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March 16, 2014

Better bulls improve beef quality

An important topic for local beef producers is how to select and breed a better beef cow. While the majority of dairy cows are bred artificially, beef cattle pose some special problems that keep many producers from giving it a try.

I, too, have been guilty of taking the easy way out and using a bull, probably costing me more in the long term. Using a bull, even out of a good herd, is still a gamble, not just from a genetic standpoint but safety as well. After several disappointing calving seasons, I resolved to breed my cows artificially to bulls that would improve their genetics, ensure easy calving and provide their offspring with high growth rates and marbling while on a strictly grass diet. 

In my small herd of beef cows, I have a mix of different breeds — Hereford, Angus, Charolais and plenty of mixes. With no easy way to separate them, the same bull breeds them all, thus putting all my eggs in one basket, so to speak. While there is nothing wrong with a little crossbreeding, in one or two years time all the breeding stock will be daughters and the bull will have to be replaced.

If you are lucky, you will have no calving problems, all your calves will have excellent weight gains and you will get cows and steers that will pay the bills. You might do just fine. Or at least think you are. The advantage of artificial breeding is that you are able to select from a multitude of bulls each with distinct and proven characteristics. Plus the fact that any bull, no matter how docile it seems, can turn ugly and be potentially deadly.

The first challenge of breeding beef cattle with AI is that they are usually roaming freely in large pastures, often out of sight and far from any barns. The first step is to build or modify existing facilities to round up and securely catch the cattle. Since beef cattle are seldom handled, these facilities need to be extra sturdy.

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