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Selecting a Herd Sire for a Texas Longhorn Herd

© David M. Hillis, Double Helix Ranch
Professor of Integrative Biology
University of Texas at Austin

Crown's Classic Shadow
(a 3-yr-old herd sire of the Double Helix Ranch)

Selection of a herd sire is the most important decision that a breeder is likely to make. Over time, the herd sires that you use will determine most of the genetic component of your herd. A herd sire contributes 50% of the genetic makeup of each generation of offspring (and all your cows together contribute the other half). If you retain heifers from your own herd for replacement cows, then 75% of the genetic makeup of their offspring will be from the herd sires you have used over two generations. After three generations, 87.5% of the genetic makeup of your herd will come from your herd sires, and after four generations, the total is 93.75%.

Selecting a Herd Sire for a Texas Longhorn Herd: Ten Important Criteria to Consider

There are many different preferences among Texas Longhorn breeders, which is why there are many different opinions about what makes a great herd sire. However, most people agree that the following ten criteria are important, and only disagree about which criteria to emphasize in selecting a herd sire for their use. Because herd sire selection contributes most of the genetic influence to a herd over time (see paragraph above), my preference is to select and use only bulls that are outstanding across the board, for each of the following criteria:

1. Conformation

Body morphology is highly heritable, and your herd sire certainly should show no morphological defects. Look at Crown's Classic Shadow in the photograph above: his body is long and deep, but he has a straight topline and a very clean underline (in other words, he has no sway to his back, and there is no loose skin underneath). His ears are small and tight. He has good tail-set, with a long switch that almost drags the ground. His legs and feet are strong and straight, so that he can travel well over long distances. He has a straight poll and a pleasantly shaped head. His skin is tight and his body is smooth and muscular for a 3-year-old, without being overweight or overfed (which reduces reproductive ability). He shows good balance from front to rear.

It is surprising to me when I see major defects in some of these characteristics in herd sires. The heritability of these traits is high, so anything you see that you don't like in a herd sire is likely to show up in the calves you raise. A herd sire should set a standard for excellence.

2. Disposition

Behavior also has a large genetic component, although it can sometimes be modified by training. I prefer cattle that are easy to handle and that are gentle around people. Some people prefer their cattle on the wild side; the well-known breeder Graves Peeler liked his Longhorns "with lots of spirit." I wouldn't consider using a bull that wasn't gentle, calm, and easy to handle. It is also extremely important to have a bull that will stay home with his herd, and not jump fences (or knock them down) on his way to breed the neighbor's cows. A fence-jumping bull will cause you more grief than just about anything takes away from the bull's primary job, you spend time and effort retrieving the bull, and your neighbors are not likely to be happy if your bull breeds their cows. The very first bull I owned was a fence-jumper, and he didn't last long as a result. An honest breeder will tell you about the disposition of a herd-sire prospect, but some bad behaviors may develop with age. In that case, you may just have to take a hit and cull a problem bull. If you do end up with a bull that has a behavioral problem, DON'T sell him to someone else without disclosing the problem. Otherwise, you'll give people the wrong impression about Texas Longhorns, most of which are very well behaved.

3. Pedigree

Often, the quality of an animal is not fully known and cannot be fully evaluated in the here and now. Just how good (or not) a bull is may not be fully apparent until he has developed to full maturity and produced numerous offspring. How then can a breeder evaluate a potential young herd sire? One important clue is provided by the pedigree; the best animals in the breed tend to be produced from the best animals in the breed. A good pedigree of well-known animals also provides immediate name recognition for your bull, which means that you have an immediate advantage in marketing his offspring. If you have the best bull in the breed, but he is from unknown parents, you will have your work cut out for you in convincing people of the bull's qualities. On the other side of the coin, even the best bulls and cows can produce some duds as offspring, so don't simply assume that a bull must be good because he comes from good parents. I've seen some breeders pay ridiculous prices for unproven calves that came from excellent parents, only to find that their "superstar" didn't develop as they had expected. For most quantitative traits (such as size, horn length, milk production, etc.), we expect more of the offspring of two excellent parents to be below the average of the two parents than above the average of the two parents (for an explanation, see the article on heritability and the genetics of quantitative traits in Texas Longhorns). So, if you cross two excellent parents, many offspring may only be average or slightly above average, whereas a few may be truly exceptional. (There are some exceptions to this rule-of thumb, as when the genes of one parent compliment the genes of the other is a predictable way; I present an example of this below). The only way to know for sure is to let the offspring grow old enough to see the traits of interest expressed. So I would say that a good pedigree is an important component for selecting a herd sire, but it is definitely not sufficient in and of itself. I'd rather use a bull that met all the other criteria but had relatively unknown parents, than use a bull that had major shortcomings but came from the breed's best bull and cow. But why settle for trade-offs? The best option is to select herd sires that come from excellent, proven family backgrounds and also meet all the other criteria listed here.

