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The Forgotten Art

Selecting for phenotype in cattle is analogous to performing dentistry work for the general public. We all brush our teeth, (well most of us) we have a general idea of what our teeth look like and what we should be eating or not eating to avoid cavities. Beyond that, there are relatively few that go the extra mile to become dentists or dental assistants to learn the ins-and-outs of teeth. Many ranchers I talk to have a general idea of what makes a great cow. Some people even argue to create a production system first and then you will find out what phenotype makes a great cow. I have looked at a lot of phenotypes so I’m not a complete contrarian to that argument but, I could never be a purist. In the time I’ve spent evaluating cattle, I have found that I can find cattle that just will not work in production no matter your model. The best part- I don’t have to wait until she’s an open 2-year-old to figure it out! While some visual appraisal can be chalked up to personal preference, there are some concepts that are not.

First things first: Cattle evaluation should start from the ground up. Even toed and deep heeled cattle simply have fewer feet issues and are less likely to come up lame in all sorts of different environments. After that, leg structure and skeletal integrity are crucial. I spent most of my judging career in college focusing on structure. From a holistic view it is a very complicated subject. For the sake of brevity there are a couple key points that can get most people 80% of the way there. The first thing is to watch the animal in motion. Barring any injuries, the animal should ideally walk free and easy in their stride. The ultimate standard to comfortable motion is a cat, they glide free and easy without any “hiccups” in their stride. The next step is to watch them walk to you and away. From this angle you want the legs to come straight down and the toes point straight forward. From the rear view it’s ok to have the hocks angle slightly together as to put the rear feet facing slightly out. I would rather have them a little “cow hocked” than have the hocks bow out and the rear feet face inward. The latter is like a bust in blackjack- it just won’t work.

While we are looking at the rear legs it is also a good idea to look at them from the profile. This will show you the amount of set to their hock. Basically, this refers to the angle of the leg from the hock down. Much like the rear view I prefer to error on the side of too much set. This would mean the rear two feet reach farther forward. This is much better than being too straight. If the animal is too straight they will often have swelling on their hock. This is caused by lack of shock absorption through the angles of the skeleton. Instead, the hock and joints are absorbing the blows of every movement which eventually lead to injury. The final quick tip on structure is to evaluate length of stride on their front two legs. If this stride is short and choppy there is a great chance they are straight fronted. This is referring to the angle of their scapula to the point of their shoulder to their knee. This should be a 45-degree angle. The greater the angle becomes the less cushion to absorb the animals weight. This will directly affect longevity and average daily gain. In bulls it will directly affect how many cows they can breed and how much terrain they can cross to do it.

That is the quick and dirty guide on structure. If this interests you feel free to contact me or most collegiate judging coaches would be happy to accommodate questions related to structure. I’m very passionate about evaluating structure as it has direct implications to production in all environments. I will continue phenotypic selection in my next post. Stay tuned!

As always you can reach me at or give me a call at 402.310.5056.

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