Body condition scoring of cattle allows producers to assess the level of fat reserves of cows during various production phases. When regularly practiced, this information can be used to customize management and feeding decisions for higher profits. The technique is easily learned and is most useful when practiced regularly by the same person in the same herd over several years.
Body Condition Scores (BCS) are numbers on a scale used to describe the relative fatness or body composition of a cow. The scoring system in Missouri has a range of 1 to 9, with 1 representing very thin cows and 9 representing very fat cows. A cow with a BCS of 5 is said to be in average condition; however, descriptions of an "average" conditioned cow vary.
For BCS to be most helpful, producers need to calibrate the 1 to 9 system under their own conditions.
Producers should keep the system simple. A thin cow looks very sharp, angular and skinny while fat cows look smooth and boxy with bone structures hidden from sight or touch.
A description of BCS and valuable management recommendations are given by Whittier, Steevens, and Weaver in Missouri University guide sheet G-2230, Body Condition Scoring of Beef and Dairy Animals.
Beef and dairy herds can use BCS so feeding and management can be regulated to insure breeding cattle attain the appropriate BCS at different stages of their production cycle. Action can then be taken to alter the condition of those cows not in the correct condition at critical stages.
Variation in the BCS of beef cows over the annual production cycle has a number of practical implications. The condition of cows at calving is associated with length of post-partum interval; subsequent lactation performance; health and vigor of the newborn calf; and the incidence of calving difficulties in extremely fat heifers.
The condition of cows at breeding affects their reproductive performance in terms of services per conception, calving interval and the percentage of open cows.
Body condition or changes in body condition rather than live-weight changes are a more reliable guide for evaluating the nutritional status of a mature beef cow. Winter feeding studies have shown body condition commonly decreases proportionally more than live weight, implying a greater loss of energy relative to weight. Fat cows usually need only medium-quality hay and small amounts of supplement plus mineral and vitamin supplementation. Thin cows usually need high-quality hay and may also need supplements that are high in energy (+70 percent TDN), medium in protein (12 to 15 percent CP), plus mineral and vitamin supplementation.
Calving interval is defined as the period from the birth of one calf to the next. To have a 12-month calving interval, a cow must conceive within 80 days of the birth of her calf. Such cows produce a pound of weaned calf cheaper than cows that take longer than 80 days, making them more profitable. Calving intervals in excess of 12 months are often caused by nutritional stress at some point, either before the calving season or during the subsequent breeding season, which results in thin body condition and poor reproductive performance.
The thinnest cows have the longest calving intervals, while fatter cows have shorter calving intervals.
Producers should evaluate their cows for condition and give supplemental feed to correct nutritional deficiencies, which are indicated when cows become thin.
The influence of nutrition before calving is a major factor that controls the length of time between calving and the return to estrus. Cows with a BCS of 4 or less at calving, as a result of low levels of pre-calving nutrition, will have longer intervals from calving to first estrus than cows in BCS of 5 or higher. Young cows require about one BCS higher to achieve the same reproductive performance as mature cows, since they have the added requirement of growth.
It is much easier to increase condition in cows before rather than after they calve. High nutrition after calving is directed first toward milk production. Feeding cows to gain condition early in lactation therefore leads to increased milk production but has little effect on body condition.
The acceptable BCS prior to calving is 6 or higher. These should be the target figures at calving for all cows in the herd. Anything higher than 7 may or may not be helpful. Scores at calving of less than 5 will impede reproduction.
The influence of nutrition after calving is a major factor that controls the fertility of a cow's estrus cycle during the breeding season. A lower conception rate has been shown in cows losing condition from calving through breeding than in cows that maintain or gain condition during this time.
Research cited in MU Guide G-2230, involving more than 1,000 cows, showed condition scores of less than 5 during breeding result in extremely low pregnancy rates.
Proper nutrition during the breeding season is necessary for acceptable reproduction. In this trial Sprott found 95 percent of cows with a BCS of 6 or more were pregnant after 150 days, those with a BCS of 5 had an 85 percent pregnancy rate, and those with a BCS of 4 or less had a 58 percent pregnancy rate.
Scoring the body condition of cows 100 days before calving, then sorting them to various management groups for feeding according to need will improve reproductive performance and allow more timely use of supplemental feeding.
In a fall-calving herd, cows should be in BCS of 6 or higher at calving. In general, if pastures are adequate during the summer, this is easy to achieve.
Cows in BCS of 6 can afford to lose one BCS between calving and breeding without adversely affecting reproduction. Because cows are lactating between calving and breeding and pasture quality is declining, a loss of one BCS is typical. These cows may lose one more BCS after breeding and before pasture turnout in the spring. They will be lactating during this time and likely to be eating harvested forages. Their BCS should increase when they go to grass, particularly after the calf is weaned, so that they reach BCS of 6 at calving to begin another yearly cycle.
Spring-calving cows should be in BCS of 6 or higher when they calve.
Lactation and the fact that the cows are still consuming harvested forages will generally result in loss of one BCS following calving. This loss is not detrimental if cows are in moderate to fleshy condition (BCS 6 or 7) at calving. But thin- to borderline-conditioned cows (BCS 3 or 4) will show decreased reproduction if they lose further condition during this period.
Cows in BCS of 5 at breeding should be able to maintain their condition until weaning. They will need to gain one BCS between weaning and calving so that they reach calving at a BCS of 6.
Immature cows continue growth until approximately 4 years of age. These young cows should be maintained through the yearly cycle about one BCS higher than mature cows to achieve the same reproductive performance.
The aim of BCS is to obtain a simple and reliable measure of the level of body reserves in live animals. Though live-weight gives an indication of body size, it can be affected by gut fill and stage of pregnancy.
With careful training of scorers and periodic standardization BCS have been shown to be accurate and useful on a within-herd basis. In both beef and dairy herds, BCS can be carried out regularly and easily in circumstances where weighing may be impossible or impractical.