The Value of Exclusivity
With our AI program wrapping up this week, and spring (finally) in the air, it is always a great feeling to have the bulls go out. While we still watch for activity to ensure dates on all the cows, the ‘active management’ part of the year has predominantly drawn to a close. We are walking the same two herd bulls as last year – both APLX Escalade and APLX Samson have continued to develop and have matured well over the past year. With a couple of calves from each on the ground, we look forward to a bigger impact from each bull next calving season.
Selecting a walking bull is perhaps the biggest decision that we purebred breeders make when shaping our herds. Those bulls are what will impact your herd for at least the next 5 years; not only in siring top replacement females for your own operation, but also in producing highly marketable sons for your customers. As a result, making a mistake in bull selection can have a dramatically negative impact to your herd – one that can take a long time to fix. This is one of the reasons that we kept back two of our own bulls in 2012 to utilize – we knew the cow families and their respective backgrounds. Having the privilege of watching their maternal lines develop and evolve over the past 20 years certainly decreased the risk in utilizing these two bulls.
The challenge with utilizing your own bulls is that, for smaller operations like ourselves, we can back ourselves into a genetic corner very quickly. We do continue to utilize AI for 4 weeks at the start of breeding season, with the goal of introducing both proven and outcross genetics, while also ensuring the heifers are bred (early) to a bull we know will calve out. The downside is that anyone can access those genetics – they are far from exclusive. As a result, I seem to be spending more and more time paging through bull sale catalogues, looking for that perfect outcross herd bull that will fit the myriad of criteria that we try to select for.
One of the questions I try to continually ask myself is simply: why would someone purchase genetics from our operation? What brings customers to our yard? I recognize that strong customer service is essential, but setting that aside, customers want to buy something that will both improve their herd, and – especially in the case of bulls – is outcross to their existing genetic base. I think it is important to recognize that both traits are important; bulls have to be good and different. This ‘different’ generally comes from your walking bull, which is traditionally exclusive to your operation. If bull buyers want those genetics, they have to get them from you (not your neighbours or your fellow breeders in the area). It is this genetic exclusivity that plays an important part in marketing of genetics.
We are very fortunate to have been able to tap the genetics from my parents operation at Dora Lee. When we started Applecross, we selected a package of females that contained some older genetics (King Arthur, C&B Western, Carrousel, Antonius) that by virtue of their scarcity, are now essentially outcross to most of the current Fleckvieh breeding lines. We also have been blessed with the ability to help prove both Dora Lee Eclipse and Dora Lee’s Equinox. While not necessarily exclusive (Dad sells some semen privately and via their annual Fleckvieh Forum Sale), having a comfort with the genetics has allowed us to incorporate these exciting young sires into our herd quickly, and evaluate them for ourselves. It is the combination of older outcross genetics with some outcross polled sires that hopefully differentiates our program (not better – just different), from our peers – with the hope that being different will provide additional marketing opportunities. In this regard, I think geographic location can also aid in exclusivity – with Dad in Ontario and us in Alberta, it is not as if we are competing for the same customers!
The degree of difficulty in trying to produce quality cattle while staying different only seems to increase when looking for that new ‘walking bull’. I know I am not unusual in this (apparently wives compare horror stories about husbands who talk cattle non-stop). Hours are spent paging through bull sale catalogues, old female sale catalogues, the CSA database and breeder websites all looking to reduce the guesswork on finding new, good, outcross genetics. It is tremendously difficult to judge the potential of a 14 month old bull that was developed in various management programs, across several provinces (and climates), when the proof (of success) will not arrive until 5 years down the road when those daughters are milking. No wonder finding a good, outcross bull takes so much work!
One of the big challenges to exclusivity that I have noticed recently, is that it seems that more and more sales catalogues include a note at the front indicating that the breeder of the bull retains the right to collect semen on any of the bulls he is selling at sellers cost and buyers convenience. With the value I place on exclusivity and being different than my peers, this is not a trend or sentiment I agree with. As a result, I would think twice about purchasing a bull from programs that have adopted this policy. I guess I can understand the value to retaining semen on that one elite bull in the calf crop that might have a unique set of circumstances behind it, as this also indicates to the potential purchaser that you feel the bull is truly elite and worth retaining use of. That being said, putting a blanket policy in place to retain and interest in the genetics of the entire bull offering seems a little excessive. If I am going to invest the years into proving a bull in my program, there is a tremendous amount of value in retaining exclusivity. There should be sufficient benefit to the breeder in selling that bull for a fair price, and having their prefix on that successful bull.
So as spring (slowly) returns to central Alberta, after successful calving, bull sale and breeding seasons are over, the planning and evaluating stage of the cycle kicks into gear, and the focus on finding different, outcross genetics only seems to intensify. It is always a challenge and a risk to try to incorporate something both new and different, but even a turtle wouldn’t get anywhere if they never stuck their head out from under their shell! That search for good genetics that you can make exclusive to your operation just goes on and on.