Choosing Bulls for the Best Returns

The choice of sire in any suckler system has a huge impact on the profitability of the herd. This makes decision around the breed, as well as the individual within that breed, incredibly important. The sire’s impact is likely to be felt for many years to come, which means the consequences for choosing badly are far reaching.

So, what factors should you take into consideration when choosing the right bull for your suckler enterprise? There are a number to take into consideration, which could mean the difference between a strong profit and a significant loss.

In this blog, we take a look at the most important.

Breed and Individual Sire

At their most basic, decisions around which bull to buy for the future of your suckler herd fall into two categories – the decision around which breed to choose, and then which individual animal from that breed.

Traditionally, the breed choice will depend on what market a farmer is looking to sell the offspring into, and these include:

  • If the breeder aims to finish cattle themselves or sell into store markets, they will often select a large, fast growing, well-muscled terminal sire.
  • If selling into breed-branded retail markets, their choice of sire is restricted to specific breeds.
  • If selling into the heifer replacement markets, the most appropriate sire will be one that usually delivers attractive females.

This last point is particularly important but is often where sire choice goes wrong and results in inefficient, unprofitable beef production.

Whereas from a financial point of view, selecting a sire with strong maternal genetics makes sense, traditionally this has not happened. In fact, over the past 40 years it has been popular to use large terminal continental breeds on dairy cows to produce replacement heifers, which has led to huge inefficiencies in the British beef industry.

There are many reasons for this. First of all, these bigger cows need more feed to reach target weights, which puts feed costs up per animal. Bigger cows means a lower stocking density on grass and both of these combined means the return on each animal is usually negative.

Cows breed to large sires also experience more birthing difficulties due to the size of the calves, meaning more money going on vets bills than into the farmer’s pocket, and a higher calve morality rate.

Large sires also suffer health problems and are generally expensive to feed and maintain, and can be inefficient breeders, decreasing the overall profitability of the herd still further.

Thankfully, these perceptions around size are gradually starting to change, leading to a fourth option in sire selection that optimises pound profit of a herd.

Sustainable composite breeds, in particular the Stabiliser, combine strong maternal traits with good finishing characteristics, meaning they deliver as the perfect heifer replacements and return strong prices as high-quality finished carcases.

Although the change is gradual, more breeders are recognising the potential of quicker growing, moderately size composites which exhibit strong hybrid vigour as an alternative to the old style dairy-bred beef cow, as profitability in farming comes to the fore.

Individual Animal

Once the breed has been settled on, the next job is to select a suitable animal from within that breed to match the herd.

There are several important criteria for choosing a specific sire, and in order of importance, these are:

  • Genetic potential to pass on the desired traits on to its progeny. These are measured by EBVs and Selection Indexes, which much be studied before making a decision.
  • Any bull considered for purchase must have passed a semen test inspection.
  • Physical soundness, including movement and sound legs and feet.
  • Appearance. Is the bull a well balanced and good representation of the breed?

A bull is a significant investment for any suckler enterprise and its influence on the herd could be felt for many years to come. Therefore, it is vital satisfactory answers to these questions are sought before making any purchasing decisions.

Bull Management

A healthy bull from a reputable breeder should be able to continue serving cows for seven or eight years. Sadly, however, the typical working life of a bull is far less than this, usually around four years, and in many cases this is due to the poor care and improper management. In short, it can be avoided with proper care and attention to the bull throughout its life.

Doing this, and potentially doubling its working life, will have profound consequences for the level of financial return the bull will generate.

Managing a New Bull

Once a new bull has arrived at the farm, it is a good idea to isolate him for a month away from other stock but in a place where he can see them, as this will lower the stress levels associated with being in a new and unfamiliar place.

Isolating him also enables a qualified vet to carry out any necessary health checks and follow up vaccinations before he joins the rest of the herd.

Nutrition and Exercise

It is not the aim of this article to have an in depth discussion around bull nutrition, but there are a few basic points worth bearing in mind.

There is a high chance the bull has been fed a high calorie diet before purchase as breeders often do this to make them look more impressive.

This can have detrimental effects on the development and fertility of the bull, in particular foot development.

So, it is a good idea to turn the bull out on to grass as soon as the isolation period has ended. When the bull is purchased, usually at 15 – 18 months old, he will have been fed to achieve a growth rate of around 2kg per day. This should be scaled back to less than 1.5kg to support moderate growth and reduce the chances of health issues developing later on.

Exercise is also important for the healthy development of a young bull. Therefore, if he is not working in the summer, he should have access to a well-fenced paddock and in the winter well-constructed bull pens with access to an exercise yard.

Working a New Bull

The age at which a sire becomes sexually mature depends on the breed and the individual animal. Composites such as Stabilisers exhibit high hybrid vigour which means they mature early and have a high libido, again bringing efficiencies to the herd in the form of being able to begin work earlier and producing fewer barren cows.

It’s a good idea to observe the first mating a new bull attempts to mate, and this can be done by isolating a cow in standing heat and introducing the sire.

Assuming this goes according to plan, he can be turned out to 20 – 30 cows. Any more than this can overwhelm him, which can lead to a range of problems including poor conception rates, protracted calving periods, reluctance to mount cows, weight loss and retarded growth.

Foot Care

Foot care is of the utmost importance to a working bull, not just as it develops but through its entire working life. After all, a bull that cannot stand or walk cannot mount cows, so is of little use in a commercial suckler operation.

