Body Condition Scoring – A Management Practice That Can’t be Overlooked

Body Condition Scoring – A Management Practice That Can’t be Overlooked

January 2012

Body condition of spring-calving cows at the time of calving has an impact on your herd. For spring-calving cows, body condition at calving impacts the calf at calving time. In addition, spring-calving cows' body condition at caving also impacts performance during the breeding season. Over-conditioning cows, especially if the extra condition was fed on is wasting money. Under conditioned cows are risky because their performance can be inconsistent. A proper conditioned cow herd at the right time during the production cycle is the goal. The importance of this management practice cannot be overlooked this year as input costs, especially feed costs, continue to increase.

Review of the Body Condition Scoring System

Photo - feeding cows in winterLet's refresh the condition scoring system. The most common system used is the one to nine condition scoring system. A condition score one cow is very thin and emaciated. A condition score 9 cow is very fat and obese. Very seldom do we see the extreme body condition scores. Most cows are between a condition score 3 and 7.

There are 6 areas on the animal that we visually assess the amount of condition (fat): the brisket, ribs, back, hooks (hip area), pins, and tailhead area. A condition score three cow will have no fat in the brisket, over the ribs and back, or in the hooks, pins, and tailhead area. In fact, she will have a crease in her hind quarter where she has had to start to mobilize muscle tissue to meet maintenance energy needs. The condition score three cow, as she is viewed from the rear, appears pointed because you can easily see her spinus process, hip and pin bones. A condition score five cow will have a smoother appearance because she has fat in the areas described previously. You can not see the fore-ribs, but can see the 12th and 13th ribs in a condition score five cow. A condition score six cow will have fat in the brisket, you will not see the 12th or 13th ribs, and there will be two small ponds of fat on both sides of the tailhead.

Sometime inexperienced condition scorers will catch cows in the chute and hand palpate them to train the touch to a visually image. It is critical that when condition scoring cows that evaluate condition and not muscle or hair. Seeing through the hair can be difficult in the winter.

Cow body condition is a much better gage of your nutrition program as compared to cow weight. When you observe cows daily, it is more difficult to detect changes in condition score. Many times before you realize a change in condition, cows have actually lost more condition than you would like. Producers need to be disciplined to make sure they are not underestimating condition changes so that appropriate action can be taken.

If you would like to learn more about condition scoring beef cows or you have new employees and want them to learn about condition scoring beef cows, go through our learning modules.

What Condition Score Should You Manage For?

For spring-calving cows, manage cows to calve in a condition score 5. For first-calf-heifers, manage them to calve in a condition score 6. The extra condition is warranted for the young females because they are still growing, lactating for the first time, and trying to get ready for their next pregnancy. Even if you do everything right with these females, their postpartum interval is at least 15 days longer compared to a mature cow.

If mature cows are always thin and need to be fed to get them back in condition before calving, check the genetics. Something doesn't match up with the feed resources or your management. Cow size and milk production are the biggest challenges from a nutritional standpoint. May be one or both of these characteristics don't match your feed resources.

For late spring (May) and summer calving herds, condition of cows at calving appears to be less important on future performance of the cows. These cows can have a condition score of less than 5 at calving and still have good reproductive performance. This is likely because cows are grazing vegetative grass before (in some cases) and after calving. The caution would be not to calve these cows in thin body condition. Even for summer calving herds, calving first-calvers in condition score 6 is still recommended.

Body condition at calving influences how quickly cows will return to estrous cycles and ready themselves for the next breeding season. When a cow calves during the calving season not only influences weight at weaning, but data indicates that when a calf is born during the calving season influences future performance of the female and male offspring. Cows that calve the first 21 days of the calving season over an eight to nine year period produce 1.5 to 2.0 more weaning weight equivalents over that time period compared to a cow that continues to calve the third 21 day calving period. Heifer calves born to cows that calve the 1st 21-day period have greater pregnancy rates during their first breeding and calve earlier in the calving season which is a great start to being a productive part of the cow herd. In addition, male calves born early in the calving season when retained into the feedlot are heavier and more grade Choice when finished compared to contemporaries born later in the calving season.

When to Condition Score Cows

Condition scoring cows at weaning seems logical. Pay particular attention to young females weaning their first calf, they are the ones that are likely to be thin. Don't separate them off yet, watch them to make sure they begin to regain condition after the nutrient demand for lactation has been removed. Mature cows that are thin at weaning should bounce back in condition if they are thin at weaning by 60 days post-weaning. These are what I term elastic cows; they are thin at weaning but then, like a rubber band when stretched and the stress relieved, return to an acceptable condition once the calf is weaned.

Condition score spring-calving cows again about 90 days prior to calving. This is your last opportunity to get cows in the right condition before calving. Trying to add condition to cows after calving is like trying to push water uphill. The diet will need to be fairly dense in energy and cows that get high energy diets after calving, tend to milk more and not put on condition.

Rick Rasby Dr. Rick Rasby, Professor of Animal Science
Animal Science, University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Lincoln, NE