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How Important is a Perfect Udder on a Beef Cow?

By   /  August 5, 2019  /  8 Comments

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Photo by Troy Walz

This article is a summary of the 2019 Nebraska Beef Cattle Report “The Effect of Cow Udder Score on Subsequent Calf Performance in the Nebraska Sandhills”. Joslyn K. Beard, Jacki A. Musgrave, Rick N. Funston and J. Travis Mulliniks were collaborators on this research study and report.

Listen to a discussion of the content in this article on this episode of the BeefWatch podcast. You can subscribe to new episodes in iTunes or paste http://feeds.feedburner.com/unlbeefwatch into your podcast app.

Frequently, cows having poor udder conformation are culled from herds. Research has indicated that defects in teat shape and size may inhibit a calf’s ability to nurse, negatively impacting milk intake and calf gain. Other research findings have reported calves sucking dams with only one functional teat had similar growth and performance as compared to calves sucking dams with all functional teats. This study sought to evaluate the effect of beef cow udder score within March and May calving seasons on pre-and post-weaning calf performance.

Cow and calf performance data on 812 cows were collected from 2013 through 2017 at the Gudmundsen Sandhills Laboratory located near Whitman, Nebraska. Cow and subsequent calf performance data were gathered from 500 March-calving and 312 May-calving cows. Cows ranged in age at the time of calving from 2 to 11 years of age. Cows were given an udder score at calving on a 1 to 5 scale with 1 or 2 being bad and 3 or higher being good.  These scores were based off of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association Integrated Resource Management Guide standards for udder scoring, which is an udder and teat combined scoring system.

Each year at calving, udder scores were recorded from a 1 (bad) to 5 (good)as reported in the Integrated Resource Management Guide (National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, 2013). The udder score combines udder conformation and a teat score system. Cows were grouped by udder scores and classified as either BU (bad udder score 1 or 2, with 223 having this score) or GU (good udder score 3 or greater, with 1,742 having this score).

There were no interactions between udder score with calving season or year on calf performance; therefore, the main effect of udder score, calf weights, was reported. Calf birth weight, weaning weight and adjusted 205-day weight were not statistically different between progeny from cows that were identified with bad udders and cows that were identified as having good udders. Cows that were identified as having bad udders were on average older, averaging 5 years of age, as compared to cows with good udders, which averaged 4 years of age. As cows age, the udder’s suspensory ligament can deteriorate, resulting in more outward facing teats and increasing cows being classified as having bad udder conformation. Pregnancy rates were not different between the two groups of cows.

Steer calves from cows with bad udders and cows with good udders had similar feedlot entry body weight, final feedlot body weight, dry matter intake, average daily gain and feed to gain ratio. However, there was a difference in carcass performance. Steers that nursed cows with good udders had greater hot carcass weights and backfat at harvest than their counterparts from cows with bad udders. Although feedlot entry weight and final weight were similar, they were numerically greater for steers coming from cows with good udders, which may have increased hot carcass weights at harvest.

For this Red Angus X Simmental cross research herd in the Sandhills of Nebraska, udder score at the time of calving didn’t have a large impact on pre-weaning calf growth performance but did influence carcass weight at harvest. From a cowherd management perspective, this study would indicate that removing cows from the herd only for poor udder conformation may not always be justified. The cost of replacing a cow in the herd is a significant expense.  Managers need to evaluate how severe poor udder conformation is and the potential impact of that on labor and calf survival at birth in making cow culling decisions.

For photos on udder scoring and a link to an additional guide, visit this website.

 

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About the author

Aaron Berger is a Beef Systems Extension Educator for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He works out of the Panhandle Research and Extension Center. His areas of focus are beef systems for sustainability, profitability, health and well-being, quality and wholesomeness.

8 Comments

  1. Daniel Marvel says:

    Could there be a genetic relationship between poor udders and hot carcass wt? There was no data on how the two sets of steers graded. That may also have a genetic link. If there is a genetic link this would add more pressure to cull cows with poor udders.

  2. Rob Havard says:

    This is a classic example of when science goes wrong. Linear/reductionist methodology instead of holistic consideration in a complex situation

    While udder scores might not significantly affect calf performance – even if they only have 1 qtr left! – It does impact longevity and labour costs.

    Every lost qtr is more work – labour cost. This is huge – no-one needs to be stripping udders.

    Also it seems the study didn’t look at the age of the cow in relation to her udder structure. There is a huge difference in profitability between a cow whose udder lasts until she’s 8 and one that lasts until she’s 15 + Years old.

    The conclusion of this report – that you shouldn’t be culling poor udder confirmation – is just plain wrong.

    • Kathy Voth says:

      I don’t think they said you shouldn’t be culling poor udder confirmation. They gathered data, showed the results, and suggested that these results could be factored in when making decisions. This way a rancher can consider her individual operation and economics, the life expectancy of that cow, and how it all fits together with their needs to arrive at culling decisions. It’s kind of holistic.

  3. Mark C Muir says:

    Why would you keep cows with poor udders? Yes there maybe marginal weaning weights with steers when the weather is good, but during cold wet winter conditions I have seen poor growth rates of young calves sucking on teats that are too large easily fit into their small mouths. Udder and teat size is inherited, so keeping heifers from these cows either for your use or selling as replacements will impact your bottom line for years

    • Kathy Voth says:

      I think, in the case you’re describing, the authors of the study would agree with you. They didn’t cover using heifers from bad udder cows for replacements in the herd. What I got from this is, as with all things in farming and ranching, there’s a cost/benefit trade off. You could have cows with perfect udders, but at a certain cost. And that cost may not be justified given that performance of offspring was not dramatically different between good udder and bad udder cows. It also provided some insight into culling cows as they age and their udders change. Their bottom line… “Managers need to evaluate how severe poor udder conformation is and the potential impact of that on labor and calf survival at birth in making cow culling decisions.” They’ve simply provided information that might help with some of those decisions.

  4. Andy Lyon says:

    The big correlation between udder and traits of economic significance will be found I thing in bad udder = poor hormone function.

    The shape the udder takes for instance is controlled by hormones.

    This agrees with my personal experience and I have seen where Gerald Fry has come to the same conclusion.

    Also I think excessive protein in the cows diet too often also causes udder to fall earlier.

  5. MB says:

    It might be more helpful to have unadulterated pictures to identify poor udders. these vertically stretched pictures are misleading

    • Kathy Voth says:

      Hmmm….I checked the image on my iPad and on two other computers and it wasn’t vertically stretched on any of them. So I’m not sure how to solve this problem. I think it may be something at your end.

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