Technical information - selection

Desirable and Undesirable Udders


BRAHMAN NEWS MARCH 2008 Issue #158

The udder of a beef cow is an extremely important physical asset which impacts on the economic, production and labour efficiency of the breeding unit.

Udder soundness affects milk production, milk composition and calf weaning weights, the incidence of calf mortalities and the duration the cow stays in the herd. All these factors affect the overall profitability and productivity of the beef enterprise.

The udder of a highly productive female must have the capacity to produce and deliver sufficient milk for high weaning weights and retain physical characteristics that allow repeated calvings. Without these functions the cow loses most of her breeding value.

Weak udder suspension results in a pendulous udder that is difficult to suck by the new born calf. Balloon or funnel-shaped teats make it difficult for the post natal calf to suck increasing the incidence of illthrift and calf mortalities.

Udder and teat unsoundness are a concern for a number of reasons:-

  • Extra inconvenience and additional costs
  • Reduced longevity due to poor suckling, injury and disease
  • Reduced milk flow and lower colostrum intake
  • Heritability of udder and teat defects
  • Ongoing issues associated with retaining daughters of problem bulls and cows
Poorly shaped teats and badly shaped udders are a recipe for reduced profits

It is subsequently important that stud breeders observe and identify the physical characteristics of sound functional udders to make more informed breeding and herd management decisions that improve udder durability and cow longevity.

Function and Form

The productive capacity of an udder is determined by its shape, size and its capacity to handle numerous calvings. The most desirable udder is one that provides sufficient levels of milk from the smallest amount of mammary tissue.

It is incorrect to assume that a large udder is highly productive and that small udders are unproductive. Furthermore, there is a negative correlation between large size and udder durability. Large udders tend to contain a higher percentage of supporting tissue than medium sized pliable udders.

Large udders and excessive edema at calving endanger the suspensory attachments and are prone to injury and disease (mastitis) reducing the long term durability of the udder.

Cows with good udders out perform cows with POOR udders

Udder characteristics

An ideal udder is snugly attached, symmetrical and of moderate length. The quarters should be evenly balanced with medium sized teats placed squarely under each quarter. A side view of the udder should show a level udder floor without quartering.

The median suspensory ligaments support the udder to the cows body thus a strong suspensory attachment is essential for a satisfactory mammary system.

A cow with weak suspensory attachment is subject to several problems:

The udder floor may drop further weakening the udder attachment

Once the floor has dropped the teats will stick outwards making them more prone to injury.

The mammary system may deepen to a point where the calf can’t suck.

Good udder attachment and sound teats improve cow longevity

The foreudder should be of moderate length and strongly attached. Extra long foreudders are ‘meaty’ and frequently break away from the body wall.

The rear udder should be attached high to the body with moderate width and show a strong median suspensory attachment. The udder texture should be soft and pliable free from congestion and hardness.

Studies show that cows with medium sized well attached udders weaned faster growing and heavier calves than cows with bottle teats and/or pendulous udders. Cows with desirable udders also reared more cows due to longer lifetime production and less mortalities.

It is essential that a much greater emphasis be placed on selecting bulls and cows that improve udder traits particularly the median ligament and the acceptable placement of the shape and size of the teats.

Genetic Parameters

Studies suggest that the moderate heritabilities of udder depth (0.16), udder attachment (0.17), teat placement (0.24), teat size (0.18) and udder shape (0.24) permit gradual change through selection. Furthermore, the genetic correlations between udder traits imply that the selection for improvement of one trait results in the improvement in other traits.

Shape & Visual Assessment

It is beneficial when forming a concept on the form and appearance of desirable udders to examine as many udders as possible.

Figures 1 and 2 provide excellent examples of good udders. It is noted that the udder is strongly attached to the front and back to the body, that the teats have medium size and shape and hang plumb and the udder has moderate length without too much depth.

