Appraisal / Cow Conformation

Appraisal is a method of rating cattle
by judging certain characteristics
to determine
“How Good is she?” 

But more importantly:

              How LONG will she live?

                           How PRODUCTIVE will she be?

                                           How much MAINTENANCE will she need?


  • ANY animal can be “scored” at home following rules of appraisal for that breed’s “type” & most breed associations should have information in words, if not pictures, about their breed’s “ideal” type. (“Type” is a word used to describe conformation of an animal based on a composite of frame/body qualities and mammary/udder qualities. Additional classifications may apply, such as wool quality in sheep.)
  • The items listed here are specific to dairy cattle and would not all necessarily apply to beef or sheep, etc.
  • If you learn what to look for, you can judge your own cow. Pretend you’re doing Livestock Judging at the fair!
    • How would your cow place?
    • What could you improve upon?
    • What is really good about her?
    • How can I use this knowledge when choosing a bull to breed her to next time?

Below is a detailed list of what the American Jersey Cattle Association looks for when scoring cows.   > Click on “Type Traits and Culling: Profile of a Low Risk Jersey

It is similar to other breed association classifications. I have added some notes in parenthesis. Here is another good link:


From the American Jersey Cattle Association:“Jersey type evaluation is not a program that “classifies” animals by comparing them to the “ideal Jersey.” Instead, it is a service that gives you unbiased information about the strengths and weaknesses of your cows. The biological traits measured are related to the economic value of a cow, and the information provided can help you make mating decisions to improve herd profitability  …  High-priority traits include Dairy Form, Foot Angle, Fore Udder Attachment, Rear Udder Height, Rear Udder Width, Udder Cleft, Udder Depth, and Front Teat Placement.”


Standards for Traits

(ST) Stature is measured as height at the hips using a scale of 1 to 80. A score of 1 indicates stature of 44”, 25 indicates 49”, 50 indicates stature of 54”, and 80 indicates stature of 60″ or greater.  (How tall of an animal do you want?)

(SR) Strength is measured as the width and depth of chest, width of muzzle, and substance of bone, not to be influenced by body condition. Scor

Box  on right = most desirable

es under 10 indicate extreme weakness; scores over 40 indicate extreme strength. (A strong animal will survive longer and produce milk consistently, because she has the strength to!)


(DF) Dairy Form is defined as the openness and angle of rib, angularity, flatness of bone, length of neck, and any other appearance of milkiness. This appearance, and not just the absence of fleshing, is considered. Ideally, stage of lactation should not influence the dairy form score. Scores below 20 may not only reflect smooth overconditioned cattle, but also extreme angularity which is frailty and not dairy form.

Varies throughout lactation/dry period

(I think you SHOULD realistically take into account where your cow is in her lactation when considering body condition and dairy “form”.


  1. Just fresh, she will not have much “spring of rib” and she may be a bit thick over her ribs and hips. She needs this fat to help maintain milk production.
  2. 2-3 months into lactation she should have “milked-off” that fatty layer and if anything, she may look gaunt and thin. This is her worst time, because she is still producing a lot, and her body may not be able to keep up with the demands of weight maintenance and lactating. You will need to wait to breed her again until you begin to see her gaining weight and looking less “stressed.”
  3. Within a month after breeding, the cow should begin to fill out and will drop some in production.
  4. Late lactation, the cow should be putting on some weight at a steady but slow rate.
  5. By time of drying off, she will be well-conditioned, but not fat. At time of calving, you want the cow to look healthy and well-fed, but neither fatty or thin (you don’t want to see the full definition of bone along her hip, but you want to be able to see an obvious hip that is not just a round blob of fat.))

(RA) Rump Angle (pins high/low) is the degree of slope from hooks to pins when the cow is standing. A score of 1 indicates a high rump angle and a score of 50 indicates an extremely sloped rump angle. A score of 20 indicates a level rump angle, each additional five (5) points representing every one (1) inch of slope or height of pins.

Center box = most desireable

(Level to slightly sloped hips allow calves to exit easily as they are being born. High pins can cause calving and reproductive problems. Rump angle is usually correlated with leg set – the picture on the left (high pins) would likely be a cow with posty/straight legs. The picture on the right (low pins) would likely be a cow with sickle/weak legs. The middle picture indicates proper angle.)


(TW) Rump Width is the width of the hips. Scores below 1

Box on right = most desireable

5 indicate extreme narrowness in the rump and scores above 35 indicate extreme rump width. (A wide rear allows for easy birthing. Also, the wider the rump, the more room you have for a beautiful wide rear udder!)


(RL) Rear Legs (posty/sickle) is a measurement of the set of hock. A score of 1 indicates extremely posty legs and a score of 50 indicates sickle hocked legs. A score of 25 indicates a slight set to the legs.

Center box = most desireable

(Legs are important. A cow is a very large animal, and she depends on those legs to hold her weight and up. Posty legs do not allow for much “spring” and sickle (deep set) legs do not maintain strong enough supports for a thousand pound animal. Improper set to the legs will put a cow at higher risk of arthritis.)


