best to have small calves and easy births.
  • Growth rate - after the small calf, it is best if he grows quickly.
  • Meat tenderness - some people test for the "tenderness gene".
  • Tendency for Marbling - again there is a genetic test that may have some value.
  • Age & Longevity - the ideal bull is young and proven with a genetic or breed history of longevity.
  • Prepotency - will this bull reliably stamp out his likeness and qualities on his offspring? This depends on the dominance of his genes and the history of his breeding. "Mongrel bred" bulls provide poor predictability in their progeny.
  • Breed characteristics - useful breeds are those with predictable properties that bulls pass onto their offspring. The obvious one is colour. Others are more tender, tastier, more marbled, more muscled, more fertile, more heat or cold tolerant, more parasite resistant. Listen to these claims and seek real evidence that they are true.

Parasite Resistance

The big problems are ticks, buffalo flies and worms. Generally this comes down to the history of the breed or herd. How has it evolved?

  • If, for many generations, the herd has been culled by the parasites themselves, those that survive and breed must be parasite resistant or tolerant.
  • If the cattle have been pampered by humans, protected by chemicals and selected by Judges in Show rings, they will probably look magnificent but die if exposed to parasites without chemical support.

Climatic Tolerance

Your cattle should be able to cope easily with the expected climatic extremes of your area. This largely comes down to skin and hair characteristics.

  • For heat tolerance, the ideal cattle have red, brown, yellow or white hair colour with a dark or black skin. The hair should be sleek, short and shiny to reflect the sun's heat. It is an advantage if the cattle are able to sweat thru their skin.
  • For cold tolerance, the ideal cattle are black cattle with black skins and long rough hair that will absorb the sun's heat more fully, and retain body heat.
  • To cope with extremes of temperature, cattle need a winter coat which is shed quickly and completely at the onset of spring.

Meat Quality

To get tasty, tender meat requires attention to detail in breeds, sires and feeding. Much of our meat has become tough, flavourless and unhealthy because Show judges, feedlots and butchers have focused on quantity, speed and cost of meat production. (When slaughter costs are quoted as $'s per head, it is cheaper per kg to slaughter elephants.) So we have huge fast growing animals that can fatten quickly in low-cost grain based factory feedlots. The meat loses flavour, and is rightly thought to cause health problems. How do we produce for meat quality?

  • Breeds vary, with Waigu, Jersey, Angus, Hereford and Senepol famed for tasty meat. (A full discussion of breeds must wait for another day.)
  • Within your breed, there are animals with more tasty meat. Try to identify them by tasting their offspring, testing genetics or other ways.
  • Animals with a dark oily streak down their back are said to have superior flavour.
  • Meat tenderness is also correlated with bone fineness. Animals with flat rib bones rather than rounded bones are also said to be more tender.


Points to consider are:

  • A young weaner bull will be cheaper, and you can help him adapt to your property, handling and feed regime before you expect him to settle down and work. The disadvantages are that he may change as he grows, and you have to feed him for a year before he starts working.
  • A mature bull (2 year old) should be ready to work as soon as he hits the paddock (unless he has been stuffed with grain). You can also see exactly what he looks like. But bulls at this age will generally be the most expensive.
  • A used bull will be proven on fertility, adaptability and temperament. He will often be cheaper, but he has fewer years left. How many depends on his age, his breeding and how he has been fed. Pasture fed bulls will last longer than grain fed.

5. Why Buy Our Cattle?

Judy and I have each been around cattle all of our now long life - beef and dairy, stud and commercial, large and small properties. We have never sold bulls in a stud sale, nor have we ever fed grain to any cattle or entered them in a show. You will see our cattle in their working clothes. We do not inoculate or immunize and minimize the use of chemicals. We have never fed or injected anti-biotics or hormone growth promotants. Our cattle are treated well and handled quietly but get absolutely minimal supplementary feeding or veterinary services.

6. Contact Us

If you are interested in buying or looking at our cattle, please contact us.

This newsletter goes to a lot of sheep people too. If you do not wish to see future newsletters on cattle, or multi-species grazing please advise us.

Viv & Judy Forbes.

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