Monitor Livestock Health With Midwinter Weight Checks

Don't let your animals fall behind this winter. Learn how to check their weight using a system called body condition scoring.

by Anna O'Brien
PHOTO: Shutterstock

We’re halfway through winter in the northern hemisphere, and the end feels like it’s almost in sight. Midwinter is a good time for livestock owners to check their animals’ body weight. If some animals in your herd look thinner than others, you might consider separating them in order to feed them more. Additionally, some of you might have pregnant animals that will be giving birth at the start of spring. Assessing these animals’ weight now will help you manage feeding to ensure they are in the best condition in time for birth.

Without scales, an efficient and effective way to objectively evaluate an animal’s weight is by implementing body condition scoring, often referred to as BCS; this method assigns each animal a score based on how bony it looks and feels. Each livestock species is evaluated differently, and it’s important to use the correct score for each species. Let’s go through a few to take a closer look.


Horse owners should use the Henneke Horse Body Condition Score, which utilizes a range of 1 to 9, with 1 being extremely emaciated and 9 being extremely obese. This score emphasizes evaluating a horse’s neck, withers, tailhead and ribs, as these are common places for fat deposits.

Given that many horses grow thick winter coats, in order to best determine a horse’s BCS, get your hands on your horse and see how easily you can feel ribs or how rounded the crest of the neck really is. Keep in mind that there isn’t one perfect score for all horses. Lanky, athletic thoroughbreds are frequently at a score of 4 while chunkier ponies tend to sit about a 6.

The importance of using this system is to monitor changes in an individual animal over time. If your horse started as a 5 in the fall but now is a 4 or a 3, this indicates the animal is not consuming enough calories to maintain body weight, and some management changes are needed. Likewise, if your horse started as a 6 but is now an 8, maybe you’ve given that animal too much time off for Christmas vacation.


Beef cattle have a 9-point scale like horses, but the anatomical landmarks are a little different. Instead of looking at a cow’s neck like you would a horse, a major emphasis is the cow’s pelvis—namely, how prominent are her “hook” and “pin” bones. With cattle, it’s ideal to evaluate the animal from the side and behind to get the best sense of the depth of bony prominences.

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Dairy cattle use a different scale that ranges from 1 to 5, typically including increments of 0.5. Anatomical locations are the same as for beef cattle. Most dairy herds should aim for scores ranging from 2.5 to 4.0, but notice that individual body conditions within a herd will normally vary over the course of a year based on where a particular animal is in her lactation cycle. For example, in the period after freshening (calving), a dairy cow might be a 2.5 while a dry (non-lactating) cow might be a 3.5 or 4.

Goats & Sheep

Dairy goats are evaluated using the same scale as dairy cows; however, goat evaluation involves more hands-on assessment. Placing your hand along her spine, hips, and sternum allows a good sense of fatty tissue present. If desired, the same scoring system can be used for meat goats.

Although a bit arbitrary, sheep scoring uses a scale of 1 to 5, without the 0.5 increments. Most ewes should be kept between a 2 and a 4, depending on her life stage.

And what about a scale for all you backyard chicken keepers? Interestingly, a fully accepted body condition score for chickens hasn’t been developed yet. A 2010 paper from New Zealand suggested a 0 to 3 scale, which farmers might consider. Like the other scales, it involves evaluating the prominent bones of the animal and in this case, the keel of the bird is used.

One final tip: If you have a hard time determining whether an animal is a 4 or a 5 on a scale, particularly on a 9-point scale, take a step back. First train your eye on any obviously thin or fat animals in the group. Identifying those outliers can clue you in to the more subtle changes between animals that are closer to where they should be.

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