Bull testing provides critical breeding data

EDMONTON — Stepping out with technology is a dance the owners of Nelson Hirsche Purebreds want to try.

Based in southern Alberta, the team has bought Grow Safe feed bunks to test its herds of Hereford, Angus and Charolais for residual feed intake and then enter the data into the Herd Trax cattle management system.

Testing young bulls for feed efficiency has been done at the research level but now a few purebred cattle breeders are taking it to the commercial level.

Nelson-Hirsche can test up to 800 bulls a year and also plans to test their females and feedlot cattle. Bulls from the Nelson-Hirsche program, located at the former Remington Ranch, sired many of the calves placed in their 15,000 head feedlot.

A set of bulls is on test right now and the plan is to offer full packages of information at their annual sale.

“One of the things we want to do that is really important, with all the tests that have been done, they are comparing individuals. We are able to do 32 Hereford, 32 Angus and 32 Charolais and be able to see the feed efficiency not only of individuals but as groups,” said Grant Hirsche.

“Within a year we will be able to tell you which group of bulls are more feed efficient than the other group. It is for our customers,” he said.

With data loaded onto Herd Trax, they will be able to follow animals from their sires all the way to the carcass.

“We are going to be able to tell right away on the bulls and it will take us a year to find out if they pass it on to their steers and feeder heifers.”

All the cattle will eventually have DNA on file so they can further trace them from conception to consumer.

Because Nelson Hirsche has large numbers, it is able to create indexes with 100 being average. Bull buyers understand indexes and with added information, they can make more informed decisions about their purchases.

“By the sale next year every bull in the sale will have a feed efficiency score,” Hirsche said.

This information may not be useful to commercial producers if they do not understand it, but explanations will be available at sale time.

An efficient animal may be one that needs five pounds of feed to gain one pound compared to another that consumes seven pounds for the same rate of gain.

“We want to find out which ones are eating a little bit less and that will increase our profits and input costs,” said Jimmy Nelson.

Both agree there are some skeptics who are not interested in expected progeny differences and other predictor tools.

However, there is a growing body of customers who want accurate information about the animals they use.

“For those young aggressive breeders, we will have that data for those who do believe in it and want it and hopefully down the road we can help educate them so that we can end up getting more information,” Hirsche said.

“This is just another tool. There are some guys who honestly spend days studying the numbers and pedigrees days beforehand,” said Nelson.

The ranch buys back calves from bull customers to place on feed. These will also be measured and carcass data will be collected to see what kind of progress they are making.

Hirsche shows and sells high-end breeding stock and next year he wants to have more data on them to show they are worth the extra money. He also wants to know what kind of daughters they are producing and if those mothers are passing the RFI trait to their calves.

However, as an experienced producer, he does not plan to rely entirely on a database. The animals must still have correct conformation, good feet and legs and supporting EPDs.

Herd Trax helps them compile all the data and run a single report and all activities are recorded and get saved into the cloud.

“We are hoping we are on the right track now. We think we have pretty efficient cows but if we need to make some changes we can,” Nelson said.

There are few who are working on this scale and both men admit it is costly so they want a benefit from it.

“We are excited about it and we are not trying to do the same thing we have done for years. We are making better bulls and a better cow herd,” said Nelson.

The Canadian Hereford Association and other breed registries have been RFI testing bulls for years.

Working with Olds College in Olds, Alta., the Hereford association has tested about 2,000 bulls, said association manager Stephen Scott.

With some big ranches moving to more data collection, more information should be beneficial.

“The biggest change we have seen so far is a few breeders are putting on farm Grow Safe systems, which ideally is what we wanted to happen,” he said.

The association released a residual feed intake EPD two years ago to help producers select the bulls that are eating less and gaining well.

Producers tend to depend on reputation breeders to do the data collection and interpretation of various traits in advance so when they buy a bull they have a reasonable expectation of quality.

“Most commercial buyers aren’t going to buy a bull based on feed efficiency. They are going to buy it based on its birthweight and its conformation. But some commercial people are interested in the data,” he said.

“Commercial guys see if these breeders are measuring feed efficiency on their farms, the commercial cows will get better with time in their particular programs,” he said.

Canada shares RFI results with the American Hereford Association, which collects data for a similar quality called dry matter intake.

“There are some differences in nomenclature between dry matter intake and residual feed intake. You are selecting in the same general direction,” he said.

The American association also collects data on Angus-Hereford calves and information goes into a joint database.

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