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Campbell looks at cow efficiency, conformation as important traits in herd development

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Lander – “American livestock producers are the most productive in the world,” said Steve Campbell, a rancher in Parma, Idaho. “We are also the least profitable.”

Campbell, owner of Tailor Made Cattle and Triangle C Beef, spoke at the 2014 LocalFest in Lander on Oct. 24. On a ranch, Campbell recommended using low-maintenance cows to increase efficiency and profit. 

“Cows can get more out of everything they eat when they have a healthy rumen,” Campbell said, “and they have to eat less as a percentage of their body weight for maintenance if the rumen is healthy. We have to buy supplements when we have inefficient cows, and it takes more grass to raise a calf.”

“An animal that is put together properly has a higher meat-to-bone ratio, the ability to put on more pounds with less feed, has more pounds of beef for the same butchering cost and finishes in a shorter period of time,” he continued.


Campbell said he believes the following are perfect body conformation. 

The rump length should equal 38 to 40 percent of body, or two-thirds of top line length, and the lengths of back and rump height should be the same. The neck of the cow should be half of body length, and the bull’s neck should be two to three inches shorter than its back. The measurement of the heart girth should equal the top line or greater. The flank of the cow should reach four or more inches greater than the top line, and the bull’s flank should equal its top line.

“We don’t want a real long animal because we will have a hard time getting a broad heart girth,” Campbell asserted. “The more flat the bottom line, the deeper the heart girth. A flat bottom line on a cow will cause it to eat less than a cow that has a slanted upward girth. For heart girth, the depth of the chest is the most important and the width of the shoulders is the next.”

Campbell added that the ideal animal is very difficult to find, noting, “Good cows are few and far between.”

He explained that for every inch of the heart girth, as measured behind the front leg, that is longer than the topline, 37 pounds of red meat is gained on a finished animal. The opposite is also true, meaning a shorter heart girth creates a loss of carcass value, Campbell said.

“Every two inches of additional heart girth will result in one less pound of feed to get a pound of gain,” Campbell commented. “In the North, we need a heart girth shaped like a big round letter ‘O,’ and a zero – an oval – in the south is necessary to dissipate heat.” 

Other proportions

Other ideal body measurements Campbell uses include are a large neck crest on a bull. 

He also believes the shoulders of a bull should be two inches or more wider than rump length at one year of age, and the cow’s shoulders should be the same width as rump length. The rump of cow should be two to five inches wider than rump length, and a bull’s rump width-to-height ratio should hit 46 percent or more. The cow’s rump width-to-height is ideally 42 percent or greater.

“We want wide shoulders on bulls and wide rumps on cows,” he emphasized. 

“The wider the top of the shoulders, the higher steak-to-hamburger ratio. The amount of hamburger on the animal doesn’t go down with wide shoulders, but the amount of steak goes up.” 

Evaluating conformation

Campbell’s tips for evaluating conformation without getting out the tape measure include several visual appraisal methods. 

The less height a cow or bull has from knees down, the better, he said. 

Structurally correct shoulders show elevated testosterone and estrogen, and narrow shoulders represent a high maintenance individual that gives a low return on any feed, grass or grain that is consumed. 

The front and rear toes pointed forward means the animal’s shoulders and hips are functionally wide enough for them. In this case, their back hoof will land in the same track as the front hoof. 

Calving ease

Campbell also encouraged producers to look for an “U” shaped brisket, an upside down “U” in the rear end, no chine or grow bone sticking up above the back and width between the front legs. 

“On the rump of a cow, if the bone is uplifted that means the animal had a copper deficiency when it was young,” Campbell said. “When the grow bone jumps up, the higher the calf has to come up to come out of the cow and the more calving difficulty you are going to have.”

 “We shouldn’t be looking for calving ease on the bull side,” Campbell continued. “It is all about the cow with a wide, long rump that slopes down.” 

He added, “I can feed in a calving problem just as well as I can breed in or out a calving problem. By selecting the right cow we can mitigate that a bit.”

Additional thoughts

Another important factor in an efficient cow is butterfat, which equates a genetic predisposition for an easy keeper. 

“The further forward that this adrenal hair whorl is in the shoulder and neck area, the more butterfat and more tender the meat will be,” Campbell said.

“Body condition is important,” Campbell said. “We’ve got to have fat for these animals to be able to get pregnant. No degree of desirable sex hormones can compensate for poor body condition in determining fertility. Either we can graze correctly, supplement or have an animal that naturally maintains condition and eats half of what another cow eats.”


Campbell added that producers shouldn’t cull on age only.

Cows that should never be sold are ones that always lay down first when out grazing, shed early in the spring showing good hormonal activity, calve in the first 21 days as they are highly fertile, have a calf in the top 25 percent and always breed back.

“We need to select functional cows,” Campbell said, “and we need to maximize the genetic potential and functionality of our herd when we breed. We can grow the finest grass in the world, but if we only have genetics without rumen development, we won’t be able to efficiently harvest that grass.”

He continued, “Selecting the proper phenotype gives us an animal with the ability to digest more and eat less. We’re trying to get an easy keeping cow.”

Bull characteristics

The average bull today only breeds 25 to 30 cows and leaves 10 to 15 percent of those cows open the first 45 days of breeding season, said Steve Campbell, a Parma, Idaho rancher. Highly fertile bulls get 80 percent of the cows pregnant the first 21 days of breeding and impregnate 50 to 60 cows. 

“When we started going to long, tall animals,” Campbell said, “we selected against fertility, so then we had to select for large testicles.”

Campbell explained that as the crest, bellowing, chest and bottom of the bull get darker, the more testosterone it has.

“If a bull fights so much it wears the hair off its poll, that is an indication of the bull’s fertility, as well,” he said. “A good bull is one who herds cows around and rides them, meaning he’ll have more libido later in life.

Other physical traits to watch for include a gash in the facial whorl, which means low-quality semen, and irregular-shaped testicles, which equals irregular-shaped udders and low fertility.


Campbell also noted that low maintenance cows require good glandular function and development of the rumen. These topics were covered in an article in the Nov. 8 edition of the Roundup. 

Melissa Hemken is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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