Body condition scoring pays dividends

Beef 911: Having a good handle on body condition allows you to fatten 
thin cows and feed less to fat ones to boost performance

Purebred hereford cattle
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Body condition scoring really means assessing the condition and fat cover on your cow to enable you to feed them for optimal growth and reproductive performance.

It may mean separating the fat and thin groups from the main herd, which allows you to feed them separately to save feed on the fat ones and build up condition on the thin cows. Pregnancy checking in the fall is the best time to body condition score and allows you to get the cattle in optimal shape before calving time.

Having the cows in the optimal shape for calving also sets them up to help carry them through to the breeding season and achieve optimum conception. In Canada we use the five-point system with 1 being emaciated and 5 being extremely fat. In the U.S. system they use a nine-point system so every point on their system is equivalent to half in our system. Many years ago we tried to fine-tune our system and half body condition scores were added in, such as calving ideally we want cows in a 2.5 to 3.5 body condition score (BCS). In simple terms, the fat cows need to go on a diet and the thin ones need to be fed more as a group or possibly put in with the bred heifers.

There are several good references, including the great work the Alberta Beef Producers did in March 2015 (see There is also a memory stick with the same information on it that has been given out at numerous cattle events and can be ordered by calling 403-275-8558 (ext. 302) or [email protected]. The beef code of practice has an excellent appendix A (pages 42-44) explaining condition scoring so get a copy, as it is worthwhile to have for so many other reasons. Saskatchewan Agriculture has also put out an excellent video on this same subject and if you Google ‘body condition scoring,’ lots of pictorial drawings come up.

One uses a combination of checking for fat cover at four main locations (the short ribs, tail head, spine, and hooks or pin bones). For the ideal condition of 3, for instance, you should only feel the tips of the short ribs with firm pressure. Once you practise a bit, many cows can be easily categorized into the thin, fat or normal category, as even with large herds separating into three groups is common. You will find most times that if pasture has been good, the oldest cows and the first calvers commonly fall into the thin category. When one sees the large calves the first calvers have raised, it is no wonder some weight loss has occurred and this group is the future of your herd so they often need a little more TLC.

Fall is really the ideal time to body condition score for spring-calving cows. There is the least demand on the cows as the calves are weaned (provided this is a typical spring-calving program) you are generally running them through the chute to pregnancy check and giving treatment for internal and external parasites and potentially scours vaccines. The latest Western Canadian Cow-Calf Survey indicated still only 60 per cent of beef producers pregnancy check. The vast majority of the large producers pregnancy check, so it is probably more like 80 per cent of the cattle get pregnancy checked so the body condition scoring can be done quickly. That means different groups can be sorted at the same time as the open cows are peeled off to be sold.

So many of the yearly health and production issues can be minimized by getting your cows in the proper shape this fall.

You have a few months to get the cows up to the ideal weight and condition before calving. As one looks after protein and energy to get the weight on, and don’t forget about adequate vitamins and minerals, you are really setting the cows up for the production and growth cycle of the next year.

There are many benefits: Cows will have more energy and less calving issues. Colostrum will be much better quality on average leading to less calf health issues. Uterine contractions will be harder so calving quicker. Less stillborns results in a higher calving percentage. Calves are born more vigorous and are more likely to get up and suckle. There are way less retained placentas in normal versus thin cows so we are setting our cattle up for the next breeding season. Milk production and subsequent growth of the calf will be better.

All these things happen because we pull out the thin cows (mainly first calvers) and feed them separate or feed them with the bred heifers. Either way you have a few months (if pregnancy checking at four to five months gestation) to increase their body score to the desirable range. Remember also, for example, that cows carrying twins or old cows with bad feet or kidney infection may be very thin. If thin cows do not increase body condition there may be a medical condition that needs to be explored and possibly treated.

Fat cows will have more issues calving because of internal fat and again uterine contractility is reduced. I am always suspicious that if cows are too fat, it is an indication they don’t milk very well or perhaps they lost their calf over the summer. These are all good reasons to explore the history of these cows and, in some cases, culling may be necessary. By weight these cows can return pretty good value as well. These fat cows also accumulate excess fat in the udder and that can affect milk production in subsequent years.

You ideally want cows rebreeding within about 60 days of calving so again proper body condition with the other nutrients in the diet allow uterine involution after calving and cycling to occur. Cows must be on a rising plane of nutrition to breed and if you are trying to catch them up from calving too thin your next year’s breeding season will see a much reduced conception rate or the conception rate will really be spread out.

You can see then by separating and adjusting for the thin and fat cattle you have a great influence on the impending calf crop and set up your cattle for breeding, which affects the following year’s calf crop. You improve many health parameters and increase calf viability growth and the conception rate for the following year.

Anything we can do to improve conception rates will certainly increase profitability of the cow herd. Overall feed costs may not go up much as some cows you are feeding less to while others you will be feeding more to. (Older cows do have less cover over the topline and this varies a bit with breed.)

The most important thing is getting the thin cows out in enough time to regain their condition before calving. Seriously consider trying to body condition score and sort to feed differently this fall season, as it is time well invested.

The benefits will show up next year, believe me!

About the author


Roy Lewis practised large-animal veterinary medicine for more than 30 years and now works part time as a technical services veterinarian for Merck Animal Health.



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