How to Choose a Cow

How to Choose a Cow

Here’s how the experts do it, using some of the best representatives of the dairy breeds to explain the system.

Not every farmer or dairyman can qualify as an expert judge of cows, but every herd owner can pick high and profitable producers by sticking to certain principles. It’s a matter of pedigree, production and type or form. But only an estimated one out of every 20 dairy cows is purebred and registered, with a pedigree. The number of cows on which there are production records is only slightly larger than that. Hence most dairymen and farmers choose a cow on looks alone, that is, on her type and form at certain key points of the body.

How to do it and what to look for is here explained by dairy specialists who are experts in their field. They know these cows, have studied them and in some cases have actually handled them. The cows in each case are among the breed’s best, judged so by the official score card. They are, first of all, super models of milk and butterfat machines, with a better than average chance of operating profitably over an extended period of years, while at the same time regularly reproducing desirable offspring. They are that kind of cow because they have the type, the form, which has been proved to be the basis for real performance. What to look for in that type or form is pointed out by the specialists. In other words, production and pedigree count, but without them the choice of a cow is simply a matter of selecting an animal which comes as close as possible to matching the breed type and form shown by these representatives.

photos by Strohmer and Carpenter

How to Choose a Cow


by E. E. Heizer, Dairy Husbandry, University of Wisconsin

From 1850 to World War I, the yardstick by which breeders selected breeding stock was the production record of the animal or its ancestry, and the majority of dairy records were of the seven-day type. In fact, private records were used in the selection of breeding stock until 1891, when Doctor Babcock invented a practical test for butterfat in milk. With emphasis in selection of breeding stock almost entirely determined by short-time production records for almost eighty years, it is not surprising that improvement in type or conformation of dairy cattle was extremely slow.

Following World War I, American breed associations began to place more emphasis on long-time records as a basis for selection and by 1925 the lifetime production of dairy cows was beginning to be considered a more reliable index of a dairy cow’s value than any single short-time or yearly record.

With the change of emphasis from short-time to yearly and lifetime records as the basis for selecting dairy cows, dairymen developed an increased interest in the importance of conformation and its possible relationship to production. Breed associations established official classification programs in order to record type or conformation of animals in registered herds. In 1943, a committee of the Purebred Dairy Cattle Association produced a uniform conformation score card for dairy cattle.

Much progress in improvement of type in purebred and grade dairy cattle has been observed by breeders during the past 20 years. With all breeds stressing official classification programs and with a uniform standard of excellence to guide breeders, we should see even greater improvement in the type of our herds in the future.

The foregoing discussion provides some explanation of the situation prevailing in ordinary herds today. The average farmer, even more than the purebred breeder, has used production as his principal basis for selection of herd replacements. Type or conformation should become a part of his selection program if it will help build a more profitable herd. Certainly, many features of conformation may contnbute to a longer, more profitable life for our dairy cows.

The conformation characteristics in which dairy farmers are interested are well outlined in the Uniform Dairy Cow Score Card and are effectively demonstrated by the Official Breed Type Models now available for the various dairy breeds. They are also embodied in the cows of each breed selected to illustrate this discussion. The Holstein-Friesian cow, Pabst Burke Barbetta Modest, 2411951, represents a fine combination of those qualities desired by Holstein-Friesian breeders everywhere.

If we look at our official score card we find that 30 points of 100 allowed for a perfect type score are assigned to general appearance. General appearance is something difficult to define but it includes evidence of breed character, balance or proper proportions of various parts of the body, style and carriage and ability to walk easily. If we analyze the 30 points considered under general appearance, we find that 12 points are assigned to breed character, including head features, 10 points for shoulders, back, loin and rump and 8 points for legs.

In “Modest” we have a cow that illustrates all of these points. As we analyze this cow we must keep in mind the fact that she was exhibited in 1947 as a 3-year-old. True type standards as established by the official score card or True Type Models represent mature cows. Although “Modest” is larger than the 1500-pound mature standard established for her breed, she possesses those qualities of refinement and quality that we like to see in dairy cows. Her shoulders, back, loin and rump closely approximate the true type standards of the breed. She stands squarely on legs that are wide apart, her joints are cleanly molded and she moves with grace and ease. I would like to emphasize at this point the importance of size as 1ong as it is accompanied by correlation of parts and evidence of quality and refinement. Also, the importance of good feet and legs cannot be stressed enough. When dairy cows cannot move about freely their days of usefulness are numbered. Crooked hind legs and soft, baggy hocks are to be avoided in selection of dairy cattle, just as you would avoid them in the selection of horses.

The second division in the official dairy-cattle score card concerns dairy character, for which 20 points are allocated for perfection. In judging dairy character we pay particular attention to angularity, open conformation and freedom from excess flesh. One must consider the stage of lactation in evaluating the dairy character of cows. In Pabst Burke Barbetta Modest we have a cow that had been in milk more than nine months when the pictures were made. Therefore, she was carrying more flesh than would be true earlier in her lactation period. Her general conformation, alert carriage, loose, pliable skin and fine haircoat all indicate dairy character and excellent physical condition.

