The role of Butterfat for Easy-Keeping Cows

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. The first article in this series dealt with how the cows' lines (phenotype) affects your bottom line. Now let's zero in on butterfat.

The average beef cow in North America produces somewhere between 150 to 200 pounds of butterfat in a year. Some have more, a lot more. I heard a speaker at a recent conference say that they 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 groups." Butterfat production is one of the prime predictors regarding animals  and their eating patterns.

As Dr. Weston Price points out in his book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, some vitamins and minerals are fat soluble. If we consume low or no fat, we cannot get these vitamins and minerals from our diet. Similarly, a calf brought up from a mother lacking in butterfat never thrives like a calf from a high butterfat mother.

So how do we see that butterfat in the mother cow (or in the calf on the day it is born)? In the lactating cow, the best indicator is a bald udder. Now you have to realize, what qualifies as a bald udder in South Texas is different from what qualifies as a bald udder in Northern Minnesota. On that day-old heifer calf it is hiding in plain sight unless you look closely. It will have an area around the teats where the hair is shorter and lighter in color than the rest of her bottom side.  While you are right there, see if she has 4, 5 or 6 teats. More is almost always better.

In the mid-1800’s, Francois Guenon wrote a book entitled, Milch Cows: A Treatise upon the Bovine Species in General. I can not sum up the gist of the book concisely enough for the scope of this article. In the book he names and describes the escutcheon, which is a hair pattern on the back of a cow, and how it predicts her milk quantity and quality. Perhaps a National tribute of the French Government proclaimed in Paris on September 17, 1848 will encourage you to get a copy and read it ... numerous times. “(B)y following the directions of F. Guenon, as laid down in the treatise, anyone can tell with certainty (emphasis added) whether a cow is a good milker, or whether a heifer will become one, so that there need be no doubt (emphasis added) as to the profit of raising an animal, and no chance of being taken in the purchase of one.” (Think about that. We are not talking Expected Progeny Differences here.)

Next on the list of things to look for is the adrenal hair whorl. It is a 360 degree “cow lick” somewhere down the back of the animal. For richer butterfat, we hope to find this adrenal hair whorl in the shoulder area or further forward.  From the day a calf is born until reaching maturity, the whorl will always stay in the same area, male or female. On a female, after she starts producing estrogen a few hairs will stand up right in the middle of the adrenal hair whorl (Cows with shaggy hair coats make it hard to find and determine this.) Two or three months after she gets pregnant and progesterone takes over, these hairs will lie back down, indicating to you she is pregnant (but I digress). In general, the further forward the adrenal hair whorl, the more butterfat she is producing and the more tender his/her meat will be when butchered.

The size and shape of your cows cannon bones will tell you something about the quality of his/her meat and the butterfat content of her milk. So many people today want some “bone” on their animals. If you want fine textured meat, you will find it attached to fine bones. The diameter and length of the cannon bone below the front knee of the animal is where we should be looking. A short cannon bone will automatically give us an animal more suited to grass because of his or her phenotype. That is just an extra blessing of the small bone. (Alas, I digress again.) That same small-in-diameter cannon bone is an external indicator of butterfat in the mamma cow.

In my book, the next indicator to look for is a loose hide. How can I know this without getting my hands on the animal? Observe the number and spacing of the vertical folds in the hide of the animal, starting in the neck area and hopefully carrying back into the rib area. The closer together the folds, the higher the butterfat. Another place to look on a heifer for these folds is from the vulva down to the udder area. Again, the more folds you see, the more likely this heifer is to have high butterfat. While you are near the rump, the looser the hide is over the pin bones, the higher the butterfat of the milk (The looser the hide over the hooks, the more likely an animal is to have marbling in the meat when fattened).

       The more excitable an animal is, the less likely it is to have high butterfat. Think about that skinny kid just across the aisle in grade school. He was fidgeting so much he could hardly sit still. A cow that is always “nervous” about her surroundings will have a hard time creating butterfat, let alone letting it down for her calf (milk cows who see different herdsmen/milkers every week don’t give as much milk and butterfat as those who are always handled with respect from the same handler every time, every day).

A dark greasy streak down the back of an animal and yellow ear and tail wax are indicators of butterfat in the animal. An animal that is prone to have a greasy streak can express that with adequate nutrition. Low nutrition for the animal will effect the epi-genetic expression of this trait and the “butter” that is genetically in the animal. Although further down the list of things to look for, these indicators tend to go hand-in-glove if the majority of the aforementioned indicators are present. 

I am closing this list of indicators with whether the cow/heifer has extra teats on the back of the udder. Conventional wisdom today says this is a negative. I have found that more often than not, extra teats come attached to a cow with more than average butterfat.

“So why all this talk about butterfat?” you ask. The more butterfat the cow is producing, the larger the calf will be at weaning, the easier keeping her replacement heifers will be once they are in your herd (she will pass this along to her daughters), and her sons will reach mature weight earlier in life. I quote from an article by Gearld Fry: High butterfat milk with the correct nutritional components is critical for optimal health in the developing and growing calf.  Fat in the milk coats the lining of the calf’s esophagus and gut, which prevents bacteria and other disease causing organisms from entering the blood stream.  Fat is important for the proper development of the nervous system which is the circuitry for the digestive system, endocrine (gland) system, and immune function, etc.  Mother’s milk keeps the calf healthy and vigorous while his system develops the ability to ruminate and utilize grass.  It can take up to 10 months from the time a calf is born for it to realize all the benefits of a fully functioning rumen.” 

We can see the opposite of this in dairy calves that are raised on the best nutrition science gives us: virtually always a pinched heart girth and narrow shoulders. The calf is not put together to be easy keeping. Poor epi-genetics have ensured that the only way to keep them producing during lactation is with a high starch diet.

I will leave you with some research results from the University of Wisconsin. A couple of winters ago, one of the researchers from the University presented the results of two different protocols for developing dairy heifers once they were taken off milk replacer. One group was fed a TMR (Total Mixed Ration), and the other was on an all forage diet. Both groups were bred to calve at two years of age. Group TMR cost $1300 to develop until calving. Group forage cost $780 to develop until calving. A nice savings, but the bigger story to me is that after calving both groups went on a TMR, and the forage- developed heifers produced 2000 more pounds of milk per lactation than the TMR developed heifers. I guess we will dive into the “why” of this study in a later article.


“Don't worry about people stealing your ideas.   If your ideas are any good, you'll have to ram them down people's throats.”   ~ Howard Aiken (1900-1973)

Posted on March 30, 2016 .