Cattle judging

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Cattle judging is the process of judging a series of cattle and pronouncing a first-, second- and third-place animal based on each animal's individual traits compared to that of the others. Most cattle judging occurs in show rings at agricultural shows.

Judgments on cattle are ultimately based on which animal is worth the most profit.

There are many fine points to cattle judging. In a beef animal, for example, it is desirable to have a large animal with muscle development. In a dairy cow, however, the judge would look for characteristics that would help to produce the best possible milk. When judging cattle, there is an overjudge, who looks at all of the cattle and puts them in order of ‘best’ animal to ‘worst’ animal.

Judging Red Poll heifers


Assessment of cattle quality is a practice that has existed for many thousands of years. Although in modern times the judging of cattle usually occurs in a show ring, in both the past and present judging is also a guide to purchasing animals. When purchasing an animal, a buyer judges the animal/s just as a judge would in a show.

Judging cattle[edit]

Preparing stud beef cattle for agricultural show competitions.

Every judge has their own system, though there is now a push for a standardized points system. Usually, this system starts at the head and goes all the way through to the tail, looking at finer points along the way. Sometimes at agricultural shows there are junior judging competitions. These competitions are created solely for the purpose of giving youth a chance to judge in a competition. The competitors then can go on to talk to the overjudge of the event about why they placed these cows in the order they did. When the competitors are judging, the overjudge is judging them, and the competitors get points on the systems they use in the ring. These systems are usually the system an overjudge uses when they are judging beef cattle.

Beef cattle criteria[edit]

When judging beef cattle, the judge looks for

  • A good head carriage- how the head is held on the cow. This also has a lot to do with the neck on the cow—the neck should be broad, sit evenly on the shoulders, and the base must be in line with the spine.
  • A long body is also desirable to the judge, as this means that the cow will hold much more meat than a cow with a shorter body.
  • The cow must also have strong, sturdy legs that show no signs of cow-hock, bow-leg, or sickle-hock. If the cow has any of these structural problems, there could be a risk of permanent injury. They must also be well muscled, and everything must be as large as possible, but all limbs must still remain in proportion to the size of the body.
  • As much muscle as possible in order to maximize the profit to the farmer. However, as a beef cow is much heavier than a dairy cow and puts much more weight on the hooves, it is very important that there are no signs of irregular wearing of hooves, as this may be a sign of structural problems in the leg.

The head[edit]

On cows, the judge usually cannot check their teeth without using a head bail, as cattle are sensitive around the mouth area. When checking their teeth, the teeth must sit evenly – if the cow has overshot or undershot teeth (much like an overbite or an underbite) then this could cause problems for the cow later. These may include soreness in the mouth, and the cow will not be able to eat as well, and will therefore not be as muscled.

Since the teeth in a cow can't be checked, the judge must look for other symptoms in the jaw. The judge usually goes through the following system:

  • They check that the muzzle is as broad as possible, but still in proportion.
  • They then stand a bit further back and look at the entire head. The judge is looking for proportion in the head and whether it 'matches' the rest of the body.

When looking at the head of a cow, most judges believe that it is not necessary to look at the ears. Some breeds may have big ears, some may have small ears, but that will have no effect on the meat produced by the cow.

When looking at the head, there are a few key things that the judges are looking for. One of the main things the judge looks for when judging any animal is the structure. In most animals, if one joint is set incorrectly, there is a good chance that others are also set incorrectly. The judges must check that the head is in proportion to the rest of the body. It should also be held naturally high- if the head is set naturally below the shoulders of the cow, there is a likely chance that there is something structurally incorrect there, and also there may be some other structure faults throughout the rest of the body. However, the head shouldn't be held too high- this can suggest some aggressive and bold nature in the cow. However, this will also have no effect on the quality of meat produced, and in most competitions it would not matter if a cow was more active than other cows, provided that it wasn't causing harm to other people and their livestock. If the cow is causing excessive damage, the judge will have to ask for that cow to leave the ring, and the cow would be promptly disqualified from the event.


