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Animal Health Notebook
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Bulls with great numbers and a big feed bill are definitely not profitable, unless that is the type operation you run.

The $8,000 bull

Author says big money and big numbers don’t make for a profitable bull.

Chester Meyer and his family ranch in southeastern Montana. Back in June of 2018 we visited and spent the afternoon with Chet and his wonderful wife Rona. In March of 2019 they spent the day with us. Meyer and his family run 500 cows on 10,000 acres. Some of it is badlands and rough. Some is really good ground. He sells short yearlings and a few 2-year-old bulls that have seen a little training and service on home-raised heifers.

While in Tennessee Meyer had his first ride on a “walking mule.” He knows how to ride, and his family have been favorites in the ranch rodeo arenas for a bunch of years. But this was his first experience on an equine capable of moving in a running walk so smooth that he could have drunk from a mug with zero suds going down his chin. We’re talking 8 mph for all day. Meyer got to view a 28-year-old spotted mule that has raced and gamed his way to over $60,000 in winnings.

Meyer is a good guy and has a wonderful family. They have been in the cattle business for two plus generations. Meyer is of German ancestry and is always looking for better times and production methods. Now that is not all bad.

Several years back he sat in on some afternoon teaching that basically recommended closing the herd to most outside breeding stock. After buying good-looking well-bred bulls that broke down and/or died, he stopped. As best I can tell he actually got the buying-in-new-cattle deal out of his system.

I viewed the majority of his yearlings and cows and calves when I was there in June of 2018. I listened and argued while he bad mouthed the weather and the cheatgrass that was the result of a previous dry year. I told him to stop bitching and I’d try to send Ray Bannister down to straighten him up. He thanked me and laughed and told me to go to hell. (He and Bannister are old friends.)

Truth is that he and his family have as good a working set of cattle that fit the land and environment as I have seen. Interesting enough, Meyer has sold several bulls for maybe two to four years to Dave and Chase Hayden up toward Baker, Montana. The Haydens have the slickest operation around, according to Burke Teichert, and Dave assures me that he and Chase have gotten artificial insemination and high-dollar production cost out of their systems. They have drug off their share of purchased, high-production bulls.

Prices for bulls are interesting. We hear and see all kinds of prices. Bull prices certainly have to do with a complex set of things. These include:

  • Eye appeal
  • Age of the bull and location
  • Genetics
  • Use and need of the buyer
  • Expectations as to offspring
  • Color
  • Environmental and structural issues
  • Market swings
  • Reputation and marketing
  • Health
  • EPDs
  • Warrantees

I have said and written in the past that the difference in a good bull and a real good bull is “not much.”  So, that begs the question: What traits does a real good bull possess?

  • Masculinity
  • Maybe an old, feminine smaller mother
  • No extremes including height, muscle, bone or length
  • Forage-raised with few of the niceties
  • Ability to work and hold condition
  • Near-perfect health and a mostly docile attitude
  • Perfect feet and legs
  • Good genetics, age, experience and maybe an $8,000 price tag
  • Performance and bragging rights - maybe
  • Eye appeal

There are several old thumb rules on what a producer can theoretically pay for a bull that is ready to go to work. In our country the bull would likely need to be 25 to 28 months of age and hopefully had experience with cycling cows and/or heifers and probably other bulls. He needs to be clean of venereal disease and all respiratory and GI viral, bacterial and protozoal issues. What is his health history? How about feeding and growing development? Internal and external parasites? How about birth weight? Can or have you seen his dam? Grazing and wintering? The environment/ecosystem is always an issue. Bulls do not need to be moved from a better to a worse environment.

Truth is that you’ll probably never get a high percentage of correct answers to many of these questions. Just another reason to stay home.

Old thumb rules have said that a beef producer can pay 300% more for a bull of service age than his average cow is worth, if he has at least 25 cows. Another rule says he is worth the price of three 650-pound conditioned steers. We probably ought to average these prices over the last cattle cycle, which would be about 12 years. Short yearling bulls in our country used to sell for $50 to $100 above the local or national commodity feeder market. The warranty ended when he jumped on the buyer’s trailer.

Cows that weigh about 1,000 pounds have been valued from $700 to $2,700 per head over the past 12 years. Steers have sold for $875 to $1,375 per head since 2008.

This places a bull’s value, maybe his maximum value, at $2,100 to $8,100 in the last cattle cycle, depending on when you are buying. Needless to say there is a huge amount of price swings and one would question why any of us would be in the buying market when it was on top? A little planning might be in order.

An $8,000 bull could be expected to sire 100 calves in four years that live to market and sell. Hopefully he’ll bring $1,400 to $2,000 when he leaves your place. Some people spend $300 per year and some people spend $900 keeping him around (maintenance). There are lots of management styles. Many of them do not pencil black ink.

Chances are that most producers who pay $8,000 for a really good bull that works out will end up with $80-per-service in the offspring after figuring the cull price return. The beef producer that gets it done with a good bull at $2,100 ends up with $21-per-service in calves.

Both options are likely cheaper than AI programs that I have participated in. Remember that we are assuming 25 cows per bull in a natural service program. AI programs require “clean up” bulls and usually stretch the calving season. Synchronization programs come at all kinds of cost variables. There are lots of different marketing options and programs. It’s not unusual to see $125 or more in breeding costs for an AI calf.

We need to think and plan. There’s not much difference between really good bulls and pretty good bulls. Home-raised bulls mostly work out and should be really low cost. They limit the genetic pool and that can be a good thing.

The opinions of this author are not necessarily those of Beef Producer or Farm Progress.

TAGS: Genetics Beef
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