How your cow's "lines" affect your bottom line

Today we are told that you cannot have good production without ultrasounds, DNA, EPD's, chelated minerals and animal record programs.  Ever wonder why Grandpa did not need all of these new-fangled gadgets, minerals and numbers? And does all of this production turn into profit, or are our grass dollars just getting passed along to other businesses?

     In my opinion, there are a number of different reasons we find ourselves with the cows we have and the production/cost state we are in. The main CATTLE reasons are based on genetics, phenotype, butterfat, glandular function and rumen development. There are grass, mineral, toxin and grazing system reasons as well. For the purpose of this article I want to zero in on phenotype.

     The shape of a cow determines if she will be an easy keeper on grass, and let's face it, as ranchers, that is our prime resource. I don't want to get bogged down in a discussion of the merits of grass vs. feedlot production systems. As cow/calf producers, we have grass, and that is what we need to convert to pounds of saleable meat.

     Recently, Dr. Michael McDonald (God rest his soul) shared with me some interesting insights he came up with while working for Golden Link in the 1990s. They were using linear measurement to find out what was important to animal performance in the feedlot system, and by extension, in the pasture. What they found is simply fascinating to me. The shape of a cow determines the meat to bone ratio and the efficiency of conversion of feed ingested to pounds gained.

     So how does the shape of a cow predispose her to be an efficient cow in the conversion of our grass to maintain herself and her offspring, resulting in more  pounds of saleable calf while both consume less total grass? First and foremost, it is a function of how much larger the heart girth is than the top line. Top line is measured from the pin bones to the poll of an animal. She has to be standing with the head level with the back to get an accurate top line measurement. This can be done with a tape measure, but is much more accurate with a set of linear measurement calipers (see email address at the end of this article for more information on linear measurement). The girth is measured behind the front legs and in front of the gut. You use a tape measure to find the smallest circumference.

     What Michael and the owners of Golden Link found is that for each inch you add or take away from the girth, you either add or subtract an average of 37 pounds of red meat on a finished animal. Not only that, but that increase in red meat comes with a blessing. Steers and heifers with a larger girth ate less grain to put on each pound. Similarly, in the pasture, the replacement heifer with the larger girth eats less grass.

     How do we "see" a large heart girth without bringing the animal to the squeeze chute? A deep chest. For each inch her chest is closer to the ground, you gain two inches of girth. You know you are getting close when there is a straight line from the brisket to the hock. Most cows’ bottom line comes up behind the front leg. A straight bottom line on your cows will improve the bottom line on your books as well.

     I was looking at a group of cows for a gentleman back East. He had quite a menagerie of breeds and phenotypes. The Herefords in the herd had the poorest bottom lines. They must have come up 6” behind the front leg. I pointed this out to the owner and told him these cows would never make him any money. The next day he called me and said, “You know, those Herefords stand at the feed bunk all day long. The rest of the cattle fill up and then lie down and chew their cud.” 

     Next would be the width of the shoulders. This can be observed in wide-set front legs with the toes of the animal pointing straight forward. We want a U-shaped brisket rather than a V-shaped brisket. The muscling at the loin does not drop off from the shoulder blade, and last but not least, the front leg needs to come out of a mass of muscle.


     The next measurement that indicates the ability of a cow to convert grass to meat is the flank. Measuring the flank of a heifer or cow will tell you if she has a big enough rumen to eat for three. We want a minimum of two inches greater than her girth.  A heifer with a four inch-plus flank measurement over her heart girth measurement will be one that can breed back every year and have superior calves  into her 12th to 16th year. The reason most first calf heifers don't breed back is that they  lack enough nourishment from your grass for her and her calf to grow and stay healthy. How you can affect the nourishment in your grass will have to wait until another day. 

     A parting shot on flank measurement--one hundred years ago in New Zealand, the number one selection criteria for DAIRY heifers/cows was the size of the flank. As the dairymen had all-grass dairies, they KNEW the relationship between size of rumen and pounds of milk in the tank! Most cows that have a large heart girth have even larger flanks, which equates to larger rumens.

     The first time I was selecting some BEEF replacement heifers in a commercial setting by using these criteria, the owner made a guess on the weight of the eight-month old heifers I had selected out of his herd. I told him they would be at least fifty pounds  heavier than his estimate. Once we had put them across the scale, we found to both our amazement that they averaged 63 pounds more than his original estimate. And this is on an eight-month old animal!

     I heard a speaker at a recent conference say that the students at his University were getting very good at predicting how much feed GROUPS of different classes of animals would eat based on the different kinds of feed stuffs placed in front of them. However, he said they could not predict INDIVIDUAL consumption among these groups. "Some animals were eating half as much as other animals in the same group." How would you like to create a group of cows on your farm that eat 25 to 50% less than your current cows? 

     Phenotype is only one piece of that conundrum; however, I believe it is one of the largest pieces of the "Easy Keeping Cow" puzzle.


Contact Steve Campbell at Tailor Made Cattle for more information.

Posted on October 1, 2015 .