September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.
According to Dr. Paul Dettloff, staff veterinarian for CROPP Cooperative, and Steve Campbell, of Triangle C Consulting and Triangle C Ranch in Idaho, the hair coat can tell a lot about a bovine, and learning to read these signs can help producers select for a more productive and potentially profitable herd.
Dettloff and Campbell each spoke on this topic during their respective seminars, "Reading the Hair of the Bovine: Predicting Fertility, Performance and Health" and "Selecting Dairy and Beef Cattle for Functional Efficiency," during the 2012 Minnesota Organic Conference, Jan. 13-14 in St. Cloud, Minn.
Swirls, whorls and cowlicks
Bovines have three external hair swirls - also known as whorls - that indicate good health, or, as Campbell said, good glandular function. These swirls include the Pancreatic Swirl, the Thymic Swirl and the Adrenal Swirl.
"When you see these swirls in the hair, you've got a very well mineralized animal that's going to reproduce ...," Dettloff said.
The swirls, he said, are pronounced by two things: pasture and kelp.
The Pancreatic Swirl, which indicates good reproductive efficiency, is located on the lower body of a cow, extending in front of the udder. Typically, this swirl will appear when a cow is around four months pregnant and will grow with pregnancy.
The Thymic Swirl is located on the neck of a bovine, running from the lower jugular furrow upward. The hair in this swirl is finer than the surrounding hair and lays forward and up, opposite of the surrounding hair. This swirl is an indicator of a healthy immune system.
The Adrenal Swirl is the most difficult to see. It is located in the tenderloin area, at the top of the ribs behind the shoulder blades. Like the Thymic Swirl, the hair in this region will be finer, laying in the opposite direction and may be a lighter shade than the surrounding hair. This swirl, Dettloff said, shows that the endocrine system is working properly.
In addition to the three primary swirls, cows also have a top line cowlick. This cowlick is typically - and ideally - located along the top line between the shoulder blades or forward. It can, however, be located further down the back. The placement and the hairs in the cowlick indicate several things.
"The further forward it (the cowlick) is, the more butterfat the cow will have," Campbell said.
The cowlick also indicates estrogen levels. One that stands straight up means the cow is cycling, with high estrogen levels. Virgin heifers, Dettloff said, often have cowlicks that stand straight up when they start cycling and are ready to breed. The cowlick may also stand straight up if there are reproductive problems.
"If she's cystic, the cowlick will stand up like a rooster tail," Dettloff said.
Once a cow is pregnant, the cowlick should slick down by around three months. This slicked-down strip will extend down the back to the hooks by the time a cow is seven months pregnant, Campbell said.
The rear view
A look at the back end of a cow can provide several other indicators of a cow's potential production. Butterfly udder swirls appear on the back of the rear quarters of a cow. Typically only seen on two or four cows within a 50-cow herd, these swirls are a sign very high milk protein production. A good producing cow should have an udder with fine, upward-growing, downy hair. Low producers or cows that do not calve regularly have hairy and atrophic udders, Campbell said.
One visible marking that will appear in all bovines - male and female - is the escutcheon, which runs from below the vulva to the top of the udder and from the udder to the navel. Like other hair swirls, the hair in the escutcheon area is shorter, finer and softer than the surrounding hair. The vulva itself should be big, fleshy and hairless, Dettloff said.
"That is a huge sign of fertility," he said.
The escutcheon area can be broken into two parts: the handle and the spade or shield. For the handle, the longer and wider it is, the more milk a cow will give and the longer she will stay in production, Campbell said. The spade indicates butterfat. The wider and taller it is, the more milk and butterfat she will give. High butterfat cows will also produce a yellow, flaky dander found on the skin of the tail and the inner rear thighs.
Escutcheons are present from birth, which can be a useful tool when selecting young animals to keep within a herd. However, Dettloff recommended waiting until a calf is six to eight weeks old before trying to read it.
"If you want to know how much milk [a cow] will give on the day she is born, her escutcheon will tell you," Campbell said.
Escutcheons are also good tools to use when selecting bulls, as these traits will transmit to their offspring, Dettloff said.
Happy lines = happy cows
In grazing cattle especially, lines may appear in the mid-thoracic region. These are known as happy lines and are the sign of a healthy animal on a high-forage diet, Dettloff said. What these lines are, he said, are deposits of volatile fatty acids, high in acetic and propionic acid, with little butyric acid.
A look at bulls
"I want everyone to get the idea that you don't have to go somewhere else to get a bull. The bull that's going to do the best on your place is actually one that you can produce yourself," Campbell said.
There are several key traits to look for when selecting a herd bull, and the first place to look, Dettloff said, is the head. Fertile bulls will have coarse and wavy or curly hair that lies down on the top of the poll, as well as coarse, curly hair on the neck and tail. Fine, straight hair or hair that stands straight up on the poll signifies infertility in a bull.
The scrotum of a bull should have fine, downy hair, not long, coarse hair. It should also be rounded on the bottom, with no V-shape in between, as offspring of these bulls will have a weak suspensory ligament. Teats should be placed ahead of the scrotum, not on it or near the base. Bulls with teats on the scrotum will not produce a nice-uddered cow, Dettloff said.
Looking at the body of a bull, a fertile bull will be sleek and lively, Campbell said. The presence of a hump on the neck and withers and darker hair in the upper regions of the neck and lower regions of the body also indicate high fertility. If the bull has horns, the base should be a creamy rose color. White bands at or near the base mean a period of infertility.
When it comes to selecting cattle for functional efficiency, the bovine hair coat says a lot.
"It's all in reading the hair," Dettloff said.[[In-content Ad]]
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