Three Keys to Easy-Keeping cows


 Lots of stories could be told; however, today I want to zero in on a problem most cattlemen experience at some point in their careers: cows that eat too much and stay too thin. 

In my view, we have three main problems (on the cow side of the equation) that we can look at: the phenotype of the animal, the visual indicators of glandular function and butterfat, and the complete development of the calf’s rumen. 

Long and tall animals are not “put together correctly” to efficiently harvest the grass that we grow. Their maintenance requirement is so high that they can only get fat when the grass conditions are above average. A shorter animal (in both length and height), with a deep oval-shaped heart girth, will generally be an easier-keeping animal in the majority of grazing situations. 

Linear measurement of the animal is so old that hearing about it now is new to most folks in animal husbandry. Typically there are nine measurements taken; they are compared against one another in an animal to determine balance. Today I have time to talk about only two of those nine measurements. First, the top line is the measurement from the pin bones (found on each side of the tail) to the poll. Second, heart girt is a measurement taken at the smallest circumference, just behind the front legs and in front of the rumen. The difference between these two measurements is the best quick indicator to identify easy keeping cows (and bulls). As I said before, there are other measurements that indicate a number of other things such as masculinity in a bull and femininity in a heifer or cow. 

In the early 1990’s, Golden Link company in Nebraska completely linear measured 20,000+ head through the feedlot. The correlation they found between the top line and heart girth is absolutely fascinating. For each inch the girth is less than the top line, you lose 37 pounds of red meat in the finished animal. For each inch the girth is larger, you gain 37 pounds of red meat in the finished animal. That is great, but the even larger discovery was that for each two inches the girth is greater than the top line it took one less pound of grain to put on each one of those seventy four pounds of red meat. WOW more gain with less feed. We need cows like that populating our pastures. And this is very OBJECTIVE information.

Sometimes our cows are scattered over 10,000 to 50,000 acres, and I hear, “I can’t physically linear measure my animals.” There are a number of visual indicators you can train your eye to look for to see these same things while the cattle are out grazing in the pasture. 

First and most important is the depth of chest. Does the bottom line rise behind the front legs, or does it stay deep and flat? Each inch of deeper chest results in two inches of heart girth. 

The next indicator is width between the front legs. This width tells you two things about a cow and her “easy keeping-ness.” First, are the front legs wide enough for her body? If her toes are pointing out, she is too narrow. Second, is the brisket a “U” shape or a “V” shape? The tape must stretch further to get around that “U” shaped brisket. 

The next indicator to look for is whether the hide drops off the shoulder onto a sunken rib or if it has a more smooth transition. Lastly, the front knee should come out of a mass of muscle. I was helping a fellow on his farm, and it came time to teach him linear measurement. He chose three cows he wanted to run through the process. I noticed something about a steer and suggested we bring him in as well. His heart girth was seven inches shy of his top line. That is 259 pounds of red meat that will never be in that carcass, no matter what you feed or how long you feed him. He took the animal to the sale barn the next day.

Now I want to transition into some visual indicators that will seem very subjective to most new listeners to this information. There are “whorls, swirls and curls” in an animal’s hair, and other indicators, either in or just under the hide, that will tell you specific information about its glandular function and butterfat levels. Some would ask why these are important. These visual indicators often go unnoticed but are decidedly important for specific reasons. What if I told you that learning and selecting for these traits has helped me sell more pounds of beef from each carcass every year?

The thymus gland is located low on the neck, just in front of the shoulder. It varies greatly among animals and can vary in individuals at different times of year. In general, the larger the thymus hair pattern presentation, the healthier the animal is in general. The thymus hair pattern looks as if someone took a paint brush and stroked the hair upwards in that area. Those hairs are running uphill while the hair outside of that area is all running downhill.

Next is the general look of the hair coat. A very “uniform” hair coat is what we are looking for in general (exceptions to follow). We are looking for early shedding in the spring, and a slick and shiny coat in the summer months. A “velvety” look as the temperatures decline in the fall is also desirable.

The position of the adrenal hair whorl is important in that it tells you about butterfat and tender meat, but more importantly, whether your herd is moving towards setting those things in place or away from that target. Ideally we want the whorl in the shoulder blade area or forward. The more of your cows that have the adrenal whorl six inches or further behind the shoulders, generally the lower the glandular system is working in your herd as a whole. This leads to less resistance to disease. Is this an absolute? No, just a general indicator, everything else being equal.

The last of the bigger glandular expressions/indicators is the pancreatic hair whorl. All cattle have a pancreas, but some seem to be embarrassed by it, as their hair expression changes are minimal. Most are just a small area low on the side in the middle of the belly where the hair is running uphill. After four to five months of pregnancy, that little patch begins to expand forward into the arm pit and rearward toward the flank. In months seven to nine it starts to work its way up the side in some animals. It does vary from animal to animal, and the ones with the largest expressions, in general, will be some of your more fertile cows.

How does one go about seeing butterfat in a cow without milking her? Perhaps I should start with a Frenchman who devoted thirty years of his life in the first half of the 1800’s. Francois Guenon developed a system and wrote a book about his discovery of an escutcheon hair pattern on the hind quarters of dairy animals (all the same principles work in beef animals). Guenon on Milch Cows is now in reprint and fully explains his system/theory/discovery. Perhaps the best descriptor I can leave you with is the tribute the French Government made to him and his work in 1848: “(B)y following the directions of F. Guenon, as laid down in the treatise, anyone can tell with certainty whether a cow is a good milker, or whether a heifer will become one, so that there need be no doubt as to the profit of raising an animal, and no chance of being taken in the purchase of one.”

