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What is the Best Cow?

The best cow I ever bought was a real beauty. Her name was Miss Unaweep Rafter 145, and she came with some fancy registration papers and a bull calf at her side that my mother thought could be our next herd sire. I know old Unaweep was a good cow. She must have been – I paid $1,700 for her! Those were 1971 dollars (the equivalent of $10,976.28 today) and represented the majority of my cattle account. That calf did grow up to be a fine bull, but I wound up shooting that cow only three years later as she was suffering from some kind of cancer.

Since that time, I’ve heard plenty of theories about how to judge the value of cows, or how to pick the best one out of the herd. At the fairs and the shows, I’ve watched fellas choose Grand Champion females that I suspect would fall apart in no time if you hid the grain bucket. At the auction, I see people choose to pay just that dangedest amount of money for one particular cow or another, and these judgements are so shrouded in mystery that I could not, not for one moment, take a guess as to what they are thinking or what they are measuring or what calculations are occurring.

In the trade magazines and the slick catalogues there are all kind of helpful suggestions to help folks discern value: weaning weights, yearling weights, adult weights, height and length, color and of course, the ever-helpful EPDs (Expected Progeny Differences). Frankly, when it comes to judging a cow’s value, I don’t have much faith in any of those things, and I don’t think you should either.

I think cows should be judged by performance, and I’m not talking about blue ribbons. I mean economic performance.

First things first – What do you want a cow to do?

Personally, I want a cow to exist here with not-much-more than average care, not cause too much trouble, and produce a good calf for sale next fall.

What is a good calf?

A few decades back some of the breed associations and Universities began producing record-keeping tools that were proposed to help ranchers determine just how well their cows were doing, and how well the ranchers were managing things. These allowed ranchers to individually record cow identification, calf ID, birth date, birth weight, sex, calving ease, etc. At the risk of irritating some folks, I should tell you that I am skeptical that any of that data will help you determine whether a calf is “good” or not. A good calf is a function of a good cow doing good work.

Most of the characteristics and data collected above are completely outside of the cow’s ability to influence. That aside, I do believe there are a couple of things cow people should pay attention to.

A cow’s “goodness” should be judged by the value of her calf.

Calf value is a function of many things, but good managers have a pretty fair idea of the comparative value of the calves they produce. Not comparative value against other herds, but within your herd. Here’s why: a herd in Florida has completely different conditions and limitations than a herd in my neighborhood. Closer to home, if my next door neighbor uses elephantine genetics, feeds grain to those monsters, creep feeds the calves, well, I guess I might conclude that his outcome had better be different from mine. And really, the two programs are so estranged that they are unrelatable.

Performance and production

If your herd is much bigger than just a handful cows, you should be able to visually sort your calves into several groups based on the value each calf represents. And that value can then be applied to (blamed on) his mother. Here are some value categories to consider using:

Missing Calves
Cows that do not bring you a calf to sell receive a value score of ZERO. Don’t think about it, just sell them for salvage.

Terrible Calves
Calves that are hardly salable, as no one wants them. (I wrote about what makes a “terrible calf” in a recent article on raising cattle to fit our markets.)  In most herds, this will be limited to 1 or 2 or 3 percent. Maybe even up to ten percent, although I can’t see how anyone could stand to live like that. The cows that produce these calves receive a value score of ONE. If you sell these cows annually, you will soon have very few terrible calves. These cows are probably costing you money anyway.

Photo courtesy of USDA ARS.

Good and Great Calves
The cows that produce the vast majority of your calves are probably doing a good enough job to suggest keeping them in the herd. I’d give them all a value score of TEN. Unless you are going to just start over with all new cows, these are the genetics you have to work with. Get to work on the things you can change.

I’m sure some people will argue that this is completely subjective, as it doesn’t take the age of the calf, or the genetics of the cow or any of a million other things into account. I would argue that in fact it is completely objective. For instance, if a calf is born 3 or 4 months into the season and winds up looking like a runt, well, blame his mother. Fair? Maybe, maybe not. But the chance of that cow advancing to the first heat period is probably zero. And there are reasons for that. Sell her for salvage. Got a whole family of cows that have some congenital genetic trait that makes them have piss-poor calves? Well, whose fault is that? Sell them. Sounds too harsh? Sounds objective to me.

I’d be interested in your thoughts on what makes a good cow for your operation.

In the meantime, happy grazing!

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John Marble
John Marble
John Marble grew up on a terribly conventional ranch with a large family where each kid had their own tractor. Surviving that, he now owns a small grazing and marketing operation that focuses on producing value through managed grazing. He oversees a diverse ranching operation, renting and owning cattle and grasslands while managing timber, wildlife habitat and human relationships. His multi-species approach includes meat goats, pointing dogs and barn cats. He has a life-long interest in ecology, trying to understand how plants, animals, soils and humans fit together. John spends his late-night hours working on fiction, writing about worlds much less strange than this one.


  1. I heartily agree with this article. After reading temple grandin and others, I have come to believe what is missing from the replacement market is artificial selection that mimics natural selection. We should be saving the cows that perform best under tough conditions, and quit doctoring over genetic problems. We should cull like lions.

    • Hi Rob.

      I guess you might be right: pretty simple. But apparently, not very easy. I think people get all balled up because if they actually cull those bad cows, then they’ll have to keep more heifers, and if they keep more heifers, they’ll have to have more bulls and then and then and then…

      Mostly, people have to want to make progress.

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