Selecting cattle for breeding

When choosing cattle for breeding, look out for positive traits that will be passed on to the offspring. And avoid negative traits.

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Breed societies have a range of characteristics to look for when selecting cattle for breeding. But these and other records aren’t always accessible to emerging farmers.

Therefore, as the Agricultural Research Council (ARC’s) Animal Production Institute notes, visual appraisal – examining the animal yourself – is the main “selection aid” used by emerging farmers.

There are two kinds of characteristics to look for – positive ones, and those undesirable ones that show the cow or bull isn’t going to be a good buy.

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This is a good example of an Afrikaner bull with no visible defects. Take note of the breed’s slightly sloping rump – a desirable trait. Photo by Wayne Southwood

An undesirable sign here is laminitis, a very serious hoof disease. The gene that makes an animal prone to laminitis can be passed on from generation to generation. This means the offspring are also likely to get it.

Black and amber hooves are harder and less prone to hoof problems than white hooves.

With certain cattle, the toes grow toward each other, or the hooves open up between the toes. This is also undesirable.
Depth of heel is also important. If depth of heel isn’t present, the animal’s weight rests on the hind part of the hoof and outgrowth occurs more easily.

A slightly sloping rump is a positive trait that makes for easier calving. The rump is the section between the hip and the tail. The thurls – hip joints – must be well below the line between the hip and pin-bones (hipbones).

Back legs
The hock is the animal’s ankle. In humans, the ankle is just above the foot – in cattle the hock is much higher. If the hock is too straight, cattle can’t walk long distances. Bulls with straight hocks also have difficulty when mounting cows.
Although a sickle, (or bent), hock is better than a straight hock, you don’t want a hock that’s too bent.

This is the section between the hoof and dewclaw – the “claw” or “toe” that doesn’t touch the ground. Pasterns that are too soft are undesirable, as extra weight is placed on the hoof, causing wearing of the heel and outgrowth of the hooves, especially in sandy soils.


Beware of “pigeon-toed” animals, where the knees tend to move outward, or “knock knees”, where the legs move outward, making movement more difficult.

Wry tail
This is a negative trait, where the tail is twisted to one side at the tail head (where the tail joins the body). “These animals should be culled, as the next stage is an open spinal cord, which is lethal,” warns the ARC.


Docile cattle are easy to work with and temperament can be passed on to offspring.

Source: Beef Cattle Management, ARC-Animal Production Institute.

This artticle was originally published in the 29 July issue of Farmers Weekly.