Sometimes I’m called “old-fashioned”. That’s alright. Sometimes I’m called worse.

But to confirm what my critics think, let me admit that on this subject of Butter Fat, I’m stuck somewhere in about the 7th Century. The truth is that way back then people understood the importance of butter fat and, more than that, they knew the kind of cows that would produce the most butter fat.

Even without fancy Ag Department labs and government inspectors, the average farmer in “days of yore” knew exactly how to select cows that would be high in butter fat percentages. All this was understood well over a thousand years ago and studied and practiced by dairymen and cattlemen right up until animal husbandry was replaced by “ag science” in about 1920!

Today, you cannot go to a university or refer to bull-stud herd books or even go to the internet to learn how to select and breed cows which will produce high butter fat. That is a process that requires knowing and studying the physical conformation and characteristics that each cow and bull exhibits and then putting those genetic characteristics together and creating an offspring that will out-perform either of the parents.

To paraphrase an old commercial: we earn our butter milk the old-fashioned way. We earn it!

Butter fat is a genetic characteristic, determined in the cow by the genes she received from her sire and dam. She can increase the amount of butter fat she gives but only by increasing the quality and amount of forage she consumers. The butter fat content itself remains a constant in percentage terms. In fact, in most cases, as you increase the amount of milk a cow gives you actually cause a decrease in the percentage of butter fat.

Of course, the industrial model for producing food is to produce pounds, bushels or tons and the idea of the milk cow is to produce large volumes of milk. The result of extra production is lowered butter fat percentages. It does not have to be that way. We must simply base our selection process on the physical expressions manifest in every cow.

Butter fat is important to the beef and dairyman alike. The dairy cow with 4% butter fat and better produces a much greater food nutrient density than the cow with lower butterfat content. That is especially true when that milk and butter fat has been produced from grass only!

The dairy or beef cow that produces 4% butter fat or better produces milk and meat not only higher in nutrients but with components that aid in the digestion and absorption of those nutrients. A clear benefit for the health and welfare of the consumer.
The originators of the dual purpose breeds knew that the health and welfare of the cow regulated the health and welfare of the consumer. When you look at the history of development of the dual purpose cattle you find cows which produce a higher quality of milk than the much-publicized big producers of today. .

Why is butterfat important in the beef cow?

For all the same reasons as in the dairy cow. The beef cow that has high butter fat (above 4%) also has high intramuscular fat. The beef cow that produces 4% butter fat has a fine texture to its’ meat and that fine-textured meat is always tender and pleasing to the consumer. It is why low fat producers come up with a product consumers reject. They are putting cows with the wrong genetics on grass and that has given the rest of us a bum rap!

The beef cow with 4% butter fat and higher passes those genetic traits on to her offspring which becomes a health benefit to the consumer. The intramuscular fat that is associated with butterfat is also passed on. And those calves do not lose that intramuscular fat at weaning, but maintain that fat as they mature. If anything, intramuscular fat actually increases because of the genetic makeup of the animal.

Again, as with the dairy cow, the quality and health benefits of the intramuscular and butter fat is much greater when the animal has a total diet of grass. That is why I continue to argue as forcefully as I know how:

The cow is a bovine and must be treated as such!

So how do I select for butter fat?

By studying the hair of the cow…its quality as well as its many swirls. The hair is a mirror of the quality of the butter fat and the meat.

Tail Butter Fat Flakes


Bald Udder
I look particularly at the escutcheon, which is the area from the top of the udder up to and including the vulva. The wider the area and the more pronounced the short, silky, shiny area is, the more likely it is that the cow will come into full milk and butter fat production quickly after calving and the longer she will continue in full production.

The udder of the high butter fat cow will have very little or no hair on the bottom and sides of the udder and the hair on the back of the udder will travel upward. The thighs of the cow outward from the top of udder will have a shiny swirl of hair that goes to the center of the thighs and down to the level of the bottom of the udder and then forward on the inside of both back legs.

An even more dramatic marker can be seen on the end of the tail under the switch. There you will find a buttery yellow substance which looks almost like flakes of dandruff. Those flakes, when rubbed between the fingers, have the feel of lanolin.

Further, the inside of the ears will be yellow instead of brown and quite a few cows will even have a yellow hue around the eyes. These features can be seen in both males and females and are apparent on the baby calf at birth. You don’t have to wait around for laboratory analysis.

I hope you will study these pictures and learn how to select for quality milk and meat. But always remember that the ability to produce on grass is a perquisite for sustainability and profit. I urge you to make this an integral part of your herd management.

The worst that can happen is someone will call you “old-fashioned”.