Buying Bulls, A Beginners Guide

This weekend we loaded up the boys and attended a bull sale in the Flint Hills of Kansas. My husband takes bull buying very seriously, as any good cowboy should. Bulls are the backbone of any cow herd and bad genetics or a faulty bull can mean open (non-pregnant) cows. Bulls are on the farm to breed cows and cows are on the farm to have calves. If one of those two things don’t happen, you don’t have a productive or profitable herd. Bulls are one of the biggest investments for any working ranch so getting the right guy is very important.

The boys and I made friends with this guy while the hubs checked out his friends and pen-mates.

Buying a bull starts with checking its data and performance statistics. Think of it like buying a car. You need to know what you are using the car for (off-roading, highway driving or errands around town), what features you want in your car and how you want the car to look sitting in your driveway. Any bull worth your money will have extensive genetic data and information on its lineage and expected performance (or past performance depending on its age).

Technology and decades of research and record keeping have allowed the livestock industry to develop a series of data points to illustrate how the animal will perform, what size of calves it will produce, the average size of the ribeye of its off-spring, and even how much milk female off-spring will produce once they have calves. It’s amazing what we know about our bulls.

Derek and our oldest son, Evan, walk through the bulls prior to the start of Saturday’s sale. Bulls have the reputation of being mean and difficult but many are easily handled and fairly calm.

Ranches make bulls available for potential buyers to see in person starting about a week before the sale and the day of the sale, the bulls are often in small pens that provide the opportunity to get up close and personal with them. Ranchers, like my husband, will spend time before the sale to get one final look at the bulls.

When considering a bull my husband looks for structural soundness, muscling and an ability to transmit growth to his off-spring. The first two characteristics are determined by seeing the animal in person and watching him walk and move. Bulls have one job – breed cows. And if they are not in condition to find and follow the cows, then they aren’t going to do their job. The third is better determined through data provided by the seller and looking at other bulls from the same dam and sire (mom and dad). It’s this continued research and data collection that has allowed the American beef industry to create consistent high-quality beef products.

This is a bull sale book or catalog. Buyers can use these books to study bulls and learn more about each specific animal. Every buyer will have a different set of priorities for their bull. Each bull for sale will come with its own, specific data and genetic information.

Buyers usually approach a sale knowing how many bulls they need and how much they want to spend. Anyone who has gone shopping will admit that they don’t always stick to the list or the plan. And same goes for ranchers who spend a little bit more than budgeted to get the bull they really want or end up finding a “deal” and coming home with three instead of just two new bulls (or maybe that’s just my husband). The price of a bull varies greatly – the most expensive bull ever sold in the U.S. went for more than $1 million – but a sale we recently attended sold about 135 bulls and average about $5,500 per bull.

A bull exists the sale ring during a recent bull sale.

An auctioneer and ring men run the sale and bulls will sell one-by-one, since each is slightly different. And as loud as the auctioneer and ring men are, the bidders are usually the opposite. Most ranchers like to be as subtle with their bidding as possible. The really good ones can buy a bull with the nod of a head. There’s no fee to attend a sale and some kind of meal and beverages are usually available. Most ranches have sales on the same weekend each year. Some hold sales in the fall, others in the late winter/early spring.

My husband and oldest son taking notes during the sale.

Most farm kids have stories of attending bull sales with their dad or grandpa – and it is my hope that my sons have the same stories. As much as farming and ranching have evolved, certain aspects of the livestock industry – like on-the-farm bull sales – have not. My oldest has already attended a handful of sales with my husband and father-in-law and last weekend was my youngest first of hopefully many sales.

Have more questions about bull sales? Just leave a comment.

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