When and Why to Body Condition Score Cattle

megan van emon msu extension beef specialistBy Dr. Megan Van Emon, MSU Extension Beef Cattle Specialist

Body condition scoring is a management tool that can be used to evaluate the nutritional status of beef cattle. The tool uses a numeric score, 1 to 9, for evaluating the fleshiness, or body energy reserves, of the beef cow and does not require the gathering and working of cows. Body condition score utilizes a score from 1 to 9, with 1 being emaciated and 9 being very obese, with the ideal BCS being 5 to 6. Areas considered when evaluating body condition score include the brisket, back, tail head, hooks, pins, and ribs.

Body condition scoring should be measured throughout the year at strategic time points during the production cycle. Body condition should be evaluated at the beginning of the breeding season, 90 days prior to calving, calving, late summer, weaning, 45 days after weaning, and fall. Maintaining the optimum BCS throughout year is crucial to maintaining reproductive efficiency and cow and calf health.

Evaluating BCS 90 days prior to calving will allow those thin cows to be separated and fed accordingly to improve body condition. Late gestation adds increased stress on the cow due to the rapid growth of the calf. Having adequate body condition at calving reduces the stress on both the cow and calf. Cows at optimum body condition at calving produce healthier calves and are able to maintain peak lactation compared with thin cows.

If cows are thin at calving, the pre-calving nutrition program or weaning dates may need to be changed. It is difficult for thin cows to gain body condition immediately after calving, which requires large amounts of high quality feeds. This may not be an economically viable decision.

Maintaining adequate BCS reduces postpartum interval compared with thin cows and will improve pregnancy rates after a 90 day breeding season. A BCS 5 or 6 improves pregnancy rates drastically compared with a BCS of 4. Therefore, having cows in good body condition during the breeding season improves pregnancy rates.

Measuring BCS between breeding and weaning (late summer) allows for nutritional adjustments to be made. If cows are thin heading into weaning, early weaning can be considered to reduce the stress on the cow. Early weaning of thin cows lets those cows regain condition before heading into the winter months and the increased nutrient demands during late gestation.

Cattle Body Condition Scoring Megan Van Emon MSU Extension

Analyzing BCS at weaning allows for thin cows to be separated and fed apart from the fleshy cows. This will help the thin cows regain body condition before heading into fall. This is also a time to focus on young cows that are weaning their first calf, as they are more likely to be thin compared to the older cows.

Evaluating body condition 45 days after weaning gives you a good idea if cows are regaining condition after weaning. If thin cows are not regaining body condition, then nutritional adjustments can be made before entering the winter months.

Condition scoring cows during the fall allows for the critical evaluation of feed resources. Most years, the fall months include reduced pasture availability and quality, which makes it difficult for cows to regain condition. Those cows that are thin heading into winter can be fed separately with supplemental feeds to improve body condition.

Managing Cow Body Condition At Fall Working

By Dr. Rachel Endecott, Extension Beef Cattle Specialist, Montana State University

cattle rampIt’s finally starting to feel a bit like fall, and with that come chores like weaning, shipping, and pregnancy checking.  While those cows are in the pen for fall work, it might be worth your while to evaluate their body condition.

Body condition scores describe relative fatness of a cowherd using a 9-point system, where 1 is “emaciated” and 9 is “obese”.  The main components of body condition scoring are visible bone structure, muscling, and fat cover. A body condition score 1 cow has shoulders, ribs, backbone, hooks, and pins that are sharp to the touch and easily visible.  She would exhibit no evidence of fat or muscling.  In contrast, the bone structure of a body condition score 9 cow is not seen or easily felt and her tailhead is buried in fat. My theory is that most body condition score 9 cows have names, not numbers!  Happily, neither body condition score 1 or 9 cows are common sights in Montana beef cattle herds.

Most industry recommendations suggest that mature cows be in condition score 5 at calving and that first-calf heifers be in condition score 6 for optimal reproductive performance and colostrum production.  Characteristics of a body condition score 5 cow include that her 12th and 13th ribs are only visible if she is shrunk, and she has visible muscling and some fat on each side of her tailhead.  On the other hand, the ribs of a body condition score 6 cow are fully covered and not visible, and she has noticeable springiness over her foreribs and tailhead.

Post-weaning is a great time to improve condition of thin cows because it coincides with their lowest nutrient requirements of their production cycle.  This phenomenon can often be observed when cows graze dormant forage pastures post-weaning and gain body condition going into the winter, and shows that even in late lactation, the production of milk requires a large proportion of nutrients.  Energy requirements decrease nearly 25% when a cow transitions from late lactation to a dry cow in mid-gestation, and protein requirements decrease by nearly a third from pre-weaning to post-weaning.

Three important times of the year to take a critical look at body condition would be at weaning/preg check, the start of the third trimester, and calving. Keep in mind that as time passes between weaning and calving, the opportunity to take advantage of lower nutrient requirements of the cow slips away. Post-weaning is usually the best time to put weight on thin cows in an economical and efficient manner.