What makes a good pedigree? That, of course, depends in large part on your objectives. If you are linebreeding one of the original families of Texas Longhorns, then you will want to ensure that all the ancestors of your bull came from that family. On the other hand, if you are breeding for overall quality, then outcrosses involving several of the families are likely to give you better results. You will also want to consider the pedigrees of the cows in your herd, to ensure that the bull is as distantly related to your cows as possible (to achieve maximum outcrossing benefits). If you maintain several bulls, and plan to alternate your bulls between generations (i.e., use bull A to breed a set of cows, then use bull B to breed the heifers that you get from this initial cross), then you will want to ensure that your two (or more) bulls are not closely related to one another.

Beyond this, in looking at a pedigree, I like to evaluate not just the quality of the ancestors, but how well the various crosses have worked in the past. For instance, the bull Phenomenon is justifiably recognized as one of the greatest bulls in Texas Longhorn history, especially for his ability to sire long horns and long bodies. However, when crossed with some families of cows that don't have sufficient framing, the long bodies that he produces can result in sway-backs. So, he has produced some of the very best Texas Longhorn offspring, but also some with what I consider a serious deficiency. Some bulls just seem to "click" with certain cows, and one of the famous crosses was between Phenomenon and the Betty Lamb-bred cow L Bet I Can (L Bet I Can is tied for first on the list of cows whose offspring were among the top 150 selling Longhorns of the 1990s, and she is on the list twice herself). Both Phenomenon and L Bet I Can were owned (or owned in partnership) by Herb Sutton, who developed one of the premier Texas Longhorn herds in the 1990s. The crosses Sutton made between Phenomenon and L Bet I Can produced numerous excellent Texas Longhorns that were among the high-sellers at auctions throughout the 1990s and into the present millennium. One of the very best bulls from this cross was Crown Royal, who was sold as a young bull when Herb Sutton sold off his herd in October 1996. Crown Royal, in turn, has "clicked" with certain cows from a blended Butler/Philips/Wright background, such as the outstanding SK Classy Express. This cross (Crown Royal x SK Classy Express) has produced both cows and bulls of exceptional quality. Therefore, knowing the past results of this cross is more important than knowing the individual quality of the separate cows and bulls.

There is a simple genetic explanation for certain crosses that tend to result in improvement over both parents. This results because of the additive effects of genes, and the fact that different sets of genes that affect quantitative traits have been fixed (or nearly so) in different lines of Texas Longhorns. When two such lines are crossed, the two sets of genes compliment each other, and combine to produce offspring that are better than either parent.

4. Horns

Horns are what make Texas Longhorns stand out from other breeds, and horns are what drive prices at public sales. So, for me, exceptional horn length is a necessary (but not sufficient) criterion for selecting a herd sire. I will always look for long horns with a big base on any herd sire that I use, but there are plenty of herd sires with very long horns that I would not use because of other serious defects. Of course, some breeders are more interested in breeding cattle for the show circuit, rather than for long horns at maturity, and so for these breeders, horn length may not be a primary consideration. Other breeders are more interested in twisty horn shape than in horn length per se, and this trait (horn twist) is also hereditary (but expressed primarily in females). Some aspects of horn shape are simply a matter of taste. For instance, I prefer bull horns that grow straight out from the poll, with a thick base, and I avoid bulls with horns that grow out at an upward, downward or forward angle, no matter the length. After a substantial amount of lateral growth, some upward (or upward and forward) sweep is acceptable to me, but I want the horns to start out growing laterally. However, these are my personal preferences, and some other breeders clearly have other preferences when it comes to horn shape.

5. Color

After horn length, coat color is one of the next most important determinants of sales price in Texas Longhorns (assuming no obvious defects in conformation, or old age). One might think that other attributes were more important, but people are attracted to loud-colored, long-horned Texas Longhorns. In general, there is a preference among most buyers for colors over white, for black and dark wild-type colors over red colors, for paints over solids, and for spotted animals in general. Certain color patterns are highly favored by some (grullas, brindles, and blue roans all come to mind), but this is driven in part by what is common and what is not. A few breeders of Texas Longhorn bulls for commercial cattlemen (who sell bulls for use on first-calf heifers of other breeds, because of the birthing ease of Texas Longhorns) prefer solid red or solid black bulls. But for most breeders, picking a bull with striking eye-appeal is important, and the most striking color patterns are usually the ones that contrast dark and light colors. It is even more important, though, to consider the genetics of the coloration that attracts you to the bull (see the series on Genetics of Coloration in Texas Longhorns). A brindled bull may produce almost all brindled offspring, or very few, depending on his genetic background and that of the cows to which he is bred. So, color of the bull is important (again, according to taste), but the genetic basis of this color should be a bigger consideration, since that will determine what his offspring look like. Coat color is one trait that is determined almost completely by genetics, and the genetic basis for coloration is understood better than the genetic basis of any of the other traits discussed here. Nonetheless, one often hears breeders claim that "you can't breed for color in Texas Longhorns". That is nonsense. The genetics of coloration may not be simple (there are roughly ten important genes that work together to determine color), but with a little effort, you can have an excellent idea of what colors and patterns to expect from any given bull.

