National Agricultural Literacy Curriculum Matrix


Build-a-Calf Workshop

Grade Level(s)

3 - 5

Estimated Time

45 minutes


Students will explore concepts of heredity in beef cattle and identify dominant and recessive traits.


Activity 1

Activity 2

  • Build-a-Calf Workshop activity sheet, 1 per student
  • Breed Pictures, 1 per group or display on white board
  • A coin to flip, 1 per group

Essential Files (maps, charts, pictures, or documents)

Essential Links


Angus: a Scottish breed of beef cattle known for their good meat quality

Hereford: an English breed of beef cattle with a red body and white face and stomach

alleles: one of two or more alternative forms of a gene that arise by mutation and are found at the same place on a chromosome.

dominant: a trait that can be expressed only when two copies of the gene is present

gene: a unit of heredity that is transferred from a parent to offspring and is held to determine some characteristic of the offspring

genotype: genetic makeup of an animal or plant

heredity: the passing on of physical or mental characteristics genetically from one generation to another

heterogeneous: trait produced by two different genes or a combination of genes

homogeneous: trait produced by two identical genes

inherit(ed): derive a quality or characteristic genetically from one's parent or ancestors

linked genes: genes that are inherited together or do not assort independently

phenotype: physical features of an animal

recessive: a trait that can be expressed only when two copies of the gene is present

trait: a genetically determined characteristic

Did you know? (Ag Facts)

  • There are over 60 breeds of beef cattle in the U.S.1 The most popular are Hereford, Angus, Brahman and Charolais.
  • Texas is the top producer of beef in the U.S., followed by Oklahoma, Missouri, Nebraska, Missouri, and South Dakota.2
  • On average, Americans consume 1.7 ounces of beef daily in their diets. Today's leaner beef offers the flavor that consumers crave and the nutrition they need for a healthy diet.3
  • Using artificial insemination in beef cattle improves genetics within a herd such as the conception rate of calving, calving ease, and better carcass weights.4

Background Agricultural Connections

The study of genetics and heredity are incredibly important to agriculturalists. Heredity is the passing of physical or mental characteristics genetically from one generation to another. For centuries, farmers and ranchers have selected plant varieties and livestock for specific genetically determined characteristics called traits. Livestock producers select for animals with increased milk production, ample muscle mass, or structural correctness, among other things. Selecting for these traits allows farmers to produce a higher quality and more abundant food supply.

Most plants and animals have two of every kind of gene, a unit of heredity transferred from a parent to the offspring. One comes from their mother, and one comes from their father. Only one gene from each parent is passed to each offspring for a particular trait. Linked genes are inherited together or do not assort independently. There are different forms of a gene that are referred to as alleles. Alleles are forms of the same gene with small differences in their DNA sequence. These small differences contribute to each organism's unique physical features and are called phenotypes. A plant or animal's genotype refers to the genetic makeup inherited by the offspring's parent.

Alleles can be either dominant or recessive. Dominant alleles overpower recessive alleles and are always expressed in offspring. Recessive alleles are only expressed if a recessive allele is inherited from both parents, because they are overpowered by even one dominant allele. For example, the allele in cattle that causes horns to grow is recessive. The hornless, or polled, allele is dominant, so more cattle are polled than horned. Dominant alleles are denoted by an uppercase letter, and recessive alleles are denoted by a lower case letter. When the combination of both dominant and recessive genes are present (one parent contributed a dominant gene and one contributed a recessive gene), the condition is called heterozygous. When both genes are either dominant or recessive the condition is called homozygous. Heterozygous would look like "Aa," and the homozygous condition would be expressed as "aa" representing the recessive trait or "AA" representing the dominant trait.

Understanding genetics is crucial for farmers. Beef producers try to breed for good characteristics, such as good marbling (intramuscular fat that contributes tenderness, juiciness and flavor), abundant muscle mass, and structural correctness. For example, beef producers try not to breed cattle to have horns because they can cause damage to other animals or people if the animal has an undesirable temperament. Breeders also pay attention to any genetic diseases that may be passed on from dams and sires to offspring.

