Are Today’s Holstein Cows Too Tall?


While attending a local monthly dairy cow sale this week I was approached by a young dairyman who said to me You need to write (in the Bullvine) about our dairy cows getting too tall and too narrow. This dairyman in explaining his position, that today’s cows are too extreme in stature and width, shared with me that he sees all the cows going through this monthly sale as he helps receive, pen, number and milk the cows as they are received the morning of the sale or a day or two previous to the sale. As I drove home from the sale I pondered his question.

My first recollection of thinking about the width of cows goes back to my 4H training. My three dedicated 4H leaders were three very different people. One was an educator, one a very successful farmer-milk producer and one a prominent show judge who had judged national shows in a number of breeds. The educator did not care about what a cow looked like, but did care about preparing me for life. The milk producer wanted his cows to be good converts of his high quality feed into large volumes of 4% fat milk. And the show judge wanted Holstein cows to be taller but was satisfied with the stature of the cows in the other dairy breeds. Each leader helped me in different ways and I think back now to the trend, that started half a century ago, to taller and taller Holsteins. That trend may not have had much science associated with it.

As I drove on Tuesday, my mind fast forwarded to my early days in managing Holstein Canada’s Type Classification program. (Read more: Murray Hunt: Perspective from Both Sides of the Fence) There was a requirement that a cow had to be 56 inches tall to be eligible for Excellent. By the way she also had to have calved at least three times and have an Excellent mammary system. Annually the classifiers and breeder advisory board meet and the first meeting I attended of that group discussed why Excellent cows needed to be 56 inches (140 cm) tall.  The discussion came around to a well known show cow that was excellent in every way but she only stood 55 inches at the hip. You can well imagine the points put forward. “Holsteins need to be taller so their udders clear the ground more so you can get a milking machine under her properly”. All the way to ”if she’s good enough then stature should not matter”. In the end those saying Holstein cows needed to be taller won out.

Over the past forty years I have watched the Holstein breed as heifers and cows increased in stature to the point where first lactation cows in the show ring need to be over 62 inches in stature to place at the top of the class. But with that added 8 to 10 inches in stature comes calves that are larger at birth, animals that are narrower between their front legs and first lactation cows that appear to have less width to their rump and birth channel.  Oh, yes today’s first lactation cows are capable of producing much more milk out of much wider and more tightly attached udders. The question is has the pendulum swung too far to the side of Holsteins being too tall and lacking width of body and width of rump?

Judge Michael Heath (Right) and associate David Dyment (Left)

Judge Michael Heath (Right) and associate David Dyment (Left) at the 2012 World Dairy Expo

The matter of width and stature in Holsteins was on my mind, last year, as I watched Michael Heath judge the Holsteins at World Dairy Expo (Read more: World Dairy Expo 2012 Holstein Show – A Battle for the Ages) and Callum McKinven judge the Holsteins at the Royal. Both judges (Read more: The 2012 Royal Winter Fair Holstein Show – One of the greatest stories ever told), in my opinion, placed less emphasis on stature than judges in the past have done. Both emphasised the cows that were closest to the ideal cow. Finding the tallest animals and placing them first was not their guiding force. Interesting to me is the fact that both Michael and Callum also breed and judge Jerseys that are a foot shorter in height than Holsteins but the milking machines easily attach and milk Jerseys. Which may beg the question “if Holsteins were the same size as Jerseys would that be okay?”.

Judge Callum McKinven and associate Bruce Mode discuss a tough placing

Judge Callum McKinven and associate Bruce Mode discuss a tough placing at the 2012 Royal Winter Fair

This brought my mind to thinking about Don Bennink’s (Read more: North Florida Holsteins: Aggressive, Progressive and Profitable) comment that show Jerseys can go to shows and go home to frees stall barns and do just fine yet today’s show Holsteins cannot. Is Don right? Do we need to get off the tall Holsteins bandwagon and have cows that have body mass and an ability to function in large group housing?

The Bullvine Bottom Line

The conformation scorecard for dairy cows placed 70% of the points on udders and feet and legs. With less than approximately 12-15% of the emphasis on body size why do we need mature Holstein cows that are over 60 inches at the hips? Too tall or too narrow, why don’t we let form follow function and let the cow that returns the most lifetime profit be our ideal?

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