The term 'topline' refers to the back of the cow being judged in the showring. On a cow, it should be straight, however, the cow is not a board, and should therefore have a slight bend in the back, as well as having a relaxed back. As a bull gets older, he develops a hump on his neck. This is a normal characteristic of bulls from all breeds, and it is only worrying to the judge if the hump, or crest, is not there. When the bull is young, the crest will not be as noticeable, but as he gets older, it will become a lot more obvious. With some breeds, such as the Brahman, the hump will be above the shoulder. Once again, breed characteristics are important aspects of judging, and the judge hired for the event will have a lot of knowledge on the breed characteristics of that breed he or she is judging, and usually the judges specialize in only a few breeds because of this reason. The shoulder blades on a cow should be neat- they should be the same on either side of the back, and they shouldn't stick out too much- on a beef cow, this area should have some muscle. The shoulder blades should also be set in line with the spine- if they are not, the cow could be structurally incorrect. As with the shoulder blades, all joints in the back should be level with the spine, from the shoulder blades to the hip and the pins of the cow. However, some cows' pins do sit slightly lower than the spine. This is acceptable, but it is undesirable for any of the joints to drop off from the spine too much. If joints are set too low from the spine, this will affect the angle of the spine, as well as the angle of the ribs and pelvis, and may cause the animal to walk with a slight waddle. This is not desirable in a beef cow. This can also cause problems with the legs, which means that the hooves do not wear evenly on the ground. This can cause permanent lameness and other conditions at some point in the animal's life.

The legs[edit]

When looking at the legs in an animal, the judge is looking mainly at the structure, and for some muscle. As mentioned before, when one joint is set incorrectly on an animal, there is a high chance that the other joints will be set incorrectly as well. When looking at the legs, the cow should be standing squarely on the hooves. This means that the cow will have to also stand squarely on the leg- therefore, the leg must have some bend in it. If the bend is too much, this is referred to as having too much angle in the leg. If the cow's leg is straight, this means that it is post-legged. The cow must have some bend in the hock, however, but not too much. If the cow has too much or too little bend in the legs, the bones in the shoulder blade will be set at either too sharp or too flat of an angle. The bones in the shoulder meet together in an L shape, tilted to the right. We want this angle to be about roughly 90 degrees.

The legs on a cow should be long and well muscled. In is inadvisable to have short, but heavily muscled cattle, as it is preferable for the cow to be larger, have a lot of muscle, but also have some fat. The fat, however, must be minimal- the cow should have some fat, but not a lot.

Looking at the legs of cattle, just like on any other animal, it is one of the most important areas to look at. If the joints in the leg are not set correctly, then it as immediate area of concern. When looking at the legs of cattle, the first areas the judge will look at are the shoulder blades and the hocks, the joint in the middle of the leg. When looking at the shoulder blades, they must be in line with the spine, not above or below. However, it is common to see animals with their shoulders set slightly above the spine, however, this is still an area of concern, as this is not where the shoulder is supposed to be set. When looking at the hocks, they should have a bit of bend in them, however not too much or too little. If the angle is too straight, we call that post-legged. If the angle is too bent, we call that sickle-hocked. Both of these conditions are very serious, as they will affect the angle the hoof strikes the ground. This means that there will be irregular wearing of the hooves, and can lead to permanent lameness.

A lot of the potential in beef cattle lies in structure, and how the muscle is set along the body.

Main body and ribs[edit]

When looking at the body, the judge wants to see as much rib extension as possible- this means having a large middle area, adding more muscle to the animal. The amount of muscle must be consistent throughout the animal, all the way from neck to the rump. The body should also be as long as possible, but everything must remain in proportion to the rest of the body.

The spine should be as heavily muscled as possible, as this is where most steaks come from. However, there MUST remain a consistent amount of muscling on the body- it is not desirable to have an animal who is heavily muscled in the front shoulders, but not much muscle on the back. Also, when looking under the body, although there should be a dip in the middle, the dip should definitely not be right at the front- this can also suggest having too much muscle. In general, the most muscle is at the back of the animal, however, we must keep in mind when judging that there is consistency.


When standing behind an animal, there are a few things the judge looks for.

  • When standing directly behind as her, they should see only the rump, and none of the body. This means that there is a good amount of muscle on the rump.
  • If there is a wide rump, the feet should be set apart wider, as well.
  • Like above, if the rump is smaller, the feet should be set closer together- if they are not, the cow could have an incorrect structure.

The judge will step backwards again and have another look at the legs from behind. The legs should look straight going all the way down.

  • If the legs are bent inwards, this is called cow-hocked. This means that the hocks are pointing inwards, towards each other.
  • If the legs are bent outwards, this is called bow-leg. This is a condition that can affect almost any animal.

In general, a lot of muscle should be on the rump.

  • The widest part of the rump should be the stifle- about halfway down.

The rump should also be round, and not bony. When standing behind the cow, the rump should obscure any of the body except for the back of the head, as this means there is a lot more meat on the animal.

Hooves and pasterns[edit]

After looking at leg structure the judge then wants to look at the hooves and pasterns. The pasterns are the bones that run from the top of the hoof to the fetlock. As the leg structure affects much of the hoof structure, the hooves are very vulnerable. If the animal does not step on them correctly, lameness, even permanent lameness, may occur in the animal's life. Although in the judging ring it will be hard to see the cow's feet, there are a few things the judge must know, and look out for along the way.