There are several beef breeds that have distinguishing characteristics that are transferrable to their offspring. Angus cattle are generally smaller bodied, less muscular cattle with good marbling and a poor disposition. They are polled and either all red or all black in color. Hereford cattle are reddish brown with a white face and underbelly. They are larger framed with abundant muscle but have less marbling than Angus cattle. Herefords can be either polled or horned and have calm dispositions. Angus and Hereford cattle are often bred together to get the best of both worlds: a large bodied, heavily muscled animal with good meat characteristics. A Black Angus-Hereford cross can be identified by a white face and all black body, usually with no horns, and is typically called a Black Baldy. These are normally a product of an Angus cow bred with a Hereford bull. Crossbred cattle have been shown to have up to 20% more lifetime productivity over purebreds, which leads to an economic advantage for farmers.

Interest Approach – Engagement

  1. Begin a discussion with students by asking the following questions:
    • Does chocolate milk come from a brown cow? If it doesn't, why not? (Coat color doesn't reflect the color of milk. If we want chocolate milk, we have to add chocolate flavored powder or syrup to the milk.) Explain that most of the characteristics of cattle (including coat color) are inherited from their dam (mother) and sire (father). 
    • How are beef cattle different from dairy cattle?
    • What are some characteristics of humans that are inherited? Do all humans have identical inherited traits? How are they different or the same?
    • What are some characteristics in cattle that can be inherited? Do beef cattle and dairy cattle have the same or different inherited traits?
    • Why is inheritance important to a cattle rancher?


Activity 1: Beef Cattle K-W-L Chart

  1. Begin by passing around a post-it note or small piece of paper to every student. Ask the students to close their eyes. Have them visualize their response to the following question: "What comes to mind when I say the words beef cattle?"
  2. Have students jot down what came to their mind on the post-it note. Clarify to students that they can draw a picture or write down a word or phrase that came to their mind.
  3. Next, have students place their post-it note into a bucket. Remove the post-it notes one by one and begin to add the student's responses to the K section of a KWL chart drawn on chart paper or the board. These responses reflect what the students Know about beef cattle. Discuss responses as they are revealed.
  4. After the K section is completed, ask students what they would like to learn about beef cattle. Add their responses to the W section of the KWL chart. These responses will represent what the students want to learn about beef cattle.
  5. Introduce the digital version of My Family's Beef Farm by Katie Olthoff to the class. Read the book aloud to the students, emphasizing the physical characteristics of the beef cattle.
  6. Follow the same idea above and have students write on a second post-it note what they Learned about beef cattle from the book. Add these responses to the L section of the KWL chart.
  7. Compare the W and L sections of the KWL chart to see if the students learned all they wanted to.
  8. Next, determine any questions in the W section that were not answered by reading My Family's Beef Farm. Place students in small groups based on the number of sticky notes that still need to be researched.
  9. Assign each group one sticky note from the W section that still needs to be researched and explored.
  10. Provide students an opportunity to research more information about beef cattle by using the Ag Facts section of the lesson plan, searching on Google, and/or providing a copy of the Beef Ag Mag to the students.
  11. Once each group has gathered the information needed to answer their question from the W section of the KWL chart, have them add it to a post-it note, share it with the class, and then place the post-it note in the L section of the KWL chart.

