Genetic Selection for Udder Quality
By Patrick Wall
Throughout my travels with ASA over a 4-year period, I looked at thousands of cows in all stages of production. One thing rang true nationwide; there’s a wide range in udder quality within the Shorthorn breed, and an even wider range of opinions on what a good udder should look like. Regardless of your viewpoint, improvement in the trait needs to occur across the entire beef industry, and progress may be easier than you think.
The American Hereford Association piloted a project to improve udder quality through two new EPDs for udder suspension and teat size. Other breeds (Gelbvieh, Limousin, Red Angus, etc.) have followed suit. Though collection of the trait has challenges, the extra attention paid to udder quality at calving time by documenting a subjective score inherently pushes producers to improve the trait. The scores are very simple; 9 is ideal and 1 is very undesirable. Scores for both teat size and udder suspension should be written down within 24 hours of calving, a notable challenge for some larger operations calving in open range environments. Like all other aspects of data collection, consistency is the key to developing reliable EPDs because the relative differences within a herd drive the numbers. As long as the same person scores all the cows within a contemporary group, consistency should be achieved. However, in this case, the raw data has real meaning to the producer in making important breeding decisions.
As with any other trait, over-selection could be problematic; a herd full of 9-9 udder scores might not have enough milk for some operations. However, it is important to note that the size of the udder does not always mean more milk in beef cows. A balloon-teat udder that drags in the manure and mud (Scores like 1-1, 2-1, 1-3) causes far more headaches and financial strain to the beef business. As you might imagine, a cow’s udder score will likely change over time as the udder breaks down and loses elasticity. Your ideal 6 year-old breed matron have a 6-8 or 7-7 udder score. Continuous collection of the trait over time will give us a better picture of longevity and eventual profitability of the trait. More importantly, it will be a tremendous tool to refer back to when selecting replacement heifers; daughters of poor uddered cows should not be kept OR sold for breeding stock. Likewise, your herd sire prospects should have good uddered dams; ask to see the mother before you purchase your next herd sire.
The American Shorthorn Association will be launching the collection of udder scores in 2016. In the meantime, simply add two columns to your calving book, study the scoring system, and report the scores to the ASA along with Calving Ease and Birth Weights when you register the next calf crop.