Body condition scoring beef cows
The concept of body condition scoring (BCS) livestock has been around for quite a while. As most or all of you know, it involves assigning a numeric value (score) depending on the amount of soft tissue (fat and muscle) cover over the skeletal structure of the animal. There is a numeric scale for practically every species of domestic livestock, and even for some big game species such as elk. Although these scales differ among species, the concept and application are the same.
The main concept is that body condition is a measure of the nutritional status of the animal, and more importantly, changes in condition over time will reflect whether that animal is in a positive or negative nutritional balance. This is extremely valuable for nutritional management. There are times of the year that a cow should be gaining nutrition and therefore we should see an improvement in BCS, and other times of the year when her nutrient requirements are low and the feed bill can be reduced by letting her live off of excess body fat.
The key reason that nutritional management of this nature is important is that the nutritional status of the cow will drive her ability to be healthy and productive throughout her life. This includes her ability to return to cyclicity each year after she calves (or reach puberty if she is a heifer), provide quality colostrum and milk to her calf, be fertile when breeding season starts, and efficiently use feed during inclement weather (particularly having fat cover as insulation during cold). Again, it is also important because it can help avoid feeding in excess.
In brief, the BCS system for beef cattle uses a scale ranging from 1 to 9 wherein 1 is emaciated and 9 is obese. I like to describe a BCS 1 cow as being so thin and weak that she needs to lean against something to stand up. On the other extreme, the BCS 9 cow is so fat that she also needs to lean on something to stand up because she needs help supporting her excess weight. Hopefully we don’t ever see cows at either extreme because they will not be healthy or productive, and especially at the obese end, feed resources have been wasted. While BCS should change throughout the year as feed resources and weather change, they should typically remain in or near the moderate range of BCS 4 to 6.
Specific recommendations for BCS scores and changes throughout the year revolve around the most critical times of year for BCS to be at its optimum point, which are calving and breeding. Extensive research from throughout the country repeatedly has shown that BCS should be at or near 5 when a cow calves. This provides the optimum ability to return to estrous by the beginning of breeding and be fertile so she gets pregnant early. If it is not at 5 at calving, then nutritional management from calving to breeding should allow BCS to move toward a 5. Once cows are out on summer grass, they should gain condition. This is the highest quality forage that they should see throughout the year and also the cheapest source of nutrition and this should be taken advantage of. Thus, they should be in their highest condition in the fall. If so, they can be managed during the winter simply to maintain or maybe even lose a little condition.
The best thing about body condition scoring as a tool is that it is low cost. The only cost is the time required to ascertain each cow’s score, and this can often be done while doing something else. Scoring can be done while the cows are in the pasture and you are there to check health or feed them. It is better if it is done when they are going through the chute so you can touch them to palpate the thickness of fat over the back, hips, etc., but being able to touch them is not required. A nice coincidence is that the best times to score body condition typically align with times that the cows typically go through the chute anyway, such as at pregnancy checking or shortly before breeding when they get annual vaccine boosters.
The most important point that I want to make in this column is the importance of actually writing down numeric scores for individual cows to ensure that scores are objective and unbiased. It is easy to do a windshield survey of the cows as you drive through the herd, but this allows the opportunity to unintentionally focus on the thinner cows or fatter cows and not realize that the herd average is different. I am concerned that too many of us do it this way too often and we are not using the tool as effectively as we should. Having a tablet and writing down scores as one looks at each cow one at a time will provide better accuracy. In a large herd, it wouldn’t be necessary to score every cow, just score enough to get a representative sample. The ultimate result will be better information that will help to ensure that we keep the cows healthy and productive without wasting feed resources.
As we deal with high and volatile feed costs, we often don’t have much control over what we have to pay for feed. Our only option to control high feed costs is to make sure that we do the best job we can of getting maximum use out of the feed that we use. Body condition scoring is a tool that will help us to do that.