How We Select Cattle: Our Five Six P’s
Fall sales season is in full swing and there has been a steady diet of catalogs released online and arriving in the mail. Perhaps it is because we aren’t marketing our own females this fall, but it does seem like I am spending a lot of time looking at catalogues and figuring out a schedule that can get me to as many cattle sales as possible, prior to the onset of calving season. Taking a step back today, I started thinking about my own selection process and the criteria we use when selecting an animal to join our herd. I think the following ‘5 P’s’ (and in our case 6 P’s) can be utilized to determine our interest in an animal available at auction.
The first “P” is picture. Thumbing (or these days clicking/scrolling) through a fresh new catalogue, it is usually the pictures that jump out first. A good picture may not make you buy an animal – but a bad or mediocre picture can sure make you pass over one without spending any time on them. This is an area we really focus on when selling our own cattle. A few years ago, we were told by both a fellow breeder and a cattle marketing rep that our cattle were a better quality than what they showed in the pictures – and that it was something we needed to improve on. We really appreciated the honest feedback, and ever since then we have tried to focus on how to get better pictures. We schedule time for ‘re-shoots’ into our pre-catalog deadline calendar, and hire a 4-H kid, who the cows are unfamiliar with, to assist with pictures. We love walking our cattle, so since they ‘know’ us they tend to keep their heads down – which isn’t very ideal for pictures. A new person in the pen (that still knows cattle), tends to be just enough to help get their attention, and often leads to a quicker, better picture. Hopefully, we take a picture that makes our animals worth a longer look in the catalog.
With a good picture at the top, our gaze tends to shift to the Pedigree below. I think every breeder has genetic lines that they follow; often either new genetics they wish to incorporate or genetics that they know just work in their herd. As we have been around the Simmental breed for a long time, there are also quite a number of cow families I recognize (and while most people have either a good/bad/indifferent opinion of a sire, when you recognize a cow family it is usually a good thing). So if I can find desirable outcross or proven genetics stacked across a pedigree it certainly piques my interest. Thanks to the CSA database, I also spend a fair bit of time tracking some of the animals I was interested in but wasn’t successful in acquiring in the past. Sometimes if you watch closely, there is the opportunity to acquire descendants in the future. Back at the 2010 National Trust sale, I was really drawn to an awesome lighter coloured open heifer from the Big Sky string. We didn’t end up getting her, as she landed at Virginia Ranch, but just last December we were able to acquire a grand-daughter – this time from the fine folks at Parview (who had purchased a daughter from Virginia Ranch at National Trust in the interim). It doesn’t always work that way – but keeping an eye on genetics I really like can certainly help trigger interest. EPD’s also get a glance – but I’ll delve into them in a future post. Overall though, the pedigree plays an important role when we consider an animal.
The next step is validating Phenotype – most often in the form of a visual inspection in the time leading up to the sale itself (and ideally in the form of a summer tour when we can take a peek at the cow family behind them). We have had good fortune in utilizing order buying ‘sight unseen’ in the past, but we are much more comfortable and confident (and have a willingness to bid higher) when we get a chance to view the cattle in person. What are we looking for? Generally, we mostly look at temperament and feet (getting them out to walk away from that straw pack if possible), and then look at the udder development or scrotal area. The fact is, for most consignment auction sales, the conditioning/fitting can hide a lot of potential faults in an animal – so it is no surprise that I did have a fellow breeder tell me that they ‘trust pedigree almost more than visual inspection’ when selecting animals. I think there is a lot of validity in this statement – but I still need to really ‘like’ an animals’ physical appearance/style in order to bid. (Jeanne also always asks if the heifer in question is ‘Pretty’ so maybe that is the 7th ‘P’).
Probably the most complex ‘P’ to accurately articulate is the prefix or people behind the cattle. Let’s face it: Breeders develop reputations – good and bad – for customer service and the quality of their cow herds. Your own personal experiences (and past purchases) shape that reputation, and it certainly can contribute to interest in adding genetics from a herd. I also think that it is important to recognize breeders that have supported your program in the past, which is something distinctly different from simply ‘trading cattle’ back in forth with another breeder. If an excellent customer of yours has a really strong animal on offer, it only makes sense to take an extra hard look to see if there is an opportunity to add another piece to your program.
Polled (our 6th P). We are gradually taking the horns off of our cattle. I don’t think that statement is a surprise to anyone who follows our program or blog. I think that in 10 years there will be substantially more polled cattle, so that is the direction we are taking our operation. It is absolutely something we look for when evaluating animals. But just because an animal is polled, it doesn’t mean it is better than the horned one on the page beside it – and improving the overall quality of our herd is our absolute goal. In 2015, we were successful in purchasing 3 heifers – 2 of which were horned. We absolutely bred horned cows back horned this spring. It is important to us to keep our focus on quality, and the polled will happen over time. Not everyone will agree with selecting with this ‘P’ (and that is perfectly cool), but polled is certainly an aspect we include when assessing cattle.
Price is obviously the final determining factor when purchasing an animal. How much is that animal worth to you? What is your budget? I am very fortunate that Jeanne is supportive of my cattle habit – but the trade-off is that I try to be very clear on what our budget is, so that there aren’t any surprises (and I don’t have to find a couch to sleep on) when the gavel falls and I am the high bidder. The other component with price is in being ‘ready to bid’ – something I have learned (much to my chagrin) over the years. Earlier in my career I would ‘give up’ on an animal (or even worse a prefix) thinking they’d be too expensive to bring home and move my attention on to the next one on my list – only to see on sale day that the original animal I had picked out did indeed fit within our budgeted price range. As a result, now I try to take a hard look at every animal I am interested in and be ready should an opportunity arise. We priority rank all the animals we are attracted to; and as long as the sales order co-operates, pick away starting at the top of our list. At an auction sale you just don’t know how it will unfold – so being ready, and being clear on budgets has paid dividends.
While we are fortunate to be in a position where we aren’t really looking to expand our herd numbers, I think our fellow purebred breeders would agree that there is always room for ‘one more’ (and then ‘one more’, and then one more after that). So after all my P’s have been evaluated, the final question before deciding whether to bid or not, is one of my dad’s favourites: “Does she make your herd better?” I think that this a great question – as if she doesn’t either improve your herd or diversify your genetics – what value does she add? If she doesn’t pass the ‘make herd better’ test, I am simply better off re-allocating or saving those funds for a future sale.
So I think that is the list. Picture. Pedigree. Phenotype. Prefix/People. Price. (and then, in our case, Polled). And ‘Pretty’ (Jeanne checks my grammar before I post these, so I CAN’T forget ‘Pretty’). Lots of P’s in the process to possibly pick potential purebred purchases!
See you at the sales (I’ll be minding my P’s)