About Me

Kentucky, United States
Fourth generation beef producer, wife, mother, 4-H & FFA supporter, agriculture advocate, Christian, WKU alum, love livestock shows, basketball, college football, Dallas Cowboys. All things agriculture.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Selecting a 4-H/FFA Project Beef Heifer

     It's that time of year, when many kids have their beef projects in  the barn, working hair, and establishing the daily routines. If you or your child have not chosen that animal from the family herd or purchased a heifer, now's the time to be searching. With this post I hope to give basic information on choosing a good animal for a 4-H or FFA project beef heifer.
     Structure, capacity, and muscling are the three primary features you should consider when choosing a heifer project. Structure is most important because you want an animal that is correct on her feet and legs, stands square, is level from hooks to pins, and is smooth shouldered. Now, if you are not a beef producer, those terms may sound foreign or just be confusing. Let me help to break these terms down. The University of Kentucky College of Agriculture has developed a website called Agmania which includes sections on livestock judging and animal science. I've included the link to livestock judging which will help illustrate the structures, both correct and incorrect. I have great respect for Dr. Richard Coffey, Warren Beeler, and Kevin Laurent and I appreciate their work in developing the site and having it available to educate our youth. You can follow links on breeding heifers, to evaluating soundness and structural correctness. http://www.ca.uky.edu/agripedia/Agmania/Livestock/index.asp
     Correct on feet and legs and stands square, refers to the actual structure and form of the feet and legs. Begin with the feet and make sure all four are a good size, not too small for the animals bone size, and that there are no signs of previous injury. To be "square" all feet should point forward and be parallel to the body, not point out or in when standing or walking. You want to be sure the pasterns are strong with the correct amount of set or flex. The pastern is the area on the legs above the hoof and below the fetlock. A pastern too straight will cause an animal to walk on the front of their hoof, and have little flex. A pastern with too much set will be weaker and cause the animal to walk on the back part of their hoof. You must look for balance and correctness. The rear legs should also be looked at closely to avoid an animal that is "cow-hocked",  or has too much set to the rear hock and toes out.
     Level from hooks to pins. The hooks are the larger hip bones located on the top line of the heifer behind the loin, and the pins are the smaller hip bones that stand up on each side of the tail head. These bones should be level or have only a slight slope from front to rear, making the rump square and giving the heifer a longer stride. If there is too much slope the rump is rounded and makes the heifer walk with a much shorter stride.
     Smooth shouldered, refers to the structure of the joint at the front legs, which also determine the length and smoothness of stride. A shoulder that is too straight, does not allow for adequate flexibility making the heifer walk with a shorter stride. A coarse shouldered heifer is not as feminine fronted and often toes out with her front feet. Look for a smooth, long junction from shoulder to neck and watch the length of stride from the side as the heifer walks to determine the shoulder structure.
     Capacity refers to the actual volume of the heifers body and is important for reproduction because the animal must be able to maintain its body while also providing for offspring.
     Long-bodied, refers to the area between the fore and rear flanks. You want a breeding heifer to be long-bodied.
     Spring of rib, refers to the area just below the top line on each side of the heifer. You want the heifer to naturally have width and spring of rib, illustrating she naturally has large body volume and capacity. A flat-sided heifer is not desirable and it is not something that you can feed or change about the animal.
     Depth of body, refers to the "depth" from the top line to the underline and how much body there is between those two areas. It is most desirable that the heifer be level from fore to rear flanks also, and not shallow or high flanked but have more than 50% of their height in body depth.
     It is very important to consider muscling when selecting beef heifers. First appraisal for muscling can be done by looking at the width of the center rear quarter. Please refer to the Agmania link http://www.ca.uky.edu/agripedia/Agmania/Livestock/Heifers/hefmusc.asp. Base width, or watching how wide a heifer naturally walks, is also important when evaluating muscling. If a heifer has adequate or heavier muscling she will naturally walk wider, with more distance between her two front legs and more distance between her two back legs. This is something you cannot change.  Also, a groove down the top line  illustrates heavier muscling with the backbone lower than the ribs, due to muscle pushing the ribs out. A lighter muscled heifer will have a more pronounced, higher backbone and be flat-ribbed.
     Femininity, balance, and attitude are the three remaining characteristics important when selecting a project heifer. I'll let you decide which is most important to you.
     Femininity is important for breeding heifers. You want a heifer to look like a heifer, not a bull. You want a long, lean neck, free of extra skin or leather on the underside of the neck or dewlap area. You want a smooth shoulder, not a bulky coarse shoulder that looks more like a steer or bull. I think is is also important to have a clean underline, free of a wasty navel area. Also check for a correct udder, with proper teat placement.
     Balance is very important because you want all the desirable traits to go together into a nice package. This is where every one's personal opinions may differ and that's part of why we enjoy raising beef cattle.
     Attitude is very important for a beginning showman and as a parent I might give up some of the other qualities just to have an animal with a great disposition for a child's first project.  No one is going to have fun if an animal is too stubborn or just has too much spunk and no one wants that first project to be a child's last.  I also look at attitude a little differently than some. After a child has been showing cattle for a few years it's important to find those animals with "personality" and a little attitude. They often present themselves in the ring better and naturally catch the judge's and spectator's eyes.
     I also think it's important to have the child help choose their animal. They each know what they like and often the animal and child find each other when sorting through pens and pastures. It's a great opportunity to help the child see faults and desirable traits and it will give them confidence in their own livestock selection abilities. It doesn't matter if you raise the animal or purchase it, be proud of your choice, realistic and honest with it's faults and attributes, and remember no matter how much you like your animal, the judge has his/her own opinion and on show day its the one that matters that day.

It doesn't get much better than this. Mutual respect and comfort between our son and one of his show heifers of 2011. The result of months of feeding, washing, brushing, and walking.  

1 comment:

Sandy O said...

Enjoyed your post and the picture! Great Topic and very familiar, There are 7 head of cattle "in training" at our show barn right now, looks like most will make the final cut of our two sons.
I have a show post and an FFA post on my blog, you might enjoy, I invite you to visit at http://everydayag.blogspot.com/