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 3 shows the udder of an 18 year old cow which has endured the hazards of numerous lactations and retains its full functional capacity and highly desirable form.

Figure 3

Figure 4 is the daughter of this aged cow which demonstrates the desirable traits of the cow, ie good shape and texture of the udder and medium size and good placement of the teats.

Figure 5 shows the desirable characteristics common to a good non lactating udder. The udder is fully collapsed and shows excellent texture. The attachments are firm showing no evidence of breaking away from the body wall and the uniform teats are well placed, medium sized are well placed on a level udder floor.

Figure 4

Figure 5

Figure 6 is a further example of a desirable non lactating udder. The udder of this 19 year old cow is even, has well placed teats with excellent shape and size.

Figure 6

The highly desirable udder aspects of a 2 year old heifer are well demonstrated in Figure 7. The udder provides an excellent example of symmetry, desirable length, shape and softness without excess skin.

Figure 8 provides the example of a heifer with good capacity and shape and medium teats that are well attached. The rear attachment is high and wide and the folds of skin indicate capacity without ‘looseness’ and ‘meatiness’. The tendency of the teats to hang straight downward from the centre of each quarter indicates strong median support.

Figure 7

Figure 8

Undesirable udders can be divided into two main groups. Those that are the result of:-

  • Poor teat shape and placement
  • Poor udder shape and attachment

The implications of udder defects on the efficiency and productiveness of the cow differ with the various degrees of udder abnormalities. Certain shape defects may influence eye appeal more than functionality whilst teat defects often make the cow unacceptable as a viable breeder.

Abnormalities increase labour costs and since most producers are becoming ‘time poor’ due to increased size and scale of operation the inconvenience caused by udder defects is becoming less tolerated.

Teat Problems: it is probable that these defects have the greatest detrimental impact on functional capacity and durability. Deviations from highly acceptable forms are varied, however, bottle and excessively long thick teats cause the greatest problems to new born calves. Cows with these defects should receive serious consideration regarding the retention of their progeny in the herd.

Udder Problems: most of these abnormalities arise from attachment failure in conjunction with size and shape. Figures 9 and 10 show udders with poor shape, teat placement, texture and the body attachment is narrow, weak and short.

Figure 9

Figure 10

Udder Edema: Congestion, or accumulation of fluid in the intercellular spaces in the udder, is physiologically normal for cows and heifers at calving but severe cases should be less than 2-3 per cent of the herd. Severe edema can interfere with calf suckling and may predispose the premature breakdown of the udder.

Udder edema occurs primarily as a result of the restriction in blood and lymph flow from the lower abdomen due to fetal pressure in the pelvic cavity.

Edema is most common at calving particularly with well conditioned heifers. The problem is compounded if there are udder and teat defects.

Severe edema can reduce udder durability since ligaments and attachments can be stretched and seriously challenged. Because edema exists in the outer tissue severe cases can cause the skin to be leathery, cracked and tough limiting calf sucking.

Figure 11 shows a severe case of edema with swelling to the belly, udder and teats. The edemic tissue covering the front and rear of the udder is 2-3 cms thick reducing access to the teats leading to extreme discomfort. Chronic cases of edema can permanently reduce the softness and pliable nature of the udder and cause problems in subsequent calvings.

Figure 11

Bottom Line

Udder unsoundness shortens the lifetime and productiveness of cows. Whilst there has been an increased emphasis on the underline of bulls it is equally important to consider the underline of cows, ie consider the functionality of the key productive unit of the cow – the udder.

Undesirable udders seriously impact on cow productivity through poor udder health, dry quarters, increased labour costs, reduced profits, increased calf mortalities and reduced weaner weights.

Additionally, cows with undesirable udders and teats can pass these defects to their progeny magnifying the problem.

The two key types of ‘bad’ udders include funnel shaped teats and weak attachments. Observing, reporting, culling and selecting to avoid these defects on both sides of the pedigree will eventually improve the form, function and durability of udders and ultimately the quality of the herd.

