THE spring bull sales this season have set new records – not so much for individual bulls, perhaps, but certainly for clearance rate and average prices paid.
In the face of travel restrictions, lingering impacts from drought and fires and lower cow numbers in many herds, the trend for most sales has defied the expectations of many producers. The driving reasons behind these trends have been discussed in both this column and at almost every bull sale I have attended this year.
It’s probably fair to say that most producers attending sales either in person or viewing and bidding online have been pleased with the overall quality of bulls offered this year. Despite a challenging lead up to the spring, most bulls maintain the expected size and weight for age producers are seeking in the bulls they are purchasing ahead of joining in coming months.
The appearance and quality of the drafts offered does owe much to the efforts of bull breeders. Management decisions around nutrition, cohort groups, growth and selection of individual bulls that should be sold are integral to the quality on offer.
However, it’s not just the management and selection of this year’s draft that should be recognised. It’s worth pausing and considering if our cattle are generally improving, and offering the greatest potential for breeders to meet a changing and more demanding consumer base.
Over recent sales, I have been going back over notes and records I have made for the past 15 years attending sales, shows, open days and client operations. There are some significant changes that I have noted in that time. Many of these have also been noted in recent surveys I’ve conducted among breeders and commercial producers to give a snapshot of our cattle in general.
There are several key areas of improvement that are common across almost all the breeds and programs I have looked at. The focus on eating quality and achieving high MSA indexes is almost universal. The ability to use MSA feedback in making genetic selection decisions has, I think, seen more selection based on IMF Percent in many breeds.
It’s worth noting that not every producer is seeking high levels of marbling. However, most producers recognise the importance IMF Percent plays in improving MSA index values and in general are finding bulls that can help achieve this breeding objective.
Cattle getting bigger
With a few breed exceptions, cattle are bigger. This is a trend that has been consistent. Earlier this year Angus Australia hosted a great online session looking at mature weights in Angus cows. A statistic that has reminded with me is that Angus cows are now 40kg heavier than they were 20 years ago.
I think looking across the herds I see, this increase in mature cow size is evident in not only Angus, but most temperate breeds. As greater attention is given to using growth figures such as 200, 400, and 600 day weights, mature cow size will also increase.
With the experiences of the last 4-5 years of drought in mind, I suggest to many of my clients that it’s probably wise to reflect on the size of the cows in the herd. I would be looking to find those females which are the most fertile, efficient and suited to that environment. Selection of new bulls needs to try and make sure that mature cow weight is managed and balanced so as to avoid increasing weights to a point where cattle no longer suit that environment.
I think temperament has generally improved in the cattle I see and work with. This is pretty much a trend in Indicus breeds, as well as British and European breeds. I think the attention on eating quality and the impact stress has on high pH has meant many producers have really sought to select for better temperament within herds. Having the ability to draw on objective measurements such as flight speed is a big breakthrough for many northern producers.
Slower progress in some traits
However, some of my observations and experiences suggest that in some areas, less progress is occurring. Concerns around structural soundness of many bulls have become more common.
I’ve noted an increase in the number of bulls I have marked for low pasterns, long feet, and incorrect claws. This is a comment that has been made to me by numerous producers, and it’s an increasingly common topic, particularly when looking at sires that have been sourced from overseas.
I think structural soundness can be a subtle change in some programs, and without paying close attention to these changes and selecting for the correct angles in feet, legs and shoulders, problems can establish themselves in a herd, and it can take much effort to eradicate and correct the issue.
I generally think that our cattle continue to improve as greater effort is placed on selection as well as on identifying and recording those animals and families that perform in Australian conditions. Performance figures, particularly those which are enhanced with genomic information, can provide much more certainty on a bull’s likely genetic contribution.
Having said this, objective visual assessment should never be overlooked, particularly when sourcing new genetics. Improvements in temperament, muscling or eating quality can be soon undermined if structural soundness or mature size are overlooked in favour only of a bull’s genetic potential.
Bulls that are unsound are less able to complete their role and make their genetic contribution to a herd. Moreover, unsound bulls, or those unsuited to an environment reduce the productivity and profitability of a business and industry.
Alastair Rayner is the Principal of RaynerAg, an agricultural advisory service based in NSW. He regularly attends bull sales to support client purchases and undertakes pre sale selections and classifications. He can be contacted here or through his website www.raynerag.com.au