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Conformation - a Guide

The way an animal is constructed is known as its conformation. Primarily that relates to its skeletal foundation: is it well proportioned, can it stand squarely? Then does it have good feet and a good lower jaw? The latter two are of primary importance because a healthy ruminant spends most of its time on the move and eating. The next considerations relate to breeding; the sexual organs in bulls and udder structure and production in cows (which of course takes longer to assess and isn't obvious until after the fact).

Not all animals are created equal. In nature the faulty fail to thrive or survive and would be eliminated from their herd or flock by predation or illness, but when bred under human protection, the faults which inevitably occur from time to time can end up being concentrated and perpetuated, particularly if a fault isn't recognised.

Improvement through breeding has been the work of generations. In earlier times farmers reduced their animals' susceptibility to illness and lameness by culling affected individuals, never allowing them to contribute to the genetics of their herds or flocks. Now we have the "crutches" of antibiotics and other drugs, we can have the vet to the cow whose feet keep growing too long so she can't walk without pain until they're trimmed; we can repeatedly drench the animal which is overly susceptible to intestinal parasites so that its growth is suppressed.

But by enabling the weak to remain in our flocks and herds, we risk creating more animals with the same problems. Why would we want to do that? The first cost is always the cheapest: make the culling decision on one animal so you don't have to cull her whole family in a few years' time, or spend years trying to eliminate a costly physical fault.

When you're buying a couple of calves to grow for the freezer, conformation may be only a matter of curiosity, since their lives won't be very long. But even if you don't intend to breed, having an eye for good animal qualities will help you select better stock than you might otherwise have. A breeding animal will have a much longer life and any conformation issues it has may affect it increasingly over time and it will likely pass them on to its progeny.

Getting sucked in by a pair of pretty or sad-looking eyes but disregarding the general appearance of the rest of an animal, can be a path straight to expensive vet bills or a lot of heartache.

In a cow, structural correctness might mean the difference between culling at five years or ten, and those latter five years are when cows are at their most productive and have paid their own costs and started making a profit. While that may not seem to matter if your herd is very small, ongoing requirements for expenditure and intensive handling become wearisome.

In sheep and goats, foot management can be a big deal requiring back-breaking work in trimming and maintaining hooves. The better your animals and the less of that maintenance they require, the easier your life as their farmer will be.

In this series I'll look at various conformation issues and their implications for the animals, their well-being and how getting it right (and wrong) makes a difference. I'll start from the ground up: a good understanding is vital!

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