Using the Body Condition Score

By Rory Lewandowski, Extension Educator, Athens County.
calendar icon 15 November 2006
clock icon 3 minute read

One management tool that all beef producers should be using is the body condition scoring (BCS) system. The BCS system allows producers to determine if a cow or particular group of cattle needs to be on a higher, or in some cases lower, nutritional plane in preparation for calving, breeding, or even day-to-day maintenance.

Even if forages and feeds have been tested and analyzed, the producer should be monitoring the BCS of cattle to evaluate if cattle are responding as the test results predicted. Monitoring body condition score over time will help a producer evaluate how well his or her management practices match up with the nutritional and health needs of the cattle herd.

Using the BCS system can help the beef producer group cattle into different feeding regimes, according to nutritional needs. Some critical times to body condition score cattle are: at weaning, 60 days before calving, calving, beginning of the breeding season and mid-summer.

Weaning is a critical time to body condition score cows because a BCS of 5 to 6 should be achieved before the onset of cold winter weather. Studies have shown that it is difficult to put body condition on a thin cow during cold weather. Remember that a couple of factors work against gaining body condition during the winter period.

First, the cold itself raises nutritional requirements, second, many cattlemen do not have the hay or forage quality necessary to meet more than body maintenance requirements during the winter, or if they do, they are saving it for the late gestation period, and finally, as gestation progresses, nutritional requirements increase.

The period following weaning is generally the time of lowest nutritional requirements for the cow, so feeding even a lower quality forage can provide enough nutrients for maintenance requirements plus weight gain. Trying to put weight gain on a thin cow during the winter months is not impossible, but it is expensive because it requires a more nutrient dense feedstuff.
For those who might not be familiar with the BCS system, or could use a quick review, here is the description of the numerical ratings.

EMACIATED: Starving and weak. No palpable fat detectable over back, hip bones, or ribs. Tail-head and ribs project quite prominently.

POOR: Poor milk production and reproduction. Chances of rebreeding slim. Cow still emaciated but tail-head and ribs less prominent. Backbone is still rather sharp to the touch but some tissue exists along the backbone.

THIN: Poor milk production and reproduction. Ribs are still individually identifiable but not quite as sharp to the touch. Obvious palpable fat along the spine and over the tail-head with some tissue over top portion of the ribs.

BORDERLINE: Reproduction bordering on inadequate. Individual ribs no longer visually obvious. Individual spines can be identified on palpation but feel rounded, rather than sharp. Some fat cover over ribs and hip bones.

MODERATE: Minimum necessary for efficient rebreeding and good milk production. Cow has generally good overall appearance. Upon palpation, fat cover over ribs feels spongy and the area on either side of the tail-head now has palpable fat cover.

OPTIMUM: Milk production and rebreeding very acceptable. Firm pressure now has to be applied to feel spinous processes. A high degree of fat is palpable over the ribs and around the tail-head.

GOOD: Maximum condition needed for efficient reproduction. Cow appears fleshy and obviously carries considerable fat. Very spongy fat cover over the ribs and around the tail-head. Some fat around vulva and crotch.

FAT: Very fleshy. No advantage in having the cow in this condition. Backbone almost impossible to palpate. Cow has larger fat deposits over ribs, around tail-head, and below vulva.

EXTREMELY FAT: The fat may cause calving problems. Cow extremely wasty and patchy. Tail-head and hips buried in fatty tissue. Bone structure no longer visible and barely palpable. The animal's mobility may be impaired by fat deposits.

The BCS system is a low-cost management tool that can be effective in helping beef producers evaluate their management practices when used on a consistent basis.

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