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The Forgotten Art-Final Edition

The best "performance" test for cattle

The next tier in the pyramid is a little more diversified. It involves muscle, fleshing ability, and sex traits. Three things at first glance that don’t go together, they just fit a misfit, but logical next step. It’s a bit like winning the Super Bowl and then going to Disneyland. At face value, muscle should be easy to read and for the most part it is. Muscle has definition and round shape, when the animal walks you can see flexing in their rear quarter. Also, when you look down their top they are wide with muscular definition. Fleshing ability by itself is also easy to identify. Some differences in fat accumulation can be attributed to differences in diet. Animals get fat from the front back and the top down. This will be easily recognized when you look at their brisket, rib and top, finishing with the lower quarter. Where this all gets muddled is when you are trying to evaluate cattle that are more or less obese (like a lot of purebred cattle in America). The reason Angus cattle are so popular is because they fatten easy, making them look smooth so it’s hard to discern what is fat and what is muscle. Even experienced evaluators can be fooled if proper caution or background is not fully understood. I don’t really have any specific advice on this, just be aware that it can be a huge obstacle.

The next trait will differ depending on which sex you are evaluating. We will start with cows and heifers; they should be thin necked and “feminine headed”. Part of this will come with experience but there are a few hints I can give. One is their eye placement should not be too wide. Heads should not be overly long nosed and muzzles should be wide. Fertile heifers and cows according to Jan Bonsma should have scapula higher than their top line. Udders should be snug, with refined teat size and even placement. Vulva’s should not be infantile in their size. There is a ridge of hair running from the vulva to the udder often referred to as the escutcheon mirror. The escutcheon should be wide from anus to udder to insure milk quantity, it may determine how early she will come into her milk, and how long she will maintain it. Concerning bulls, they should have a short masculine head with a crest on their neck. They should have exceptional muscling in their shoulders (Not to be confused with bold shoulders. The difference is bold shoulders are bone and masculine bulls have shoulder muscle.). The testicles should be attached properly, not twisted or split up the center line, with normal size and shape. In lighter colored cattle, the bulls should be slightly darker in their front 1/3 and get progressively lighter to their hip.

I’m sure many would argue that sex traits should be higher priority on the list. Or in this case lower on the pyramid. I don’t necessarily disagree that they are extremely important. I think they fit the third tier because without good structure and rib they won’t make it very long in many environments regardless of how fertile they are. You need to have your own priorities, but it is balanced cattle that are most profitable. This doesn’t mean they are the easiest to market, but that’s a whole different subject.

That is my quick and dirty guide to phenotypic evaluation in cattle. It takes practice but the more you engage yourself the faster you will benefit. It seems to me that phenotypic evaluation of cattle has gone “out of style” for most production cattleman today. That coming from a guy who works in the genomics world… I’m not s

ure why we’ve turned only to the paper and forgot to look up at the cattle. I know a lot of people blame ‘show ring’ bred cattle. It’s true there are many cattle bred for show that just won’t work in the real world. However, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Phenotypic evaluation could be the quickest and easiest route for you to bring a quality herd together with top notch fertility, survivability, and production. My favorite part is you can do this all by combining knowledge with practice, no products necessary! I will concede that this is but one part of the greater cattle selection tool kit available today. Now that I have completed this specific series, I will tie together selecting cattle by phenotype, E.P.D’s, and genomics in my next post. As always you can give me a call at 402.310.5056 or shoot me an email at

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