From the April issue of Drovers CattleNetwork and June issue of Cow/Calf Producer.

For optimum conception and calving rates, it is important to provide adequate nutrition at key points during the year.

“If momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” Chances are you’ve heard this statement before — whether it was a sticker slapped on a minivan bumper or joked about as some lighthearted advice.

But in the cow-calf business, it rings true — especially when it comes to the body condition of your breeding females.

According to University of Missouri Extension beef nutrition specialist Justin Sexten, keeping her body in proper shape is going to take year-around up keep, with some points in time being more crucial than others. As snow melts off and green grass starts to grow, here are some long-term considerations for cow-calf producers to keep in mind.

Grow baby, grow

According to Sexten, the most important time for her to have the highest body-condition score (BCS) is when she calves. Not only does hitting this condition target play a key role in her success for the entire year, it also affects the lifetime of her calf.

“This means she was on a rising plane of nutrition during a crucial fetal development period of her calf,” he explains. “Young cows and heifers should have a BCS of 6, and more mature cows should be at a 5.”

Since 75 percent of fetal growth occurs within the last two months of gestation, cows have to be receiving adequate nutrition to support healthy development. Research from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has shown that calves born to cows receiving supplementation prior to giving birth had significant weight advances throughout their lives when compared to calves born to cows that didn’t have extra nutritional TLC.

And the higher BCS is two-fold, since the nutrient requirements needed to provide adequate milk are going to take a toll on her weight.

“A problem that occurs is from calving to breeding; it is nearly impossible to add body condition,” Sexten says. “Cows reach peak milk production 60 to 70 days after calving, and if you’re trying to increase her BCS at that time, those nutrients are going to go straight out of the udder and into the calf.”   

Keeping tabs

There are a number of things producers can benefit from in tracking information on their cow herds, such as birthweights. But according to Sexten, keeping tabs on her BCS at calving is a must-do — regardless of what kind of recordkeeping system a producer has. 

“The best indicator of future reproductive success is her BCS at calving,” he says. “When it comes time to do pregnancy checking in the fall (for a spring female), results will be highly linked to this.”

Sexten also says it’s useful to record her BCS at breeding, especially if a recording was not taken at calving. This way, producers have a benchmark on which cows were within the acceptable range. If conception rates aren’t where they should be, producers have that key information to fall back on when trying to figure out what went wrong.

“If a cow is at a BCS of 5 at breeding, from a nutritional standpoint she is conditioned enough to rebreed,” he explains. “If she has a BCS of 4 at that time, she will be marginal on ability to rebreed.”

When it comes to younger females, first-calf heifers to 3-year-old cows are going to need the most TLC since they are still growing at that point. According to Sexten, producers should shoot for this age group to have a calving BCS of 6.

“With the price of replacement heifers right now, producers can’t afford to take the young-cow nutrition program lightly,” he says.

Minimum maintenance

On the flip side, her lowest body condition will be at weaning when she says goodbye to her calf. However, adequate BCS is going to vary greatly, depending on the female’s age, milk production and the plane of nutrition she received with calf at side. He also recommends recording another BCS on the cow herd at this point in time or during pregnancy checking.

“A cow can get to a BCS of 4, but letting a young cow get that thin will reduce her ability to rebreed,” he says. “Expect her to lose 100 pounds, or one full BCS, during her entire period of lactation.”

To extend or optimize forage and feed resources, consider sorting cows by BCS. Condition group management allows producers to prioritize nutrients to young and thin cows.

“Body condition scoring is the best management tool producers have. Tracking condition changes over time provides producers the opportunity to manage nutritional needs of the cow herd without gathering the cattle, since BCS is simply viewing cattle,” he concludes. “I recommend writing a score down at these important production landmarks because producers looking at the cattle every day cannot see the loss or gain over time.”