The third general consideration in selection of dairy cows is listed as body capacity on the official score card. Perfection in body capacity is allowed 20 points. Since the cow is a factory for converting roughage and grains into milk, it is clear that capacity of the digestive organs is important if high production is to be maintained. We like to see the body capacity comparatively large in proportion to the size of the cow. This is indicated by a large heart girth, well-sprung ribs, a wide chest and depth and width of barre1. In Pabst Burke Barbetta Modest we have a cow that shows all these characteristics in a marked degree with the exception of depth in the rear part of the body.

In selecting dairy cows, 30 points are allowed on the official score card for perfection of the mammary system. In “Modest” we must keep in mind the fact that she had been in milk about nine months when photographed. Naturally, a cow toward the end of her lactation does not show the size of udder and veins characteristic of fresh cows. Note the strong attachment of the forequarters and the high, wide, rear attachment of her udder. Also notice that the quarters of her udder are evenly balanced and her teats are uniform in size, squarely placed and plumb. She also shows nice quality or texture of udder and the floor of the udder is reasonably level. Notice that her udder is attached so close to the body that it is held well above the hocks. Such cows are easier to keep clean and their udders should remain sound longer than the old-fashioned pendulous udders still observed in many dairy herds. When a dairy cow’s udder breaks away or becomes unsound she soon leaves the herd. Therefore we must be doubly careful in selecting for good udder conformation.

In addition to the points of conformation we have mentioned, dairymen must avoid known unsoundnesses such as total blindness, permanent lameness, blemished hocks, blind quarters and broken-away udders.

Dairymen must also keep in mind the fact that we must make our selection on total score if we are to improve type in our dairy herds. We do not breed for one characteristic at a time. Leading judges and breeders are constantly on the alert for those individuals that possess the “most of the best wrapped up in one hide.” In Pabst Burke Barbetta Modest they have found that kind of cow. She was classified “Excellent.” In 1946 she was chosen All-American 2-year-old and in 1947 she received the All American 3-yearold honors for her breed. While she was building up an impressive record at leading shows, she also demonstrated her ability as a producer. Traveling on show circuits is not conducive to best production in dairy cows but “Modest” completed two very creditable Advanced Registry records in her first two lactations. She is a young cow and no doubt will continue to add to her splendid record of achievement as an example of the type of cow that Holstein-Friesian breeders are seeking.

How to Choose a Cow


by J. H. Hilton, North Carolina State College of Agriculture

The first thing any dairyman should consider in selecting a Jersey cow or a cow from any other breed is her production performance. But one should not stop here. Production records of the dam of the cow, as well as the milk-producing ability of all of her paternal (same sire) and maternal (same dam) sisters, should be carefully considered. If the cow has a good performance record and her pedigree shows consistently good production for several generations back, then one can be reasonably sure that this cow, if given good care, will continue to be a good producer and that she will likely transmit these desirable, high-producing qualities to her offspring.

Unfortunately, complete performance records are not always available on cows purchased by farmers. Then the question arises, can one tell with any degree of accuracy from the physical appearance of a cow whether she is likely to be a good producer? The answer to that is, “Yes.”

On the average, there is a relationship between form and performance in the Jersey-breed. This does not mean that all Jersey cows which would rate high in type are always the best producers. Nor does it mean that all high-producing Jersey cows would rate high on type. It does mean, however, that if one considers in the make-up of a cow such important things as dairy character, strength of body, mammary system and general appearance, there is a relationship between these form characteristics and milk production. Any good cowman knows this is true. Furthermore, facts are available through the herd classification program of the American Jersey Cattle Club to prove the accuracy of this statement.

The herd classification program was adopted by the American Jersey Cattle Club in 1932. This program provides the breeder with an opportunity to have each milking cow in his herd compared to the ideal-type Jersey cow as given by the official score card. The dairy cow score card has numerical values assigned to various parts of the cow which indicate the approximate importance of each part. There are four main headings on the score card. These are: general appearance, 30 points; dairy character, 20 points; body capacity, 20 points, and mammary system, 30 points, making a total of 100 points in all.

When an animal scores 90 points or more on the score card, she is given a rating of excellent. An animal scoring between 85-90 is given a rating of very good; between 80-85, good plus; from 75-80, good; between 70-75, fair, and those scoring under 70 are rated as poor.

Facts show that when the records of all the cows classified to date are averaged, there is a relationship between type and production. In other words, as the type ratings go up in accordance with the score-card ratings, so do the production records of the animals.

The Jersey cow pictured is Biltmore Standard Lassie, bred and developed by Biltmore Farms of Asheville, North Carolina. She has officially been classified excellent, which is the highest rating a cow can receive on the four main points.

General appearance: First, look at this cow from the side view. Notice her style, symmetry and pleasing appearance, with all her parts well proportioned and neatly blended.

Dairy character: Note her clean feminine head, smooth shoulders, sharp withers, openness of rib and her sharp hip and pin bones and her milky-looking appearance. This cow has one fault in dairy character for which she can be criticized, and that is, she is a bit too short and thick in her neck.

