Many of my favorite memories as a kid include working with my dad. One in particular is a trip made to the Oklahoma State Bull Test Station Spring Sale. We had a 32’ stock trailer loaded up with bulls and headed back home. Just as we drove onto I-40 at Shawnee, we had a flat on the trailer and the only tire store open that night was Wal-Mart. They did not have a jack big enough for the trailer loaded with bulls so we used landscaping bricks for a ramp. Somewhere later on I-40 we had another flat and used a pothole in an empty, dark parking lot alongside the interstate. That was a horribly long night, and not the only long trailer haul across Oklahoma with flat tires. When we finally reached home and had the bulls in the pens, there was a sense of accomplishment and tales from the adventure we had.
That was one of my first encounters with Oklahoma State, which would eventually lead to my graduation from their Animal Science program. I remember thinking those guys working the sale were so cool, little did I know one day I too would be working at a bull test station. My work here at the Middle Tennessee Research and Education Center is mostly with the test bulls, but I doubt my dad will be buying any bulls at this sale in January. Looking down the road toward the sale, I think about the kids that will be with their dads and the memories they will be making. It is somewhat different to be on this side of the fence.
Now for those of you not familiar with the term “bull test station” do not be alarmed. We are not poking bulls with needles all day or forcing weird stuff down them. Instead, the bull test is part of the Tennessee Beef Cattle Improvement Association. There are most likely similar programs in your area. The purpose of the bull test is to (a) provide bull performance records to consigning farms and ranches; (b) provide a source of and market for high quality bulls within the state; (c) serve as an educational tool for beef cattle improvement and promotion. In layman’s terms, the program provides a market for high quality bulls in Tennessee, promoting investment in and education of better herd genetics.
Most bull test stations across the country are similar in that they provide a uniform environment to gauge the genetic potential of young bulls in comparison to their peers, measuring traits of economic importance for their respective environments. For example, take a bull with genetics for high milk production and ability to withstand hot, humid summers in Tennessee. These traits would not be of the same importance to a farmer in Wyoming. He would be looking for a bull with genetics to survive in high mountain altitudes, on less forage, and during cold winters.
The bulls at the MTREC Bull Station are on test for 84 days. They are fed in a group of their peers (similar breed and age) to remove environmental variance and measured by their performance traits.
What traits are measured? We identify traits that are important to cattle production:
- Quality and Physical soundness – Cattle producers look for a bull that can physically endure covering an allotted number of cows during a breeding season, over several years. These bulls should be of high quality for the physical and genetic characteristics of respective breeds. Examples are bone structure, durable feet and legs, muscling, color, and overall fitness.
- Health – Bulls must be free of disease before and throughout the test period. They must exhibit signs of a sound respiratory system and be suited to weather and environmental conditions.
- Temperament – Wild and unruly bulls are not only undesirable in the breeding program, but also unsafe in handling.
- Breeding Soundness – The purpose for owning bulls is to breed cows. Bulls must have normal reproductive organs and measurements taken to test fertility: scrotal circumference, semen motility and morphology.
- Performance – These are traits measured numerically that can be compared to determine genetic potential for growth that can be passed on to progeny (offspring).
- Average Daily Gain – The average weight gained per day in a uniform environment
- Yearling Weight – The weight of bulls at one year of age reveals quick growth potential
- Frame Size – The hip height of bulls at a specific age can determine the size of bulls at maturity
- Index Comparison – Bull performance measurements are compared to their peers on an index. 85 is a minimum accepted score for bulls at the end of the test period. A score over 100 represents a bull performing better than the group average. This index number is an easy reference to identify bulls with genetic potential superior to their peers. Bulls passing the test standards will be auctioned to area farmers and ranchers in January and ready for breeding season next spring.
Have you ever been part of a bull test program? Are you familiar with your state’s beef improvement program?