The Abc Of Bull Selection In Beef Production

By: Leslie Bergh, ARC, Irene, RSA
Translated and adapted by Kitty Mulders, Kalomo, Zambia

Bull selection does not have to be a gamble- there are tools available to make an informed decision when you purchase your bulls.

BULLS FIGHTING IN DUSTThe farmer should start the selection process by establishing clear breeding targets and a thorough breeding strategy. This applies not only to the stud breeder but also to the farmer who produces beef for the market. Without these breeding targets and a proper strategy it is almost impossible to do any sensible selection within your herd. There is so much information available to the potential bull buyer that it can be difficult to focus on what is really important: namely the selection of a functional breeding bull.

Why is the selection of a good bull so important?

  1. The choice of the wrong bull could prove to be a very expensive mistake. Female progeny of the bull will remain in your herd for up to 10 years, even after you have stopped using the bull.
  2. Only 3 to 4% of the breeding stock is represented by bulls but they provide 50% of the genetic material of each calf.
  3. Up to 90% of the genetic improvement within a herd or breed takes place as a result of bull selection.

The function of a breeding bull

A breeding bull is expected to perform 3 basic functions, namely:

  1. To produce progeny;
  2. To produce progeny that is adapted to the environment and the production methods
  3. To produce progeny that is genetically superior to the existing herd

The above-mentioned basic functions are briefly discussed in this article and the most important points and selection criteria will be emphasized.

To Produce Progeny

This is by far the most important function of a bull that is used for breeding and the farmer should pay attention to the following traits:



  • No genetic defects
  • Sufficient size (Scrotum circumference)
  • Normal shape (no swelling or hardening of the tissue)
  • No abnormal fat deposits
  • Well developed epididymus

Calving record of the mother:

  • Age at first calving
  • Average inter-calving period
  • Reproduction index

Secondary male characteristics:

  • Masculinity, clear eyebrow ridge, good muscle development
  • Darkening (depending of the hair colour) and coarsening of hair on head, neck and forequarter

It is of paramount importance that you have your bulls semen tested for fertility once a year; furthermore you should only buy bulls that have been semen tested.


  • Highly correlated to conception rate
  • Not related to scrotum circumference
  • Look for an alert animal, if cows are close by he should be paying attention!!

Walking Ability:

Legs and Joints:

  • Strong joints
  • Not excessively straight or sickle hocked


  • No excessive growth
  • No turning inside or outside
  • Enough depth, also important for longevity

Mating Ability:

Legs and joints:

  • Straight hocks are especially undesirable as this restricts flexibility during mating


  • Pay attention to hooves that are damaged or misshapen and might cause pain during mating


  • Not too long or fleshy, a long sheath could be a problem in our veld conditions where seeds can cause infections
  • Manageable
  • Opening should not be too large
  • No prolapse of the foreskin

To Produce Progeny that is Adapted to The Environment and the Production Methods

The correct choice of breed type (Bos Sanga, Bos Indicus, Bos Taurus or a combination of the above) and frame type (size) is critical to achieve this. There is, however, great variety within the breeds and you need to use this in your selection process.

The following traits should be given attention:


Climate: (tolerant to heat and humidity)

  • Smooth coat
  • Sufficient skin surface (dewlap)


  • Fully pigmented skin-especially important in the sensitive areas such as around the eyes

Ticks and other external parasites:

  • A skin that can move to get rid of external parasites
  • Smooth coat – short hair
  • Sufficient skin thickness

Quality and quantity of grazing:

  • If the grazing is sparse and/or of low quality a small to medium framed bull is better suited
  • Where grazing is abundant and of good quality you could consider a larger framed bull, however a small to medium frame will still be suitable

This is an extremely important aspect, as the daughters of the bull will have to produce and reproduce under these circumstances.

Production Methods:

  • Finishing off the veld: Large framed-late maturing bulls are unsuitable. Small to medium framed bulls are the way to go.
  • Finishing in feedlot: Medium to large framed bulls are suitable.

To Produce Progeny that is Genetically Superior to the Existing Herd

The traits that play a role in producing calves that will be better than the average of Sire and Dam (genetically superior offspring) are often highly hereditary and measurable.

Exactly because of this, rapid improvements can be made and this should be used in your selection of a bull for breeding. In South Africa, the trend is towards the use of Breeding Values, wherever they are available (rather then indices) as they give a more reliable indication of an animal’s genetic merit. However, in Zambia, the use of Breeding Values is still a very new tool.

The following traits should be given attention:

Genetic Defects That Should Be Avoided:

  • Skew face
  • Undershot jaw
  • Absence of epididimus
  • Asymmetrical testes

Ease Of Calving:


  • The most important factor relating to difficult births is birth mass
  • Take into account the average birth mass of the breed
  • Proportional birth mass (calf weight/dam weight * 100)
  • Bone structure

Weaning Weight:

Look at the Breeding values (where available) concerning weaning weight:

  • Wean direct (growth before weaning)
  • Wean maternal (Maternal ability)

Weaning indices (where breeding values are not available):

  • Own
  • Average of Dam’s progeny
  • Other relatives

Feed Conversion Efficiency:

  • Feed conversion breeding value or index
  • Kleiber breeding value (this relates to the Metabolic Growth Efficiency) or index (ADG/weight 0.75)

Growth Ability:

  • Average Daily Gain breeding value or index
  • 12 months breeding value or index
  • 18 months breeding value or index

Carcass Quality:

  • Marbling
  • Dressing out percentage
  • Muscle percentage and index
  • Total Kg’s of muscle in the carcass

Meat Quality:

In Zambia so far, little emphasis is put on the quality of beef produced, apart from the differentiation between Prime, Choice and Standard beef by the butchers. For obvious reasons it is impossible to measure meat tenderness in young bulls. Progeny testing could be done to reveal data concerning meat tenderness but this is a long and expensive process. Therefore it is not something we can select for at the moment.

Ease Of Handling:

The following are influenced by temperament:

  • Time and effort spent handling the animals
  • Maintenance of fencing and other structures
  • Occurrence of injury to man and animals
  • Performance in feedlot
  • Meat quality


It is advisable to buy your bulls from a trustworthy stud breeder and to use all the significant information that is available in your selection of a bull.

Do give preference to breeds that have been adapted to the Zambian climate and veld.

Always do a visual inspection of the animal and choose the best bull you can afford. [/ezcol_1half_end]