Body capacity: Keeping in mind that this cow is only a three-year-old, look at her strength of body — that is, her depth of rib, length of body, and from the end view, notice her good spring of rib and capacity of middle.

Mammary system: Observe particularly this cow’s wonderful mammary system. From the close-up udder view look at the length, smoothness, balance and the milky looking qualities of her udder. Notice also the strength of her udder attachments especially in the rear udder. Again, look at the squareness of her teat placement and how the teats set in under the udder, which gives them protection from the danger of injury.

Biltmore Standard Lassie not only has what is desired in type, but the production performance to go with it. She has a three-year-old record of 10,998 pounds milk and 517 pounds fat. Furthermore, she has 90 paternal sisters with an average production of 9400 pounds milk and 486 pounds fat in 305 days on twice-a-day milking.

Yes, it is type and production we want and must have in the development of profitable Jersey herds.

How to Choose a Cow


by C. S. Rhode, Dairy Husbandry, University of Illinois

Consistent high production, the highest classification for type, and an impressive record in the show ring mark Quail Roost Noble Primrose as one of the most outstanding cows produced by the Guernsey breed. Freshening as a junior two-year-old, she produced 13,894 pounds of milk and 704 pounds of butterfat in Class GG, which is a state record for North Carolina. As a junior three-year-old, she made a state record in Illinois with a production of 12,415 pounds of milk and 630 pounds of butterfat in 305 days. As a junior four-year-old, she produced 15,730 pounds of milk and 744 pounds of butterfat. On test as a five-year-old, she produced in 149 days, 8005 pounds of milk and 371 pounds of butterfat. These consecutive records show her to be a consistent, high-producing cow.

Primrose has an official type classification of excellent. The official classifier gave her a score of 95.5, which is the highest score that has been given to a Guernsey cow. She was classified excellent in mammary system, general appearance, rump, dairy character and body capacity, and very good in feet and legs. She was the first prize four-year-old senior and grand champion at the 1946 Dairy Cattle Congress. At the 1947 Dairy Cattle Congress showing as a five-year-old, she was first-prize aged cow, senior and grand champion. She was first in the best udder class both in 1946 and 1947. As further proof of the high esteem in which she is held by Guernsey breeders, her six-month-old daughter sold for $10,500 at public auction, and her son, Curtiss Candy Noble Curtiss, is being retained at the Curtiss Candy Farms for a herd sire.

She is an attractive individual with impressive style, showing vigor and femininity. She is unusually well balanced and has the desired size and capacity. She has a strong, yet a refined and attractive head. Her eyes are bright and set wide apart. The muzzle is broad and the jaw lean and strong. The character shown in her head reveals the great cow she is.

Her back is straight and strong. The rump, viewed from the side, is long and straight from hip to pin bones. The rear view shows the rump to be wide across the hips. The tail is fine and nicely set between pin bones that are wide apart.

Cows that classify high in dairy character are good producers. Primrose is outstanding in this respect. She is angular in appearance, both from the side and rear. She is open in conformation throughout. Her neck is long and clean-cut, ribs are flat and wide apart, and the thighs are in-curving, thin and wide apart when viewed from the rear, which allows room for her capacious udder and the wide attachment of rear udder.

A dairy cow is a consumer of large amounts of pasture-crop and other roughage such as hay and silage. She converts these rough feeds into large quantities of milk, a most valuable human food. In order to handle large quantities of these roughages, which are relatively low in nutrient value, she needs a capacious digestive system indicated by a large middle or barrel. Primrose has a capacious digestive system. It is indicated by a large heart girth, well-spread foreribs and a wide chest floor between the forelegs. She has a large and deep middle or barrel with the depth increasing toward the rear of the barrel. Her ribs are well sprung, deep and wide apart.

Primrose was good enough to win the best udder class during the past two years at the Dairy Cattle Congress and to classify excellent in mammary system; consequently, her udder and veining approach the ideal. A careful analysis of her mammary system reveals great dairy capacity and lasting qualities. Her udder is capacious and of good quality which in itself is a very good indication of high production. It is long, wide and of moderate depth. Notice from the rear view the width of the udder and how high and wide it is attached. The front udder extends well forward and is strongly attached. The udder is reasonably level on the floor. The teats, of convenient length and size, are well apart and squarely placed on the udder. The milk veins running forward from the udder on the under side of the body carry the blood from the udder to the heart. These veins are usually large on heavy-producing dairy cows. Numerous veins on the udder are also generally associated with dairy capacity. The veining on Primrose is exceptionally well developed. Notice the large, tortuous veins on her body, and the numerous well-defined veins on her udder. Truly she has one of the best mammary systems we have seen on a Guernsey cow.

Quail Roost Noble Primrose, bred by Quail Roost Farm, Rougemont, North Carolina, and owned by the Curtiss Candy Company, Chicago, inherits her greatness. Her paternal dam, Bournedale Martha, was grand champion at the 1937 National Dairy Show and the 1939 Dairy Cattle Congress. She has three daughters with AR records which average 12,302 pounds of milk and 714 pounds of butterfat, two of which made their records as two-year-olds.