Body Condition Scoring for Cows

Assess the Nutritional Status and Needs of your Beef or Dairy Cattle

by Dani Yokhna

Body condition scoring (BCS), if you keep cows, whether for meat, milk, or breeding purposes, is a tool to measure how well your nutrition program meets the nutritional needs of your cow herd and should be at the top of your livestock management checklist.

Farmers and producers have been using the BCS system for more than 40 years to indicate the amount of energy (aka fat) a cow has stored in its body. A score—1 to 5 for dairy cattle and 1 to 9 for beef cattle—is assigned to the animal based on a visual and tactile assessment of six different areas on the cow’s body: brisket, ribs, back, hook bone, pin bones and tail head. This information is then used to help determine the cow’s nutritional status and potential needs.

“While the technique of measuring BCS is relatively similar [in dairy and beef cattle], a body-condition-score-5 beef cow is not the same as a body-condition-score-5 dairy cow,” says Brian Vander Ley, DVM, a clinical instructor in the University of Missouri’s Food Animal Medicine and Surgery department.

Normal BCS ranges for beef cattle are above 4 out of 9, while 2.5 out of 5 is normal for dairy cattle such as Jersey cows, Vander Ley says.

BCS & Calving

Body Condition Scoring is particularly used in conjunction with calving, when more energy is required of the cow for lactation. By ensuring your cow’s BCS remains in a stable range, you’ll be assured that cows will perform adequately at calving, the calves will receive adequate antibodies through colostrums and cows will be ready to cycle and rebreed early during the next breeding season.

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“In both beef and dairy breeds, cows experience phases of production that require more energy than they can actually consume,” Vander Ley says. “During these times, fat stores are used to provide energy until dietary intake can meet their demands.” A good example is during peak milk production.

As you continue reading about how to use the BCS to care for your livestock, keep in mind BCS is not the only tool you should use to monitor your cows. Your cows should also be evaluated individually—what is normal for one cow might not hold true for another. Young cows have a greater nutrient requirement because they are raising their first calf and still trying to grow. They likely need to be managed and fed separately from mature cows. Mature cows that are always thin might be an indication that they don’t fit your production system.

Putting Body Condition Scoring to Use

The nitty-gritty of BCS is all about figuring out your animals’ feed requirements. For example, if your farm specializes in grass-fed beef, you can use BCS as a tool to make sure animals are getting the required amount of protein and fiber from the grasses they consume. This is especially helpful during winter grazing or times of drought.

“The main concern associated with grass-fed cattle is the quality of the grass,” Vander Ley says. “Late in the growing season, forage that has not been previously harvested, either by the cow or mechanical means, will decrease in quality. … Translation: Cattle can have full bellies but still be seriously lacking in nutrients.”

If you determine by using BCS assessments that your cattle have too much or too little body fat, you can work on developing a more suitable feeding program, keeping in mind that each cow in your herd might have different requirements.

“Performing a nutrient analysis on your hay is a good way to start. You cannot tell the quality of hay by just looking at it,” says Kendra Graham, livestock specialist with the University of Missouri Extension. “Second, know the nutrient requirements of your cattle. You need to know the average body weight to know this—a 1,000-pound cow does not have the same requirements as a 1,400-pound cow.”

You can consult an extension agent, livestock specialist or nutritionist to help evaluate your feeding program and help you make diet-change decisions. It’s important to make any changes gradually, as problems can occur if a cow gains or loses fat too quickly, Graham says.

In a dairy operation, you might use BCS to make sure cattle have sufficient fat reserves to produce enough milk.

“Thin cows do not have the necessary reserves to cope with increasing lactation. As a result, they are more likely to be immunosuppressed and have impaired ability to maintain a healthy udder environment,” Vander Ley says. This means you will get less milk.

On the other hand, a fat cow—one with a higher BCS—is less likely to eat well after calving, meaning it will call on its fat reserves to produce milk, he says. Rapid fat use can lead to problems, such as ketosis and fatty liver syndrome.

By using the BCS system to assess condition, you will be able to effectively communicate your concerns to a veterinarian or nutritionist and adjust feeding programs as necessary.

“BCS is a great tool to help us separate out problems that may be related to nutrition from those that are not,” Vander Ley says. “While being a bit subjective, BCS is far better as an indicator of condition than two different peoples’ opinions of “thin.”

Common Evaluation Mistakes

It might take some time to get comfortable with making a BCS assessment, but that’s OK. Working with your veterinarian or beef or dairy specialist to learn the evaluation techniques will not only give you a chance to learn the scoring system, it allows you to help identify problems with your animals before they become a concern. As you begin assessments on your own keep in mind three common mistakes farmers make in BCS assessments:

Body Condition Scoring Mistake No. 1: Reading the hair—not the fat.

It’s easy to mistake the bulk around the pins, hooks or ribs as fat when it’s actually the cow’s hair. To avoid this common mistake, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln BCS scoring guide recommends assessing the cow when it’s wet. “When possible, it’s good to lay hands on the animals to appreciate the amount of fat cover in higher-BCS animals and the lack of cover in lower-BCS animals,” Vander Ley adds.

BCS Mistake No. 2. Looking for fat in all the wrong places.

Often instead of reading fat around bones and ligaments, farmers will look at belly girth, says Graham.

“Animals with a full midsection or [that are] very pregnant are not necessarily in the proper condition,” she says. “Focusing on the backbone, pin bones and hip bones can help make a more reliable assessment.”

BCS Mistake No. 3. Excessive assessments.

Farmers can often be dramatic in their BCS assessments, describing an animal as much thinner or fatter than it actually is. “The deviation that is close to desirable may be a little more difficult to assess initially,” says Shane Gadberry, PhD, PAS, professor of animal sciences at the University of Arkansas.

For more information on assessing the condition of your herd, visit the following links:

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