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Does the show ring matter in the cow pasture?Does the show ring matter in the cow pasture?

The show ring can be fun and exciting, but does it have any value beyond ribbons, trophies and bragging rights? Yes.

Burt Rutherford

February 25, 2019

6 Min Read

“We’ve become very efficient about making the cow herd more efficient; building the end product and doing a great job from that standpoint with some of the EPDs we’ve had. But like anything, we can go too far. And having a balance of phenotypic appraisal and a balance of genetic selection and emphasis is where we need to be as a whole.”

Good advice, that. But would you be surprised knowing it came from one of the country’s most highly respected show cattle judges? Maybe. How about hearing it come from the director of breed improvements from one of the nation’s largest beef breed registries? Probably not.

But you may be very surprised knowing that it came from a person who is both of those. Shane Bedwell, cattle judge, judging team coach and director of breed improvement for the American Hereford Association was one of the featured speakers at the Cattlemen’s College, a part of the Cattle Industry Convention in Nashville, Tenn.

Bedwell gave the cattlemen in attendance a basic course in judging to start off, reminding them that as you look at the top of the shoulder coming down to the point of the shoulder, that should be sloped at 45 degrees, or close to it. “From the point of the shoulder to the elbow or top of the knee, that should be at 45 degrees. Where we find problems is where we take this middle part at the point of the shoulder and we move it back closer to the midpoint of the body and cause a straight line up and down.”

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That creates an angle that gets closer to 90 degrees. “Those animals are too straight in their front end. They lose mobility. What’s going to happen to the front toes? They’re going to grind down because they’re not wearing correctly. And so we have some issues from a foot standpoint.”

Looking at the hind quarters, it’s the same thing, he says. “And this one we maybe don’t talk about as much, but I think it’s just as important as the front end, particularly as you go out to select those breeding bulls to make an impact in your herd, those females you want to create some longevity with at cull and keep time.”

So, from the top of the pin bone coming down into the stifle joint, again you want to look for that 45 degree angle. And just as importantly, the 45 degree angle from this point down into the hock. “We need that extra give, that extra angle to create that reaching step, that extra flexibility to reach out and cover their stride and fill that track.”

The last point is a strong topline. “And I’m not just talking about showring aesthetics where we want to pick a show animal. I give you this because over the years trying to train teams, teaching these angles, it’s fine and dandy to talk about it on the screen, but to actually see it, it’s hard.”

Two things he found are helpful if you’re just trying to determine if your animals are correct in their structure is to look at the topline and the head. “And I’m not necessarily saying they have to be perfect in their topline, but when animals are too straight in their shoulder, they’re going to roach up in their back a lot of times. Or there will be some deviations in their back.”

In addition, an animal will drop its head if it’s too straight in the front end because it’s physically hard and a little more painful to get their neck and head above the top of their shoulder. “So as you look at an animal travel and walk, look for a consistent topline versus one that doesn’t bow up and roach up. A little bit of dip, a little bit of weakness is OK. I have seen very few animals that are weak in their topline that are straight runners. That usually doesn’t go together,” he says.

“The other thing I look at if I’m trying to figure out if this animal is a little too straight running, are their hocks not quite right? Look at how they fill their track. So the back legs should go where the front foot made an indention in the soil. So if their topline is messed up, if they’re missing their track, there’s probably a structural problem in the hock, the hind leg or the front end.”slides-for-Does-the-show-ring-matter-in-the-cow-pasture-002-1.png

Show judges look for the correct angles in both the front and rear ends. This structure is equally important in the pasture, and perhaps more so. That’s because an animal with the correct overall structure will travel better and be less prone to lameness.  Illustration courtesy of Shane Bedwell

Bedwell posed this question to the audience: “If you had to pick two heifers in the pen, one was post-legged and one was sickle-hocked, which one would you pick?”

The correct answer is sickle-hocked. “We’d definitely prefer that extra leg set, that extra reach to the hind leg. Aesthetically, maybe not as correct or what is ideal, but functionally, long-term speaking, you’re going to get a lot more good out of those females.”

If you’re still not sure, look at the dew claws. “If the dew claws are pointing back at you, you’re OK. If the dew claws are pointing out, you’ve probably got a hock problem of being too bow-legged. If the dew claws are pointing in, you’re probably a little cow-hocked.”


An animal with correct front-end structure can cover the pasture better and move out with enough flexibility to maintain itself all day. An animal with a poor front end may not be as efficient, simply because it can’t move as well and graze as effectively.

So, which one of those structural imperfections would you rather have, bow-legged or hocking in? “Hocking in, definitely. Being a little cow-hocked, functionally long term, longevity, there are a lot of cows out their like that. Maybe not ideal, but a lot better than the bow-legged animal because they’re going to put too much pressure on the outside of their hoof wall. That hoof wall is going to grind down, the outside toe is going to get small, the inside toes are going to grow and we’ve got some serious issues.”

When selecting young bulls, he suggests to look at heel depth. There’s a problem if the heel line is on the ground. “There’s not enough depth of heel. Sometimes we can get these animals too weak in their pastern. We would prefer some flex in that pastern versus something that’s too tight and restricted. But if there’s not enough depth of heel and strength in the pastern, what happens to this foot? It starts to grow out and then we have some long-term problems,” he says.

What you want to stay away from is an animal that’s too straight up and down. It’s easy to see, in extreme cases, where the name came from, he says because the front legs look just like a post sticking out of the ground. “Too straight in the hock and what is it doing to the foot? That foot is not setting correctly on the surface. It’s too up and down, it’s grinding down the foot. This animal would definitely miss its stride, not fill it’s track. From a flexibility standpoint, from a breeding standpoint, these animals that are too post-legged have some serious issues.”

About the Author(s)

Burt Rutherford

Senior Editor, BEEF Magazine

Burt Rutherford is director of content and senior editor of BEEF. He has nearly 40 years’ experience communicating about the beef industry. A Colorado native and graduate of Colorado State University with a degree in agricultural journalism, he now works from his home base in Colorado. He worked as communications director for the North American Limousin Foundation and editor of the Western Livestock Journal before spending 21 years as communications director for the Texas Cattle Feeders Association. He works to keep BEEF readers informed of trends and production practices to bolster the bottom line.

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