When selecting replacements emphasis should be placed on desirable udders

Increased emphasis on udder and teat improvement will increase profits through:-

  • More beef produced per cow
  • Improved herd and breeding management
  • Increased productivity through less wastage
  • Better udder health and less injuries
  • Reduced labour and variable costs
  • Emphasis on selection rather than forced culling

Identification and removal of cows with unsound udders and using genetics (ie bulls and females) with a history of well shaped udders will lead to cumulative gains in udder structure and soundness.

Most udder traits are moderately heritable offering opportunities for gradual improvement of udders through visual selection of females and the dams of bulls. Since only half of the heritable traits are passed on by the bull female assessment in combination with sire selection most likely to give greatest benefits in udder and teat shape and size.

Since there is a high correlation between functionality of well formed udders and eye assessment, udder scoring can be a valuable breeding and marketing tool for stud breeders.

Appendix – Udder Scoring

Udder and teat quality are the key functional characteristics of the cow and deserve the same attention given to other selection and production criteria used by studs.

Udder scoring is basically the continuous assessment and reporting of udder soundness based on teat size and shape and udder shape and attachments. These characteristics (traits) are the most significant aspects of udder functionality.

Like most management tools, udder scoring is subjective and requires standardization but assessment leads to improved knowledge on which to make more informed breeding and selection decisions.

The improved knowledge of the herds and individual cow status also provides important feedback to potential purchases of stud stock (bulls and heifers).

Udder scoring is a powerful management and marketing tool.


Since udders change with subsequent lactations, udder scoring is a continuous process and requires good reporting.

  • Assessment needs to be standardized and practised to acquire the necessary skills to achieve repeatable and consistent results.
  • Stock should be assessed each year at calving and the results recorded with other important calving details.
  • The best time to udder score is 24-48 hrs after calving.
  • Records should be monitored on an ongoing basis to assess change and make the appropriate herd and breeding management decisions.

Potential Benefits

Assessing, reporting and acting on udder scores can lead to the following benefits:

  • Improved profitability through better breeding and herd management decisions
  • Identification of genetics that leads to durable udders and cows longevity.
  • Decreased labour costs associated nursing calves and poor udder health.
  • Introduction of standards and guidelines regarding the retention and sourcing of breeding stock (bulls and heifers).
  • Ongoing improvement in udder quality and functionality improving profits and the value of the herd.
  • Identification of cows that have minimal udder problems at calving.
  • Benchmarks to set clear objectives and targets regarding phenotypic standards for udders and teats.
  • Increased credibility with clients and potential purchasers of stud stock (bulls and females).

Example of an Udder Scoring Chart

Each producer can simply compile a chart to meet their individual goals and targets for udder conformation.

The standards can then be used to make in herd comparisons and more informed breeding and herd management decisions.

1. An excellent vessel and teats with good symmetry, attachment and texture allows the placement and spacing of ideally sized and shaped teats.

2. A very good udder with level floor, strong attachments and soft pliable texture. Good shape and spacing of teats.

3. A very functional udder with good symmetry and excellent texture. Good front and rear attachment and teat shape and size.

4. A functional udder with excellent teats and texture but lacks balance and strength of front and rear attachments.

5. A functional udder with good teats but weak front attachment may pose a problem in subsequent lactations.

6. Potentially a problem udder due to size and poor body attachment is compounded by poor teat shape and spacing.

7. An uneven udder with tendencies to break down with age. Poor teat spacing and potentially large front teats reduces sucking and milk intake by the new born calf.

8. An udder with weak attachments and suspension. The unevenness of quarters and teats will cause calf sucking problems and mortalities. Poor shape and texture leads to injury causing scar tissue and reduced milk flow.

9. A pendulous udder with poorly spaced teats that are thick and prone to ballooning. These udders result in poor suckling and possibly increased calf mortalities.