Body condition scoring beef cows

Cattlemen need to be vigilant to the condition in which our cows go into calving. If cows are thin at calving time, there will be reductions in quality and quantity of colostrum, calf vigor, and subsequent fertility during next summer’s breeding season.

Cows, which calve thin will delay their return to estrus and breed back late. If these cows do not maintain a 365-day calving cycle, after one to two late breedings they could effectively “cull themselves” due to being open at preg check time. Young cows are especially susceptible to this possibility because they are gestating a calf, nursing a calf, and still growing frame and muscle themselves. Unfortunately, young cows are the future of your herd and possibly your most progressive genetics. Hopefully, these cows aren’t culled simply for lack of nutrients.

Body condition score (BCS) on a beef cow is the closest thing we have to a dip stick for determining – at a glance – her nutritional status. But scoring cows properly and really benefiting from this tool requires a bit more effort and observation than simply looking at the herd as a whole and thinking, “They look a little thin.”

We need to look at each cow individually and make a record. Depending on your calving date, there may still be time to adjust nutrient supply to get the cows into the target BCS by calving time.

To properly evaluate an individual cow, you should look at her topline, brisket, ribs, flank, round and tail head. The “ideal” or “target” BCS for cows at the time of calving is the BCS equals 5. This cow will show the last one to two ribs first thing in the morning before feeding, have good fullness of muscle in the round with definite muscle definition, the spine will be apparent but individual vertebrae will not be discernable, and there are no obvious fat depots behind the shoulder or around the tailhead. We would say this cow has a good “bloom,” but isn’t fleshy.

A borderline thin cow (BCS equals 4) will clearly show three to four ribs first thing in the morning, will have no fat depots in the brisket or tailhead, and you can see the individual vertebrae along the topline. The cow still shows some muscle through the round, and you could say she looks “healthy but thin”.

In a borderline fleshy cow (BCS equals 6) the ribs and vertebrae will not be obvious, as they are covered by fat. The muscling down through the round will be plump and full, but muscle definition is still apparent, and there will be small but noticeable fat deposits behind the shoulder, in the flank, brisket, and around the tailhead.

A change in BCS (from BCS 4 to 5, for example) requires addition of from 75 to 100 pounds live body weight, depending on the mature size or frame size of the cows. If you’re two months from the start of calving and need to add one BCS, you’ll need to feed the cows for maintenance, last 1/3 of gestation, and an additional 1.0 to 1.5 pound per day gain. This means increasing the amount of good quality hay as well as the amount of supplement.

Thin cows (BCS 4 or below) can be separated off and fed a higher plane of nutrition. The argument can be made that this creates “welfare cows.”

However, good record-keeping will indicate whether these cows are perennial “hard-keepers” or if they are simply too young or too old to compete with the mature cows. If they’re too young, another year of maturity should cure this; if they’re too old, you may consider culling them after weaning time. The key here is that good record keeping allows you to cull intentionally based on productivity, as opposed to the cow “culling herself” due to nutritional infertility because of lack of observation and management.

Body condition scoring the herd is a simple process, and can be done on a large paper tablet. Make columns for BCS 3, 4, 5 and 6 and as you pass through the herd first thing in the morning, make a tick mark for each cow in each of the columns. Count up how many cows you’ve got in the critical scores of 3 and 4. Fours can be easily fed into the 5 range, but 3s could potentially not cycle in time to stay in the herd. If 3s can be fed up into the 4-range, they’ll at least have a chance to breed, albeit late during the normal breeding season.

Take a little time to truly, critically evaluate the nutrient status of your cow herd this winter, and use this simple, but powerful tool to manage the fertility and health of your herd going into next spring, and give yourself full control over the genetics of your herd for years to come.

Matt Young31 Posts

Matt Young is the Brown County Extension District director, as well as an agent in the area of agriculture and natural resources.

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