  • There are two claws on a cow's feet.
  • These "dew claws" need to be of equal length, and shouldn't curve around too much.
  • However, there should be a slope from the pastern joint down the hoof to the ground.
  • The heel of the hoof needs to be sitting above the ground, but not too far above the ground- we do need some bend in the pastern.
  • The skin that is attached to the hoof needs to be above the ground as well.
  • When the pastern is too straight, it may appear as if the cow is walking on tip-toes, but this is a problem, as it means that the hoof is not striking the ground properly.
  • Hooves need to be of equal size and correct shape. Hooves shouldn't curl in, under, or be to small. This is the foundation of the animal.


In a judging ring, the animals will be walking. When the animal is walking freely, the back hooves should step into the front hooves' footprints.

  • If an animal is sickle-hocked, there will be some overstepping, which means he is stepping over his footprints.
  • When the animal is post-legged, understepping will occur. Understepping means the cow is not reaching his footprints.
  • If the judge sees any overstepping or understepping, they would then take another look at the leg structure of that particular cow.
  • If he or she sees uneven footprints in the ground, this may also suggest some structure problems in the animal, and they would therefore have another look at the leg structure of the cow.

Fat and muscle[edit]

When animals are around the same size, in general, the bones will be the same size. However, there could be two cows of the same size, and their weights will be completely different, as one would have more muscle and/or fat than the other. On a beef animal, we want as much muscle as possible. However, we do want some fat on the animal- just not too much. We call the last layer of fat that has formed on an animal 'finish' animals can be over finished (too fat) or under finished (not fat enough).

  • In general, anything below the point of the elbow is fat.
  • The brisket (the flap on a cow's neck) is only fat and skin. We generally want to see fullness to the brisket, this means that the animal has enough finish and muscle development. If there is too much finish, it will look 'messy,' aka, skin will fold over and look a lot like double chins on people. The skin should be tight and the brisket full.
  • The flank of an animal is generally only a flap of skin, just under where the joints of the leg and hip are. You want to see a large full flap of skin, when an animal is narrowly muscled and under finished, the flank will be tighter to the body, this is not desired. An animal with less capacity will also have a smaller flank.
  • Once looking at the brisket and flank of the cow, the judge looks at the tailhead. The tail head is the last place an animal fills in with 'finish' if it isn't full at all, then the animal has not finished yet and needs more days on feed then other animals in the class, if it is fat, then folds of skin will again appear, and the animal is over finished. Just because is not large, and the animal is leaner, and that does not mean there can be more muscle on that animal. Muscle can be hidden under fat, and if it is, that animal is more desirable.
  • The ribs, point of the shoulder and the spine are very important when looking at muscle as well as fat. When looking at the back of an animal from behind, the ribs should 'spring out' from the spine. This should give a tabling effect, you want an animal to be wide across the back, with the spine dimpling down the center. The point of shoulder should look very muscular, if it appears like the animal is flexing, it is a very lean desirable animal. The judge must keep in mind that all breeds are different on where fat is deposited. Before people judge cattle, they should know a lot about the breed to be judged, and where the fat is usually deposited in that breed.
  • Also, the judge must keep in mind that the rump of an animal is where the most muscle will be, and less fat.

There are also a number of places on the animal that a lot of muscle should be.

  • On either side of the spine- this is where a lot of steaks come from.
  • Between the knee and the elbow of an animal- the forearm.
  • The stifle, it is a muscle seen from behind an animal on both sides of the rump. An animal's widest point should be its stifle, if it is not, the animal is light muscled.

It will also be very obvious looking at some cows where a lot of muscle is, because of the high muscle definition.

When looking at bulls, there are a few things that differ from normal cattle judging that the judge will be looking out for.

  • There will be a crest above the neck- the judge mustn’t get this confused with the shoulder. On big bulls, the crest may even be higher than the head, creating the illusion that the head is set too far down on the bull. This may not be true.
  • If the head really does look like it is set too low on the bull, the judge will ignore the crest and look at all of the structure on the animal, especially on the front half, just to make sure the head is set correctly.
  • The greater size of the testicles, the more cows the bull can service.
  • The sheath on a bull should be firmly attached and not pendulous. If the sheath is pendulous, the bull is of more risk to grass seed problems or injury.


As there are differences when judging bulls, there are also differences when judging cows that are very important.

  • The udders on females should not be pendulous.
  • Teat size and placement is critical, but keep in mind that everything should still remain in proportion.
  • Coarse hair indicates low fertility.
  • The navel should not be pendulous.
  • If the navel does appear pendulous, there is a chance that her brothers or sons may have the same problem.

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