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Select for calving traits, not style

A lot has been written and discussed about beef cow conformation, and the people showing cattle are well versed in what’s popular in the show ring and what characteristics tend to win the heifer classes. But in many instances the sought-after traits that might win a show won’t be a winner in the calving barn. Just as in any other aspect of the livestock industry — whether it’s hogs, sheep or horses — the halter class champions often fail to be exceptional performers in the real world.

On the other hand, some people select their female breeding stock by looking at records and pedigrees, and use of EPDs. If you are selecting heifers or cows as breeding stock, however, many of the most important traits are not easily measured with records, and must be visualized. Visual evaluation is just as important as performance records and EPDs, but the visual judging must go beyond the fads of the show ring.

A cow or heifer needs to be feminine, with a graceful, slender head and neck and a long body. The long body gives her more room to carry a calf when she’s pregnant. You also want good depth and width of ribcage and body, to give her more room to handle a large quantity of forage. She should not be narrow or shallow. She needs good muscling, without being too heavy-set. The overly muscled female is usually not as fertile and maternally productive as a more feminine individual.

Calving ease conformation is very important. Try to select females with wide pin bones, with a lot of length from hooks to pins, and a lot of width between the hook bones. This gives a wider pelvis, with more room for calving, and generally creates a tipped-down pelvis rather than level or tipped up. A tipped-up pelvis makes for more calving problems, since the calf must come up and over the pelvic brim in an arc.

The full-term calf and heavy uterus is hanging down in the abdomen, resting on the abdominal floor. As the calf is pushed up and over the brim of the pelvis during labor, his front feet tend to hit the top of the birth canal if the pelvis is tipped up (as it generally is in a cow with a high tail head), rather than making a smooth arc. If the calf’s feet are jamming into the top of the pelvis or birth canal each time she strains, this may cause the cow enough discomfort that she will put off calving, and a delay in calving may result in a dead calf if the placenta eventually starts to detach.

Montana veterinarian Ron Skinner has raised purebred Angus and Saler cattle for more than 40 years and has some definite opinions on what makes a good cow. “A lot of high-marbling cattle, and some of the popular pedigrees just make me shudder when I look at the back end of those cows (or bulls). The Saler cattle, when they originally came over here from France, had a rump on them like a Quarter Horse, with a very sloped rear end. They were round rumped, with a low tail head — below the line of their back. People hated the looks of that because it didn’t fit the show ring. But those cows could stand there and squirt out a calf with no problems. American breeders started changing them to fit what American purebred breeders wanted to look at, and what would sell, and the French people just shook their heads,” says Skinner.

“Too many people who are showing cattle today have in their minds that a cow has to have a high tail head (tipped up pelvis) as a sign of femininity, but this to me is the sign of future calving problems,” he says.

“My sons had a livestock judging coach, who was also a good friend, when they were in college traveling around the U. S. showing and judging. He was here at our fair one year and picked a high-tailed heifer, and I said I’d be glad to offer my services as a veterinarian to whoever had to calve out that heifer! That judge did a great job selecting steers, in his steer judging, but he, and many other cattle judges, are not so good at judging heifers. These judges have not calved out enough cows to know what makes the best female conformation,” says Skinner.

“This tendency to select for a high tailhead is a perception that judges have picked up at Denver and the other major cattle shows, and is a perfect example of how people can get off on a tangent,” he says. Most of the fads and popular trends in showing are actually detrimental to the breeds involved.

“A good cow will have width to her pin bones, and low, wide pins — and lots of length from hooks to pins, and wide hook bones. Some of the little old Angus cows we used to have, that you couldn’t even see their hook bones, would have calving problems if you bred them to anything that sired a big calf. Those hook bones need to set out a ways; you should be able to see them, quite prominently, if you want a calving ease cow. This is part of the visual selection that EPDs won’t tell you anything about,” explains Skinner. “Even when you look at calving ease EPDs in the Angus breed, it doesn’t quite fit.”


No matter how well a cow or heifer is put together in other aspects of conformation, if she has a poor udder she won’t last long in your herd. Like fertility, udder construction is one of the most important selection traits in a cow herd. Fertility is probably number one; if the cow can’t get pregnant every year her other good features don’t matter. And if she has such a poor udder that the calf can’t latch onto a teat after he’s born (because the teats are too large or the udder has dropped too low toward the ground), it also doesn’t matter much about her other qualities. If you have to be there for the first several nursings of every calf she has, to help it onto a teat, this is not the kind of cow you want in your herd. She can’t be turned out to calve on her own or the newborn calf will starve to death, and if you make the commitment of assisting her every year to get her calf started, this is labour intensive at a time of year you may not always have the time to help her. If you keep offspring from a such a cow, whether a son or a daughter, you are likely to perpetuate the problem in future generations.

When selecting a replacement heifer, it pays to know what kind of udder her mother had, and also the udder of the mother of her sire. Heifers often inherit their udder traits from their sire’s dam. If you don’t like the udder on the mother of the bull, you won’t like his daughter’s udders either, because they tend to throw back to their paternal grandmother.

When looking at heifer calves at weaning time, making selections regarding which ones to keep as replacements, it’s impossible to predict exactly what their udders will look like when they grow up, but there are always some clues. Even though the teats are small at that age, if the heifer’s teats are very long, or fat and wide, they generally tend to be too large or long at maturity and first calving. A knowledge of what her mother’s udder looks like, plus the udder of the paternal grandmother (sire’s mother), coupled with visual inspection of the heifer’s udder at weaning time, can give some guidelines for selection decisions.

It’s always a good idea to keep records on udders throughout a cow’s life, to help in decisions regarding culling that cow, or keeping daughters from that cow, since memory doesn’t always serve us well, especially when dealing with a large herd of cattle. A cow that raises a nice big calf may have a decent-looking udder and relatively small-diameter teats in later lactation, and you forget how ballooned her teats were at calving time. Or, you tend to keep heifers from a cow you like, even though her udder isn’t perfect. Memory is often too subjective. It’s always a good idea to try to score each cow’s udder very critically at calving time — regarding teat length, circumference, placement, udder attachment, etc. We can make a certain amount of herd improvement by selecting heifers from the cows we really like, but from that point on it takes good records to really fine-tune the genetics of the herd.

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