Body condition scoring continues to be an important and useful management tool for beef cow/calf producers. Unfortunately it is often forgotten about. The current method of evaluating body condition involves visually evaluating the animal, and assigning a body condition score (BCS) that reflects the animal’s current state of condition. It can be used as a reliable indicator of a cow’s nutritional status, and should be used as an aid when making certain management decisions.
It is important that body condition be evaluated at times during the year that provide the opportunity for any changes to be beneficial. In an ideal situation, body condition is evaluated continuously throughout the year. However changing the nutritional status of an animal, at least to the extent that the change is visually evident, generally takes extended periods of time…. Most often months.
The two times during the year to evaluate body condition that fit best in most management programs are the spring and fall. This is because for most operations with a defined calving season, cows are either calving, or calves are being weaned during one of these two seasons. Evaluating body condition around the time of these two events (calving and weaning) allows you to make management decisions that will hopefully optimize that animal’s productivity. Doing so also allows you to evaluate, and adjust management in the future.
At calving, the ideal BCS of a mature cow is 5 to 6. For the purpose of providing cattle with the nutrients that they need to successfully reproduce once per year, it generally takes a BCS at calving of at least 5 to do that. This is because cows that calve below that score generally require extended periods of time to begin cycling again, which often places them outside the window of re-breeding within the 82 or so days necessary to calve once every calendar year (assuming a 283-day gestation length).
Over conditioning, scores higher than 6, results in higher costs of production. Excessively high BCS scores, greater than 7, also often leads to health problems for the cows. There are herds out there that would improve their profits by not continuing to over condition the cows.
Replacement heifers should be managed to calve at one-half to one full BCS higher than the mature cowherd. This acts as a form of insurance for their fertility, and eases their transition into the normal rotation in the cowherd.
For second-calf heifers, we would like to see them calve at a 6 and we know this is tough to achieve if they are just in with the rest of the herd, as these females are still growing, and require roughly 10 to 15 % more energy and protein than the mature cowherd. Ideally this group should be managed separate from the mature cow herd prior to calving. Once they have their second calf they should be able to be managed with the mature herd if they are going to be profitable cows in the operation.
At weaning, the ideal BCS for each category is much more difficult to define. Managing mature cows and first-calf heifers to maintain a BCS of at least a 4 at weaning generally yields good results for most producers. Generally that means that she had enough condition to prevent nutritional stress from causing abortion, and there is enough time remaining prior to calving that her condition can be increased. But maintaining that level of condition through weaning can be difficult for first-calf heifers, particularly those with a high level of milk production, and especially if the first-calvers are managed with the remainder of the herd. After weaning, first-calvers should be managed separately and under a higher plane of nutrition than the mature cow in order to minimize the negative consequences of undernutrition because they are still growing themselves.
Body condition scoring is a valuable tool, but is only as valuable as we make use of it. Knowing the BCS of a group of females doesn’t provide any benefit if we don’t do anything with the information. The value of evaluating body condition lies in using that information to make management decisions.
Written by: Bill Halfman, UW Extension- Monroe County and recently appeared in Wisconsin Agriculturist Magazine