Activity 2: Build-a-Calf

  1. Divide students into groups of four students or less. Give each student a Build-a-Calf activity sheet and each group a coin.
  2. Instruct students to read the instructions and then play the game.
    • The students should flip the coin to determine if the dominant or recessive allele is being passed on from the dam (female) to the offspring. If the coin lands heads up, the dominant gene is passed on. If the coin lands heads down, the recessive gene is passed on. The students should record the gene on their activity sheet and then flip the coin again to see if the dominant or recessive allele is being passed on from the sire (male). Once they have determined the allele from each parent, they should select the correct homozygous or heterozygous pairing on the activity sheet which will tell them which phenotype will be inherited. 
    • Repeat this process for all of the traits represented.
    • Have the students color the calf on the back side of their activity sheet to reflect the genes passed on from the parents to the offspring.
    • Have the students compare their offspring to the breed pictures. Does their calf look more like an Angus or a Hereford? Does it look like a cross? What genes determined that?
    • In their groups, have the students calculate the percent of animals that look like Herefords, Angus, or crossbreds. Is there an even number of each? Why or why not?
  3. As a group, have students discuss:
    • Are beef producers the only farmers that need to be concerned with genetics? Are there traits in crops or other livestock that are affected by heredity? What might some of those traits be?
    • If an animal lives in an arid desert, what traits might you select? What might help your animal be more successful in that environment?
    • Do the traits in the game directly affect the animal's use for consumers? What are some traits that might directly affect the animal's use for consumers? Is there a way to select for traits that would focus on nutrition or healthfulness?

Conception Elaboration and Evaluation

After conducting these activities, review and summarize the following key concepts.

  • Beef cattle are raised on family farms that provide a balanced feed ration, fresh water, and pastures for grazing the herd.
  • Genetics play an important role for beef farms in selecting cattle with specific traits to produce a higher quality product for consumers and to increase food production.
  • Different breeds of cattle have distinguishing characteristics that can be transferred to their offspring. This is known as heredity.
  • Crossbred cattle provide more desirable traits and lifetime productivity over purebred cattle.

We welcome your feedback! Please take a minute to tell us how to make this lesson better or to give us a few gold stars!


Enriching Activities

  • Have students brainstorm traits to add to the list from Activity 2. Some could include: muscle, bone, head color, hair length, hoof size, etc.

  • Invite a beef cattle producer to talk to your students about their farming operation.

  • Provide each student with a Beef Ag Mag and have them report on their favorite fact telling why they feel that their fact is important for consumers.

  • Play the My American Farm interactive game The Steaks are High.

Suggested Companion Resources

Agricultural Literacy Outcomes

Culture, Society, Economy & Geography

  • Explain the value of agriculture and how it is important in daily life. (T5.3-5.d)

Plants and Animals for Food, Fiber & Energy

  • Provide examples of specific ways farmers meet the needs of animals (T2.3-5.d)

Science, Technology, Engineering & Math

  • Identify examples of how the knowledge of inherited traits is applied to farmed plants and animals in order to meet specific objectives (i.e., increased yields, better nutrition, etc.) (T4.3-5.c)
  • Provide examples of science being applied in farming for food, clothing, and shelter products (T4.3-5.d)

Education Content Standards


3-LS3: Heredity: Inheritance and Variation of Traits

  • 3-LS3-1
    Analyze the interpret data to provide evidence that plants and animals have traits inherited from parents and that variation of these traits exists in a group of similar organisms.
  • 3-LS3-2
    Use evidence to support the explanation that traits can be influenced by the environment

Common Core Connections

Reading: Anchor Standards

    Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.
    Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.

Speaking and Listening: Anchor Standards

    Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
    Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.
    Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
    Make strategic use of digital media and visual displays of data to express information and enhance understanding of presentations.

Language: Anchor Standards

    Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.

Writing: Anchor Standards

    Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism.
    Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

Mathematics: Practice Standards

    Reason abstractly and quantitatively. Students make sense of quantities and their relationships in problem situations. They bring two complementary abilities to bear on problems involving quantitative relationships: the ability to decontextualize—to abstract a given situation and represent it symbolically and manipulate the representing symbols as if they have a life of their own, without necessarily attending to their referents—and the ability to contextualize, to pause as needed during the manipulation process in order to probe into the referents for the symbols involved. Quantitative reasoning entails habits of creating a coherent representation of the problem at hand; considering the units involved; attending to the meaning of quantities, not just how to compute them; and knowing and flexibly using different properties of operations and objects.


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