This escutcheon pattern should look something like a shovel, the handle starting as high as the vulva and extending down until the spade covers the back side of the udder. The top of the “spade” should angle slightly upward, which indicates more butterfat; a downward slope indicates reduced butterfat. Before our gaze leaves the back of the cow/heifer, plentiful vertical folds in the hide from the vulva to the udder area of a dry animal is also an indicator of butterfat.

A bald udder is the very best indicator of butterfat in the cow. However, please note that latitude, elevation and climate will all affect the amount of hair found on a bald udder. A bald udder in Bismarck, North Dakota, will have more hair on it than one here in the Dallas area. A number of other secondary indicators are adrenal hair whorl forward, extra teats on the back of the udder, plentiful vertical folds in the neck area and back onto the rib area, fine bones, pointed poll, tail and ear "butter,” and loose hide at the pin bones. The more of these indicators you have in place, the more likely you are to have a cow with higher butterfat.

The third topic I want to cover today regarding easy-keeping cows is how the rumen is or is not developed in the calf. Everything else being equal, the longer a calf is left on its mother (up to ten and a half months), the more completely the villi in the rumen are developed. The “surface area” of the rumen is enlarged with longer villi. This rumen is able to digest as much as 70% of what is eaten versus 55% in the average cow in America today. A heifer that is developed this way will become an easy keeping cow in your herd, and one that eats less every year. It is hard to describe in words what the slides in the power point show.

One success story blends phenotype and butterfat/glandular function together. In early December 2007, Gearld Fry and I went to Valentine, Nebraska, and sorted through 1400 cows. The first day we selected 275 head that might work for the gourmet beef program that was being put together. The next two days of linear measuring and ultra sounding identified fifty head of those that would not work. Three and a half months later the rancher called and said he had to feed the 1175 hay, but none was required for the selected 225 head. The rest of the story was that he had just sold 900 of the 1175 because he could see that they were only costing him money on his ranch.

The question sometimes gets asked, “How do I get along with the cows I have until these ‘new’ ones are in my herd?” I know of three natural and inexpensive supplements that will help the animals we currently have to produce more on the grass we already have. 

The first supplement is Apple Cider Vinegar. The enzymes in unfiltered and unpasteurized ACV help the animals digest what they are eating. Above eighty six degrees, all grass lignifies (interestingly enough, white clover does not). To lignify means it becomes woody and hard, and the nutrients are less digestible in hay put up in the middle of the summer or grass that is standing in the middle of the summer. In the winter in Minnesota, 1100- to 1200-pound cattle on an all-forage ration ate 20 to 25% less when supplemented with 6 ounces of ACV (1 ounce per 200 pounds of body weight). In the summer in Kentucky, a set of 500- to 600-pound yearlings were evenly split into two groups. For sixty days, their diets were as close to identical as the rancher could make them, except one group received 3 ounces per head per day of ACV. At the end of 60 days the cattle receiving the ACV had gained 48 more pounds per animal than the control group. I have to add that both of these trials were done using ACV that was exclusively produced from whole apples. The enzyme content of that vinegar is more than twice as high as vinegar that is not made from whole apples. Golden Valley Vinegar in Fruitland, Idaho, is the only large manufacturer in the USA that is exclusively from whole apples. If you consume Bragg’s apple cider vinegar, there is a ninety five plus percent chance you are consuming ACV produced at Golden Valley.

The second supplement is a detoxifying clay product From Redmond Natural in Utah. In 1978 Dr. Schubert and his research associates were tasked with finding out how much lead, mercury, cadmium, etc. we can have in our diet and environment and still be at a safe level for humans. They found what constituted a lethal dose for one rat (LD1) for each of a number of toxic substances. Then they did something really interesting. They tried combining two different toxins at the LD1 level and killed all 100 rats in the trial. Eventually, when they backed the mercury down to 1/20th of an LD1  combined with an LD1 of lead, they were still getting 100 dead rats. We have 10,000 of those toxins blowing around every day with no way to shut them off. Of all of the supplements I have ever tried, the Redmond Conditioner is the most important supplement I use on my farm. It pulls out toxins at a low cost while adding to the overall health of the animals. 

The third supplement is produced by making a “brine” out of a sea salt. Again I use a Redmond product, Number Ten Livestock Salt, because Redmond is close to home and I really believe in their products and their people. Depending on the size of your operation, you can use a fifty five gallon barrel or a 275 gallon tote as a mixing vessel. We need a place for sediment to be undisturbed while drawing the clear liquid off the top. Place a two by four under the valve side of the tote and/or install a bulkhead fitting on the fifty five gallon barrel as far down the side as you can. Put one quart of salt in the 55 gallon barrel or six to eight quarts in the 275 gallon tote and then fill with water. Twelve hours later you are ready to "decant” the clear portion through the respective valves. I have used two methods of delivery here at home. At a minimum, I add brine to the drinking water at a one to twentyfive ratio. Better results come from placing an additional water tub that you fill with only brine. Don’t be surprised if your cows consume three gallons or more per day to start. Don’t quit using your current mineral; however, you will see quite a drop in the consumption of your regular mineral. A local dairy put the brine out free choice, and the milk cows stopped consuming their kelp for about three weeks. They are consuming the exact same minerals in the brine as are found in kelp at a penny a day instead of twenty five to fifty cents per head. We are allowing Mother Nature to put 92 minerals in the exact balance they should be.


Tools to Take Home

1) Start breeding and selecting for a better-adapted phenotype for easy keeping on your grass. 

2) Use some of those “whorls, swirls and curls” to identify the better adapted cows in your herd and spread their genetics throughout your entire herd. 

3) Come weaning day, take a leap of faith and put your replacement heifers back with their mothers. You may have to run that group separately and supplement them this winter, but their daughters will eat less of your grass for the next ten to fifteen years on your farm.

Thank you for your time and attention.

Steve Campbell

Tailor Made Cattle


Posted on December 2, 2015 .