The Cattleman’s Corner: Cattle Need More Flex

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Cattle Drive. Photo By max voran / Shutterstock

By Austin Snedden, Ranching Contributor, Valley Ag Voice

From a plane window, thirty thousand feet above the ground, one can take in a lot of the countryside on the ground below. Meandering watersheds, mountain ranges, bodies of water. Chances are if you look down and see a straight line, you are looking at something man made. A road, a power line, a canal. God didn’t make many things in straight lines, but humans really like straight lines. We see the same thing happen in cattle breeding; the human eye tends to select the animals that have straight lines. Have cattle structures lost their flex purely based on the visual preference of humans?

When we look at some of the most athletic creatures in nature like the cheetah and the tiger, we see the swooped back and the prominent scapula. Cattle have gotten increasingly straight, top lines, hocks, stifle, pasterns, and knees. This is not a new phenomenon. When beef animal selection began getting serious over one hundred years ago, selection criteria was shifting from dairy and dual-purpose breeding to specifically meat production. The goal of producing more meat per animal spawned, the human preference for a big beef box on straight legs that resembled posts. The shape of that “beef box” has changed over the years based on fads, primarily driven by livestock shows. Around the turn of the twentieth century the “beef box” looked like a massive box set on a fine-boned, twiggy posts. (Many show steers in that era were shown until about 5 years of age and weighed in excess of 2,000 lbs.) In the mid-century the fad produced boxes that were very diminutive in height. A large body set on medium boned, extremely short posts. The 1980s saw boxes that were more like rectangles and sat very high off the ground with a lot of air underneath on long big boned posts. The shape and size of the box has changed, but the selection for straight lines has always been prevalent.

“A strong top” is what show judges and others would say about an animal with an absolutely straight top line from a horizontal view. Probably eight out of ten people would say, “well you want an animal with a straight top line.” If you ask them why, they may not have a ready answer for you, or they may say that some expert taught them that. There may be the impression out there that the straight top line indicates strength in the back. From my observation of cattle and nature, I believe the exact opposite to be true. Breeding for straight backs in halter horses led to a class of horses that is functionally unsound for anything other than standing. I am in no way advocating for an extreme sway backed animal, but an animal with flexion will always stand and travel more comfortably than that of a straight-backed animal. Short strides and inability to cover its track are usually synonymous with the straight topped animal. The bovine sitting on its haunches with its front end propped up on extended legs, because of a sore back, will almost always have a straight top line. If the high-top line is giving you the illusion that the rib steaks are bigger, have no fear, those steaks stay with the rib whether up or down, rather you should look at the width of the back for that observation. Bulls will have more flex in their spines than steers, and steers will have more flex than cows.

A comfortable top line is always dependent on proper shoulder and pelvic attachment. The “box and post” style breeding has led to straight shoulders, stifles, hocks, and pasterns. Shoulders are probably the most important as the bovine carries more than 50% of its weight on the front legs and even higher percentage for bulls. The forward slung straighter angled shoulders have become prevalent, resulting in front legs that are not placed comfortably under the bulk of the chest. These forward slung shoulders can be observed when looking across the chest from forearm to forearm and not seeing any brisket forward of the forearms (I am not referring to a fatty brisket). Someone started the idea that the scapula should not extend above the top line, this has resulted in cattle with a stride where the front foot is picked up just as the front leg passes the vertical position. Like a cheetah or a tiger, a prominent scapula allows the front leg and shoulder to have a wide range of motion front to back, allowing for long strides and an animal that can fill its tracks.

The relaxed spine with flexion does not have to result in a high tail head. Proper pelvic attachment with a slight downward slope from hooks to pins not only possibly helps with calving and cleaning up after calving but places the hip in a proper position to set up a functional stifle angle. Over the years, folks have given up some stifle angle to add some appearance of added volume in the twist, this has proven to be a bad development for functionality and longevity. Instead, we should possibly be focusing on depth or rather length of hip, the distance from front of the stifle to the back of the hindquarter.

Possibly the place where the bovine has lost the most flex over the years is in the pastern. Some breeds of cattle are worse than others when it comes to straight or nearly non-existent pasterns, but almost all the beef breeds are seeing a significant shortcoming in pastern flex. It is common for calves to have underdeveloped pasterns, or suspension of the pastern that keeps it very straight under the weight of a light calf. I am seeing more and more larger cattle around that have achieved a weight and skeletal development level where they should be settling into their pasterns more, and yet they still come to the ground straight and often catch before popping into flexion. In some instances, there are cattle that remain completely vertical on the pastern and occasionally buckle forward. I have seen instances of over flexion of pasterns, but that is a rare exception in modern cattle. My estimation of how people bred for this is that they were trying to compensate for toe growth. Cattle were selected that put more weight on the toe resulting in natural abrasion keeping toes from getting long, the physiology that allowed for this was a vertical or almost non-existent pastern, which delivers weight farther forward on the foot. The unfortunate result is stiff traveling cattle.

Are these observations without importance? If you run your cows in small pastures with ample feed nearby, these probably aren’t of great importance. If you run your cows in big country with limited feed resources, these are very important. In big country there is a correlation between free moving cattle and foraging ability, which then correlates to body condition score. This is followed by a correlation to conception, and finally, there is a direct correlation between conception and profit.