Planning for your 4-H beef project animal: Calf selection

Third article in series featuring tips and tricks as you prepare for and select your 4-H market beef animal.

Calf selection takes place at many locations including live auctions.
Calf selection takes place at many locations including live auctions.

As the fall weather approaches, many youth across Michigan begin looking for their 4-H beef project animal. Caring for a beef animal requires forward thinking and creating a plan of how to see your project through to the end. In addition to the requirement of selecting the animal, there is also a financial burden of caring for an animal through the duration of your project. This three-part series will review important beef project content and address three main topics: preparations for the beef animal, estimating costs of care and calf selection. These tips and tricks will help you be more prepared for your 4-H beef project experience.

The final article in this series focusses on calf selection. Calves are usually selected in one of two ways: purchased or chosen from the individuals or families herd. Here are a few items to keep in mind when selecting your calf project.

Time of fair or exhibition

The dates of the fair are one of the most important factors in animal selection. For example, a person exhibiting at a June fair is looking for a heavier weight calf than a person planning to exhibit at an August fair. When selecting a calf, keep in mind three main things: the birthdate of the calf, weight at which you purchase it and your fair or exhibition date. If you keep these three factors in mind, you will be better able to select an animal that will make the weight requirements of the exhibition.

Also remember that cattle gain two to three pounds of weight per day if fed properly in ideal conditions. Genetics have come a long way in allowing cattle to gain more rapidly, but one rule of thumb to consider is that most cattle are ready for market between 14 and 18 months of age.


There are usually many divisions within cattle shows. These divisions include gender (steer versus market heifer), breed (Angus, Hereford, Maine Anjou, etc. versus crossbred) and weight (lightweight, middleweight, heavyweight). Although these divisions are determined at the fair, it is a good idea to target a specific division in which you would like to compete.

Picking a calf

Selecting your beef project animal will be one of the most exciting and possibly challenging decisions you make. Some animals you select will not fall within your budget and therefore will not be a good choice for you. To learn more about budgeting, review the “Estimating Costs” article.

Selection begins with three fundamentals: muscle, structure and balance. Your ideal calf will feature these attributes.

Heavy muscled

  • Base width: Width at the ground between the rear legs.
  • Top shape: Definition of muscle along the loin.
  • Width through the quarter: Width from stifle to stifle.

Structurally correct

  • Correct shoulder angle: Has an angle to the shoulder that easily ties into the rest of the body.
  • Correct set to the pastern: Has enough angle to cushion the animal’s motion without being excessive.
  • Ability to travel with ease: Moves without restriction having the rear foot step in the imprint left by the front foot on each side.

See “Building Structurally Correct Animal Models” for more information.

Well balanced

  • Proportional: The front and rear half of the animal are about the same depth.
  • Correct lines: Animal has a straight topline and underline.

With decisions made about the weight, age and divisions desired for exhibition, you can now select a calf. Using the criteria listed above and your previous knowledge, you are ready to enjoy the experience of selecting your animal project. The Michigan Cattlemen’s Association has a list of fall cattle sales that may be helpful in locating sales near you. Many cattle producers also offer cattle for sale through private treaty on their farms, which may be another option for purchasing your calf project if not selecting from your own herd.

Watching the development of your selected animal will be a rewarding and educational experience. Continue to set goals for your project and use resources like the 4-H Beef Project Snapshot and Animal Science Anywhere Lessons to help provide recommendations for content learning and discovery of new opportunities.

Michigan State University Extension and the Michigan 4-H Youth Development program helps to create a community excited about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). 4-H STEM programming seeks to increase science literacy, introducing youth to the experiential learning process that helps them to build problem-solving, critical-thinking and decision-making skills. Youth who participate in 4-H STEM content are better equipped with critical life skills necessary for future success. To learn more about the positive impact of Michigan 4-H youth in STEM literacy programs, read our 2015 Impact Report: “Building Science Literacy and Future STEM Professionals.”

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