6. Reproductive ability

It should go without saying that a bull must have high sperm count, high libido, and the ability to travel well enough to track down all the cows that may be in heat. If a bull can't reproduce adequately, then all the other criteria don't mean much. Ideally, for a mature bull you should have a sperm evaluation done by an experienced lab (to evaluate quantity and quality of sperm). If that isn't feasible (or even if it is), then you should check the breeding record of the bull (what percentage of the cows he serviced had calves each year?). Low fertility of bulls is not common among Texas Longhorns (as it is in some other breeds), but it is not unknown, either. The easiest morphological trait to examine that is related to reproductive ability is scrotal/testicular development. The two testes should be nearly the same size and hang symmetrically in the scrotum, and the scrotal circumference should be 35-38 cm on a mature bull.

7. Milking/mothering ability (and other maternal traits) of dam and granddams

Many breeders look first to the dam and granddams of a potential herd sire to check their milk production and ability to raise excellent calves. I agree, but I'd extend this to the other female traits that you want to see propagated in your herd as well. You can't see the feminine traits in the bull, but the genes that determine these traits are still there. So, the best way to estimate what the bull's female offspring will be like is to examine the traits in the bull's dam (and the two granddams).

8. Size, weight gain, and foraging ability

There is considerable difference of opinion about the ideal weight for a Texas Longhorn bull. A few breeders insist that bigger is always better, and believe that a good herd sire should weigh over a ton at maturity. Others point to the fact that a somewhat smaller size has its advantages, including the ease of birthing for which Texas Longhorns are well known, and the ability to thrive on range land that would not support other breeds. I generally prefer relatively large, well-framed Texas Longhorns, but within the limits of what has been considered acceptable for the breed. I see a danger in breeding Texas Longhorns that are too big and bulky...that is the thinking that got many of the "improved" European breeds in trouble with birthing difficulties and other health issues. Also, I think too much of an emphasis on size leads many breeders to overfeed their bulls. Not only does this reduce the bull's overall health and longevity, it also reduces its fertility (especially if the extra weight leads to a layer of fat over the scrotum, which increases heat retention and thereby reduces sperm life). Rapid weight gain of calves is much more important than absolute mature weight of the bull, in my opinion. The ability to utilize suboptimal pasture efficiently and to thrive under adverse conditions are both more important to me than mature weight, as well. But I do prefer a herd sire with reasonably large size over one that is smaller than the breed average.

9. Health and disease resistance

Texas Longhorns are well known for their overall heath, disease resistance, and longevity. However, there is considerable variation in some traits that are related to health, and many of these traits are highly heritable. Moreover, some of the traits that are highly heritable are also subject to physical examination. For example, one of the quantitative traits with the highest heritability in cattle is horn fly resistance. Therefore, you can be reasonably sure that if a bull is bothered by more horn flies than other animals in a herd, then it will pass this trait on to its offspring. Conversely, a bull that is relatively free of horn flies (compared to other animals at the same time and place, and assuming that they have all been treated the same in any fly control program) will likely have offspring that are also relatively resistant to horn fly infestations. Horn flies feed on blood and also may bother cattle to the extent that they spend less time eating. Controlling horn flies requires time, money, and effort, and often introduces harmful toxins into the environment and into your animals. Therefore, having naturally resistant animals is a huge plus. It is very important for breeders to evaluate health-related traits and select the fittest cattle. Texas Longhorns are so healthy as a breed because they were subjected to many generations of natural selection, as they lived in feral herds in Texas until the late 1800s. Now that cattle are largely selected by breeders rather than by nature, it is critical to evaluate the overall health and fitness of animals that are selected for breeding.

10. Production of outstanding offspring

Finally, and most importantly, the best measure of the quality of a herd sire is the quality of the offspring that he produces. A potential herd sire may look great in every other category, but if his offspring are not outstanding for the traits of interest, then he isn't outstanding as a herd sire. The best way to select a herd sire is to find offspring that you like, and then buy the herd sire that produced those offspring. However, buying a proven herd sire is also the most expensive option, as the breeder who has done all the work to develop an excellent herd sire is not likely to want to part with him, at least without considerable compensation.

There are other options for breeders on a budget who want to use the best bulls possible but can't afford to purchase a good bull of their own. First, you might consider sharing a bull with another breeder, or even two. A bull can breed all your cows in a few months, so if you can find another breeder who is willing to have an offset breeding season compared to yours, then sharing a bull is often a reasonable and cost-saving idea. Second, you might consider borrowing or leasing a bull. Many breeders are willing to lend (or lease for a reasonable fee) a young bull to another breeder, so that they might evaluate its potential over time. You are less likely to get the use of a time-tested bull in this manner, but you might be able to get the use of a future star for very little cost. Third, you might consider pasture breeding your cows to an established bull that you like. This usually involves a fixed fee plus a pasturing fee paid on a daily or monthly rate. Finally, you might consider artificial insemination. The cost of semen is usually quite reasonable, although there are many other expenses involved. Unless you do the process yourself, you can expect to spend $400-$500 to have a cow artificially inseminated (this includes semen, vet services, estrous induction, and board for a couple of months), plus any transportation expenses. This may save money if you only own one or two cows, but it is not usually considered economically competitive compared to the use of a herd sire for most breeders (that is why only a few percent of Texas Longhorns are produced through A.I.).

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