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Voices From The Past - Past Column Number 3

There is no question that there have been many changes in the cattle industry in the last number of years.  Despite those changes, some of the concerns and problems we face today are quite similar to those that the industry faced years ago.

On this page, we intend to reprint helpful articles from years past.  Even though they were written many years ago, we feel that the information contained in them is timeless.  Please feel free to contact us for a discussion on these topics at any time.

Select Your Brood Cows with Care

By Paul Potter of Big Rock, Illinois
Reprinted from The Shorthorn World, August 15th 1965

A Shorthorn foundation female must possess the physical conformation of a good beef animal, but she also needs the inherent ability to consume forage, produce and raise calves, and hustle for her living under conditions not adapted to any other elements of the livestock industry. Sounds like a big order, but there are a few important individual characteristics necessary to make a cow suitable for her life’s work.

Generally speaking, from a conformation standpoint, a cow should be well balanced, smooth and rectangular in shape with enough style and carriage to be attractive to the eye. These characteristics should show well regardless of the cow’s general condition.

Going over the cow from end to end, starting with the head, we’ll endeavor to pick out the most important items that make up a good cow. The head has an all important feature in the jaw and muzzle. These are the tools the cow uses to keep herself in condition, feed her calf and develop the unborn calf.

The muzzle should be wide and the jaw strong and full, without too much wasty leather. Naturally, the head should be fairly short with a wide poll at the top. A large clear eye displaying signs of contentment is necessary, as a cow’s disposition is a good indication of her well being. Beware of the extremely short head with the extreme dish. An undersized cow will usually be behind it. Some other undesirable characteristics that can be found in the head are black noses, dark horns, crooked or “wry” noses, and small, dull eyes.

The head should set on a clean, feminine neck. It must be moderately short and should not be too heavy or display bullish characteristics. Many of the best milking cows are perhaps a little too thin in the neck for ideal beef conformation, but it is perhaps best that they be a little thin rather than coarse which leads to heavy briskets and usually to light udders. It is important to watch the front ends for heaviness and excessive briskets, since these will be inherited by their calves.

A cow needs a deep, thick middle to store her roughage. The narrow hearted cow, lacking spring of rib, is ordinarily a thin cow with a weak constitution. These traits are very much inherited. Thick, well-muscled meaty calves have to come from cows made up the same way.

Many moderately fleshed cows that are nursing calves will not display a heavy hindquarter, but they still must be smooth over the hips, show a lot of width at the top rump, and have a well-muscled thigh. Again, a strong point must be the width at the top rump, since many calving difficulties arise from heifers too narrow in the pelvic region to dilate properly and calve normally.

In connection with her strong jaw and muzzle, her thickness and depth, and her width all the way back to her tail setting, she must possess good feet and legs. They have to carry her many miles in her lifetime and perhaps have more to do with her longevity than any other factor. The feet should be flat, the toes straight and of equal size. She must stand on a leg of good, strong bone, but not coarse bone. She should stand up well on her feet, avoiding shallow heels and weak pasterns. These lead to a lifetime of cracked heels and foot rot, which will shorten the useful life span of the cow.

The exceedingly straight hind leg can also be a problem which creates puffy hocks and an eventual stifling if conditions are such to help it along. The opposite is the crooked hind leg with sickle hocks. This generally creates shallow heels and, without constant trimming, a misshapen set of feet.

Crooked or uneven toes and toeing either in or out can create more foot problems. In addition to shortening the cow’s usefulness, these characteristics will be inherited by her offspring, creating more problems in turn.

A cow’s udder is perhaps as important as any single feature. Without a good udder, and a strong source of milk supply, her purpose in raising calves is lost, regardless of their quality. There are numerous udder faults, including over-size teats, low-hanging or pendulous udders and misshapen or uneven quarters, with inadequate milk in one or more quarters. Perhaps the worst fault in an udder is not giving enough milk, followed by the large teats which prevent the baby calf from nursing on them. The low hanging udder is prone to injury and is usually dirty and difficult for a calf to nurse.

No cow was ever perfect. She normally is crossed with a multitude of bulls in her lifetime, and it is the rare cow that will do well with all of them. This is the great challenge to all breeders of Shorthorn cattle: To assess the faults in their own cattle and strive to find the right bull for their herd of cows and endeavor to improve with each generation.

Consequently, we have left the discussion of size to the very end, since it is so difficult to assess. Weight is not the only measure, since condition has so much to do with the outcome. Height is also difficult to pinpoint, since condition and length of leg vary. However, the breed is probably possessed with more top cows lacking just a little in size than we would like to see. (Ralph’s note: Remember this was 1965!)

The important factor here is the kind of bull they are being mated with. Obviously, a small cow mated to a large bull will not produce the average we are shooting for. But a medium-sized cow mated to a good-sized bull probably will, provided the background is somewhat near the same kind of cattle.

If your cows are of medium size, possessing generally good beef characteristics, milk well and calve easily, the majority of the minor faults can be corrected by the use of a good sire. Always keep in mind that good breeding bulls come from good breeding cows, and it is wise to see the dam of your herd bull prospects before their selection. While it has often been said a good bull is half the herd, his job is easier when he has the help of a good herd of cows.

Click here to read our first reprinted column.

Click here to read our second reprinted column.

Click here to read our fourth reprinted column.