Calving season – Time to evaluate udder soundness

Cow-calf producers should consider udder soundness as an economically relevant trait translating to the life or death of a newborn calf. The simple process of taking udder scores will improve overall udder soundness in your cow herd.

For the beef cow, udder quality and soundness usually get lumped in a category called convenience traits, along with others including temperament and feed and leg soundness. While all of these traits have the potential for economic impact to a cow’s productivity, at calving time poor udder quality may translate to life and death of a newborn calf.

Calves that have a difficult time nursing and do not receive adequate colostrum may, at worse, not survive and at best have a higher incidence of scours and decreased immunity levels. Ultimately performance is affected which translates into reduced pounds at weaning and reduced profitability of the cow overall. The impact on performance, on top of the labor costs that can be occurred managing those cows that need help getting a calf to nurse should be considered as additional incentive to include this process in your calving rituals.

Udder scoring at calving is a tool that, while more widespread in the dairy industry, has been shown to improve udder quality in beef females. Research has shown that udder quality is moderately heritable. Which means that over time improvement can be made with selection for this trait.

The Beef Improvement Federation (BIF) adopted an udder scoring system which provides a tool for both commercial and seedstock producers to score both teat size and suspension on a scale of 1 – 9 with a 9 being ideal. Scoring cows within 24-48 hours of calving is the recommended time for evaluating these females.

Where do the most problems commonly lie? Canadian research shows that cows with more desirable teat scores had calves that nursed sooner after birth. Larger teat circumference usually caused more problems than teat length. Short to medium length teats are preferred over long teats. Oversized teats that did not get milked out had a higher incidence of mastitis.

Udder suspension is equally important to udder soundness. Udders that are well attached are less susceptible to injury than the very pendulous poorly attached udders. As well, udders with poor suspension are more susceptible to contamination from fecal material or mud.

Pigmentation is not a factor in the udder scoring system, however should be a consideration for cow-calf producers. A darker pigmented udder will be protected from sunburn or reflection of sunlight from snow.

One other tool that can be used in sire selection for the udder soundness component is the American Gelbvieh Association’s stayability EPD. While many factors are included in this EPD, udder soundness can be attributed to a female’s ability to still be in the herd at age six. Sires with higher stayability can be assumed to have average or better udder quality.

It can be said that cows with poor udders are definitely not convenient when it comes to calving in the cold days of late January and February. As such an evaluation of udder soundness throughout the cow herd may prove to be a sound practice to help insure less calving and calf survival challenges in the future.

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