How to Choose the Right Bull for Your Herd

Many breeds are available, and each one has its own qualities. Here are factors to consider before making a major investment in a bull.

by Alli Kelley
PHOTO: Penn State/Flickr

When choosing any breeding animal for your farm, you need to consider a few important factors. Bulls come in a variety of breeds, and each breed has slightly different characteristics. There are, however, qualities you need to look for regardless of breed. Different breeds are used for different purposes. For example, you want to purchase a meat breed bull (Angus, Hereford, Limousin, Charolais, and so on) for your beef herd.

Bulls are one of the largest livestock animals you can have on your farm, and they can be one of the most dangerous. It’s crucial that you have the expertise, space and equipment to handle a bull. With that in mind, temperament should be one of the biggest selection factors you use when choosing a bull for your small farm.

Choose a bull that is mellow and comfortable around people. Avoid an overly friendly bull, as the friendliness can often be dangerous just because the bull is so big. Avoid an overly aggressive bull as well. You need to handle your bull for breeding, soundness exams and periodic health checks, and a bull that is aggressive is not worth owning. Your life and the lives of those who work with you can be at risk when working with aggressive livestock.

It’s in the Genes

Once you know what breed you want and have the right temperament in mind, look for a bull with quality genetics. There is an abundance of information on genetics, so you should be able to easily find the data you seek. Here are a few of the genetic qualities you should look for:

  • Calving Ease: This measures how easily female offspring from the bull will calve. Obviously, this trait matters only if you plan to keep the bull’s offspring for breeding purposes. This trait is very important because calving difficulties are not only inconvenient, they will cost you in vet bills and present the risk of losing a calf or cow during birth.
  • Mothering Instinct: This measures how well the bull’s female offspring mother their calves. This value is important because while bottle calves are cute, they cost you money, and so does the cow that is not taking care of her calf.
  • Size: This value indicates how large the bull’s offspring will be at finishing. It’s up to you what size you want your finished cattle.
  • Birth Weight: This is an estimate of how much the bull’s offspring will weigh at birth. Birth weights should be appropriate for the size of the cows you’re breeding to your bull. If your bull has high calving weights and you breed him to small heifers or cows, you set yourself up for a difficult calving season.
  • Weaning Weight & Yearling Weight: These values indicate the estimated weight of the bull’s offspring at weaning and yearling ages. These values are important if you sell calves at either of those ages. Obviously, heavier weights mean a greater sale price.
  • Milk Production: This value indicates how well the bull’s female offspring will produce milk. Even when breeding for a beef herd, this value matters because the cow’s milk production affects the weaning weight of her babies, which affects how they grow and finish.

Much additional information is available on the genetics of bulls. Focus on your farm’s goals and seek out a bull that will help you meet those goals.

No Bull!

Getting a new bull or purchasing one for the first time is a major investment. Learn as much as you can before you add one to your herd. We recommend reading the “Bull Buyer’s Guide” by the extension animal specialists at the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension—Ted Dyer, Ronnie Silcox and Dan Brown. Here’s a sample:

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“The best way to remain efficient in today’s beef industry is continue to produce more pounds of product per cow exposed. That task can become hard to achieve without the help of a superior bull. Fortunately, weight at various ages is heritable. Birth weight and weaning weight are estimated to be about 30 percent heritable, while yearling weight is about 45 percent heritable. This means that a certain degree of birth weight, weaning weight and yearling weight is inherited from the parents and that progress can be made by selecting for these traits.”

You can read this great resource for free at the university’s website at

Cash Cows

When purchasing a bull, buy from a reputable breeder. The breeder should be able to give you a health care, genetics and breeding history on the bull you are considering. If the bull has a few breeding seasons behind him, the breeder should be able to talk you through the quality of his offspring.

It’s common to purchase bulls at auction. If this is how you choose to purchase a bull, the farmer selling the bull should have a good reputation for selling quality livestock. Go ahead and purchase at an auction if you find a bull that meets your farm’s needs and goals. When purchasing at auction, take your time looking over the bulls and determine a top price you would pay before the bidding starts.

As with any livestock purchase, check the bull for general health before you buy. Check the bull’s body condition, confirmation and hoof health. Any lameness or illness affects how well the bull breeds the cows he is with. Also, get a semen evaluation if it hasn’t already been provided. A bull with the best genetics in the world is not worth much if he can’t breed a cow successfully or if his semen can’t make it to the egg.

In the end, the bull you purchase should fit with your farm’s production goals. Search for a bull to help you meet those goals from a genetics standpoint and that will also be easy to work with from a temperament standpoint. If you choose a healthy bull carefully and thoughtfully, you will have great success raising your own beef herd.

This story originally appeared in the May/June 2018 issue of Hobby Farms.

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