(FA) Foot Angle (low/steep) is measured as the steepness of the angle of the rear foot from the hairline to 1” anterior to the hairline. A score of 1 indicates an extremely low foot angle and a score of 50 indicates an extremely steep foot angle. A score of 25 is assigned to a medium foot angle and a score of 40 to a 45° foot angle.

Box on right = most desireable

(A shallow foot invites many problems… foot rot, abscesses, worn heels. If a cow’s foot hurts, she will let you know! She might not want to move or come to the parlor, and once you get in the parlor, she won’t want to put pressure on her hoof, and in frustration, may even try to kick at you. Be more concerned with the REAR foot, as most front feet have decent angle and do not hold up as much of the cow’s weight in proportion.)



(FU) Fore Udder Attachment is an evaluation of the strength of attachment of the fore udder to the body wall. A score of 1 indicates a loose attachment and a score of 50 indicates a tight attachment. A score of 25 indicates a slight bulge in the fore udder.

Box on right = most desireable

(A tight fore udder will last longer. As your cow ages, her udder will naturally grow, stretch, and sag. If a young cow has good attachments, she won’t hardly show any change in her fore udder, whereas a poor fore udder will hang low, swing, and be more prone to being stepped on, bruised, or dirtied.)


(RH) Rear Udder Height is measured as viewed from the rear, at the crease where the udder meets the leg, in relation to the midpoint between the point of hock and pins. A score of 1 indicates low rear udder height and a score of 50 indicates high rear udder height. A score of 15 is assigned to a rear udder attached at the midpoint between the point of hock and pins. An additional 5 points is added or subtracted for every inch above or below the midpoint, respectively.

Box on right = most desireable

(Well, besides being a beautiful trait to see a cow with a nice, high udder… Height of attachment indicates strength of attachment (see information on fore udder attachment as to why a high/tight attachment is desirable). Also, a high attachment allows for more room for milk production.)


(RW) Rear Udder Width is measured at the crease where the udder meets the leg. A score of 1 indicates a narrow rear udder and a score of 50 indicates a wide rear udder (11” or more). A score of 25 is assigned to a rear udder that is 7” wide with an incremental change of 5 points per inch in either direction from the midpoint of 25 (e.g., score of 30 indicates 8″ rear udder width, score of 20 indicates 6″ rear udder width).

Box on right = most desireable

(A wide udder allows for room for milk production, is eye appealing, and indicates the presence of a wide rump, which is good for many reasons (see rump width above).


(UC) Udder Cleft is a measure of the depth of cleft of the udder between the rear teats from the base of the rear teats to the point where the halves of the udder come together. The midpoint of 25 corresponds to a cleft of 1½” with an incremental change of 5 points per half inch (½”) in either direction from the midpoint.  A score of 20 indicates an udder with a 1” cleft, with 30 indicating an udder with a 2” cleft.

Box on right = most desireable

(Most days, I consider this the most important trait! A deep cleft implies tight attachment of the median suspensory ligament. If a cow has little cleft, or if she loses her cleft (slips or tears with age or trauma) she will often develop permanent edema/swelling, which inhibits a clean milk-out and reduces the room in her udder for milk production which leads to a higher likelihood of mastitis! Notice, the lack of cleft on the cow in the left picture also causes the teats to point outward, therefore makes milking more difficult (hard to keep a machine on or hard to milk out by hand) and teat ends may actually rub on the inside of the rear legs.)


(UD) Udder Depth (deep/shallow) is a measure of the depth of udder floor relative to the hock. A score of 1 indicates an udder below the hock, 15 an udder at the hock, 25 an udder 2” above the hock, 35 an udder 4” above the hock, and 50 an udder 7” above the hock.

Varies, should match age of cow, ideally above hocks (center or right box).

(How low do you want to go to milk your cow? This is a trait especially made for hand milkers!! Get a snug udder so you can sit and reach out or up instead of down to milk! This is an important trait for beef animals, too, so the calf can nurse easily. Also, a high/tight/shallow udder attachment protects the udder from weather, dirt, and physical damage. A cow naturally protects her udder by keeping it between her legs, tucked up into her body as she is lying down. If she has a large udder, she is more likely to step on it (see fore udder attachment) or get it dirty, which leads to mastitis.) Take into account, the udder will likely become a little lower each time a cow calves. This is natural, but it’s still desirable to find a cow that at 10 years old has an udder “above the hock bone”. If milking with a Surge, it’s important that the udder stays shallow, so the machine (or on a bucket milker, the “claw”) still fits properly under the cow’s udder for safe, fast milk-out.


(TP) Front Teat Placement (wide/close) is a measurement of the placement of the front teats on the quarter. A score of 1 indicates wide placed teats, 20 slightly wide placed teats, 30 centrally placed teats, and 50 teats that are closely placed.

