Beef Cattle Frame Scoring

Take a quick look through our cattle breed guide and you’ll soon realize that cattle come in all shapes and sizes.

It’s pretty obvious that if you live on a small acreage, you’ll probably want a smaller breed, perhaps even a miniature breed. But what if you have a slightly bigger farm—40, 80, or maybe even over 100 acres? You can handle bigger cattle, right?

Whether you plan to keep a commercial herd or grassfed beef cattle for direct marketing, it pays to consider the size of the cattle you will raise. Even within any given breed, there is tremendous variation between individual animals. Some will fit your requirements better than others.

A Tool For Evaluating Cattle Sizes

One tool that can make it easier to whittle down your options is the frame score. This scoring system was developed to evaluate the skeletal size of an animal based on hip height and adjusted for age. In most cases, a frame score will not change much as a bull, steer, or heifer grows, making it useful for roughly estimating the mature size of an animal.

Cattle are scored by measuring their height at the hip. A table (see Helpful Resource below) is then used to interpret the measurement based on the animal’s age.

Frame scores can theoretically range anywhere from 1 to 11, 1 being extremely short and 11 being extremely large. In practice, however, extreme frames are rarely seen. Most cattle rank anywhere from 2 to 9, British breeds such as the Angus tending toward the smaller end of the spectrum, Continental breeds such as the Charolais tending toward the larger end. (Remember, there is a great deal of variation within each breed.)

A Few Caveats

Cattle can be difficult to measure. A little thing such as slightly uneven ground can result in an inaccurate frame score. Care must be taken to take the measurement directly over the animal’s hook bones (the projections on top of the pelvis) while it is standing in a square but normal posture. For best results, a cattle measuring stick with a built-in level is typically recommended.

Not all cattle are built the same. The angle of an animal’s joints can make it appear disproportionately taller or shorter. Frequently, however, if joints are causing problems with measuring height, the animal in question is probably structurally unsound anyway.

Another factor affecting frame score is nutrition. Inadequate nutrition can cause cattle to turn out small for their ages. On the other hand, a particularly rich diet can cause cattle to become much larger than their initial frame scores would suggest.

Using Frame Scores to Make Decisions

So, keeping in mind the limitations of the frame score measurement, how do you make the most of this tool? What is the ideal frame score for your operation?

Not surprisingly, there are many different schools of thought on this subject. The reason for the conflicting opinions is that a compromise is involved in this choice. Large-framed cattle weigh more at slaughter; on the other hand, they take longer to grow and may never reach their full potential without large amounts of feed. Small-framed cattle are unquestionably more efficient, requiring fewer inputs and maturing quickly; however, they will produce fewer pounds of beef, they can put on undesirable amounts of fat if overfed, and they can be harder to market through conventional channels, depending on current market demands.

Many people in harsh climates prefer smaller cattle because they can maintain healthy weights even when the going gets tough simply because they don’t need to eat as much as their larger counterparts. More hospitable conditions cause more controversy. On the one hand, producers frequently don’t see the value of raising small cattle in a favorable climate when the sale barn tends to reward size. Even when direct marketing grassfed beef, larger cattle can be considered valuable for their heavier weights and leaner beef. On the other hand, some cattle raisers still favor small- to moderate-framed cattle in wet, mild climates because they make higher stocking rates possible, increasing pounds of beef production per acre without supplemental feed.

Probably the most important factor in deciding on an ideal frame score for your cattle is your marketing plan. Commercial cattle marketed through the sale barn do not have to be extremely large. Cows with frame scores of 6 and above tend to be prone to reproductive issues, and the commercial market will usually accept medium-sized calves. A frame score between 5 and 6 is typically favored for the commodity market.

Grassfed cattle are another subject. Smaller cows and steers have proven themselves again and again in this niche because they fatten well on grass alone and reproduce consistently with few inputs. Frame scores between 2 and 4 are common.

Not all producers agree with these two solutions, of course. Some commercial cattle raisers feel that they still have a more favorable profit margin by reducing costs with small-framed cattle. On the other hand, some grassfed producers in mild climates see no reason why they shouldn’t raise larger cattle with heavier carcasses.

The frame score is simply a tool. There is no one ideal score to aim for. Each cattle owner must set his own goals and choose the frame sizes that will help him reach those goals.

Helpful Resource

Frame Score
Instructions for measuring hip height, along with tables for calculating frame score. The numbers used are pretty standard for most breeds.