Bulls’ feet should be regularly checked for any signs of abnormal growth and if any is observed, it should be dealt with straight away. Other things to look out for include foreign bodies such as small stones or metal objects that have become lodged and are penetrating the foot, and white-line abscesses that can spread into the hoof and cause severe problems.

Annual foot inspections should be carried out by a professional foot trimmer and emergency treatment should be carried out by a veterinary surgeon as soon as possible as having a bull laid off and unable to work will result in severe economic loss for any beef suckler business.

Annual Fertility Assessments

Finally, to ensure your bull is tip top condition and able to serve your herd effectively, annual fertility assessments should be carried out to ensure the testicles are normal and are producing enough semen to fertilise females quickly.

A bull that is 400 days old or more should have a scrotal measurement of at least 34cm and a veterinary surgeon will be able to assess semen quality by collecting a sample and examining it under a microscope.

Profitable Bulls for a Profitable Suckler Herd

As we can see, selecting and managing a bull for a productive and profitable suckler herd involves a lot of important decisions. However, it is possible to take some of the uncertainty out of the choice.

Stabiliser bulls exhibit high hybrid vigour, meaning they mature early, have a high libido, are high health, moderately sized with good feet and great finishing qualities.

They are also backed by more data and EBVs than any other breed in the world, making it easier to forecast margins, profit, and the financial return on your herd.

For an easier, more profitable beef business, get in touch on (01377) 227790 or email to find out more.

What our farmers say…
  • We are trying to produce beef that meets market specification and make the most profit possible. Using Stabilisers we are achieving our objectives, we have a low cost, low labour cow and good quality finishing cattle that meet the needs of the market.

    - Mel and Pete Momber, Hampshire
  • I’m excited by the prospects the Stabiliser can deliver for us. The proof was there based on scientific research, backed up by a large gene pool and precise management systems. It seemed the perfect breed for our farming system.

    - Will Evans, Machynlleth
  • On weaning in May at 10 mths old the Stabiliser calves were on par with the Blue and Angus calves. These were turned out to grass until early September then housed. This is when I was surprised by the differences between the breeds, the Angus averaged 480kg, the Blues 490kg but the Stabilisers were 530kg.

    - Robin Talbot, Laois – Ireland
  • In 2011 we bought 46 Stabiliser heifers plus 3 bulls and sold our 3 Belgium Blue bulls. The results were clear to see, by the time we pregnancy tested our 100 cows later that year. We went from historically having 15% barren cows to only 3% barren in a 9 week mating period.

    - Jeremy Iles, Gloucester
  • I have found Stabiliser cows to be very forage efficient. Their ability to put weight on in the summer months means I can save on winter feed costs. This has allowed me to keep more cows on the same resources.

    - Jono Cole, Cornwall
  • We have an easy-care system that is as profitable as any other beef enterprise. We benchmark our herd against the AHDB industry figure and we sit comfortably ahead of the top third performers. I believe we are now producing a carcass with the conformation and eating quality consistency that the market wants.

    - Dan Burling, Cambridgeshire
  • Docility, feed efficiency tested, easy calving, hybrid vigour, fertility, growth AND carcass traits from highly maternal cattle, what’s not like?

    - Robin Norrie, Fife
  • We aim to get most out of grass as possible. The hardy nature of the cattle seems to suit this system very well. Hardly any assistance is required during calving, combined with the excellent calf vigour produce healthy and strong calves which further reduces labour costs.

    - Llion and Sian Jones, Conwy
  • We’re over 10 years into our Stabiliser journey, we’re reaping the rewards. Moving to the Stabiliser has been a game changer for efficiency and job satisfaction, allowing us to increase cow numbers on the same area and finishing bulls averaging over 380kgs at 13 months. Our only regret is that we didn’t do it sooner!

    - Peter and Jackie Storrow, Pembrokeshire
  • Stabiliser cattle are a specialised suckler beef breed with the added bonus of hybrid vigour. The cattle are multi-trait performance recorded to produce EBV’s, this has a huge positive economical effect on our business. All of this is crucial for us to have a financially improving suckler herd on the farm.

    - Harri Parri, Llyn Peninsula
  • We chose the Stabiliser breed for their docility and easy calving traits, but with the added benefit of turning grass into meat. We soon saw all of these traits were true. Our first home bred steers were finished off grass at an average age of 19 months.

    - Dyfed Roberts, Anglesey
  • Despite our rainfall, we outwinter our cows on kale, the stabiliser cow will lay down excess fat, and successfully rear her calf. During the winter considerable cost savings are made. By changing to Stabiliser cattle I keep approximately 50% more cows as they only weigh 650Kgs, which meant more beef being produced.

    - Matthew Cooke, North Devon
  • We started using Stabiliser bulls 20 years ago. The fertility of the breed has enabled us to calve our own heifers at 24 months and reduce our calving period to nine weeks. This together with their good temperament has encouraged us to increase cow numbers. Consequently, the farm is now producing a lot more kilos of beef.

    - Edward and Ellis Griffith, Pwllheli
  • Minimal labour is required at calving time, with easy calving cows and calves up and suckling in no time at all. This gave us the ability to increase our cow numbers with no extra labour. The growth rate of Stabiliser cattle is exceptional, producing high weaning weights whilst converting feed efficiently.

    - John and Ianto Pari, Gwynedd
  • We started using stabiliser genetics in 2016, we have not looked back since, they exceeded all our expectations. Changing to stabilisers has enabled us to calve heifers at 2years old with no problems, cows wean a higher percentage of their body weight, we have increased cow numbers without any need for extra labour.

    - Carys Jones, Camarthenshire

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