Center or Right box = most desireable

(Rear teats are generally closely placed, sometimes touching, so they are not scored as important as front teats, which can have a tendency to be very wide, but rarely are close enough to touch. Neither front nor rear teats should be so close that they look like they’re hugging (makes it a pain to put a machine on or hand milk!) but you want them close enough that they are squarely and evenly placed beneath the udder. Looking from behind, ideally you should not be able to see the front teats, because they should be lined up directly in front of the rear teats. Realistically, most cows have wider front teat placement than rear, so you will probably see the front teats to the outside of the rear teat placement. The middle picture shows a cow with good teat placement.)


(TL) Front Teat Length (long/short) is the length of the front teats from the base to the end of the teat. A score of 1 indicates short teats (0”), 25 indicates intermediate teats (2½”) and 50 indicates long teats (5”). (For hand milkers, you probably want long teats. If using a machine, medium sized teats are ideal – long enough to “hold on” but short enough to fit all into the inflation. This trait is often overlooked when purchasing a cow and can make the difference between happy milking times and frustrating milking times!) 



In cow structure, there tend to be positive correlations between traits. For example:

  • Wide chest floor + wide rump = wide rear udder
  • A high dairy form score = adequate milk production + udder quality + longevity of udder

When evaluating a cow and just getting started, try to notice how these traits match up in good quality cows.

As the phrase goes: “Long neck, long body, long lactation, long life!

 Official Appraisal System for Jerseys through AJCA:

 MAXIMUM SCORE by Lactation:
1st lactation…. max 89%
2nd …………………….. 91%
3rd ……………………… 93%
4th ……………………… 94%
5th ……………………… 95% or higher

EXAMPLE – On a pedigree, the numbers will show up like this:

So, you would interpret these numbers (each trait has a range of numbers as described above) to read that this cow is: about 50 inches tall, fairly strong, very good dairy form, high in the pins with 1 inch of slope to rump, average wide rump, good set to legs leaning toward too much set, medium  foot angle, well-attached fore udder with a slight bulge, high rear udder, fairly wide rear udder, over 2 inches of cleft, an udder just above the hock, centrally placed teats, medium sized teats about 2.5 inches long.

*Take into account that these numbers reflect the most recent score and because the cow has been scored 4 times, she is considered an “aged” cow, meaning these numbers should reflect an older animal and not, for example, a two year old cow.


So, how does your cow score?

Would you like your Grand Champion ribbon now?

12 thoughts on “Appraisal / Cow Conformation

  1. Adam

    With regards to the median suspensory ligament trait, is it fair to judge a cow or especially a heifer when she is getting close to calving? I have a first calf heifer who is bagging up and is very smooth when viewed from behind, ie no cleft between the halves. I thought this might just be due to the swelling from freshening. Her udder looks similar to the 2nd example on your “How close to calving page”. Does that cow have a good cleft under normal circumstances or even at freshening am I seeing signs of a weak ligament? Thank you for your helpful website. God Bless


    1. No, calving time is not the time to judge a cow’s ligaments! We also have a saying about “never judge a heifer” which basically means that a heifer will change dramatically over the first few months she is in milk, and she may not even show her real potential til her second lactation (we like slow maturing Jerseys, which often milk a fairly low amount their first lactation, then about double in their second lactation, and this correlates with their maturity, growth of frame, etc.)

      You make a good observation, though, in that once the heifers are near the day of calving, their ligament significantly “disappears” among the edema. What you are seeing is not a loosening of the ligament, but more stretching it and edema (fluid) surrounding it and hiding it. Both of the heifers in the photos have excellent ligaments. They “show back up” after the first few days of calving, once the worst of the edema is gone.


    1. Spirited Rose Dairy

      That would have been fun, too bad it’s the wrong breeds! I was taught in livestock judging, “Just pick the one you’d want to eat the most!” And ended up with Reserve Champion placing. Now there’s beginners luck! 😉


  2. Thomas

    This is very good information. My 4-H dairy judge last year asked me to point out good traits in a dairy cow, and wanted me to answer using more “dairy” terms. This page really helps.


  3. This is an excellent teaching page. Thanks! Is there anywhere that the score would reflect “cow-hocked?” My new grade Jersey heifer is cow-hocked (a term used with horses but I’ve never seen used with actual cows) and her back feet turn slightly out.


    1. spiritedrose

      That would go under the foot and leg traits. Unfortunately, appraisal has to be fairly quick, as most farms have a lot of cows to score each time. So, a few traits get bundled together. Another example would be “rib” and you’ll most often see appraisers add that to Dairy Form scores.

      One joke we make about cow-hocked is that we hope they get a nice wide rear udder to straighten those legs out! 🙂 We say she’s just getting ready for a great udder!


  4. Amanda

    This was very helpful. I knew the basics, but I didn’t know all this. I will know what to look for in cows we are considering to buy. Thank you.


  5. This is one of the MOST helpful and easy to understand explainations I have seen on this! Thank you!.. I am going to print it for my book. I KNEW Clarice was good, but dint know how good.. I am more than impressed with her now. WOOWHOOOO….
    off to the next subject.


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