A beef cow’s body condition at the time of calving will affect the health of her calf and her ability to breed back in a timely manner. Kansas State University animal scientist Chris Reinhardt, PhD, encourages veterinarians and producers to use a body condition score (BCS) system to determine beef cow condition.
“A body condition score on a beef cow is the closest thing we have to determining her nutritional status at a glance,” Reinhardt says. “But scoring cows properly and really benefiting from this tool requires more effort and observation than simply looking and thinking, ‘they look a little thin.’” Early spring still gives time to adjust the nutrient supply to get the cows into the target BCS by calving time, Reinhardt notes.
To evaluate an individual cow, Reinhardt says to look at her topline, brisket, ribs, flank, round and tail head. A borderline thin cow (BCS 4) will clearly show three to four ribs first thing in the morning, will have no obvious fat deposits in the brisket or tailhead, and the individual vertebrae along the topline will be visible. The cow still shows some muscle through the round, and she may appear “healthy but thin.”
In a borderline fleshy cow (BCS 6) the ribs and vertebrae will not be obvious, as they are covered by fat. The muscling through the round will be plump and full, but muscle definition is still apparent, and there will be small but noticeable fat deposits behind the shoulder, in the flank, brisket and around the tail head.
The ideal or target BCS for cows at the time of calving is BCS 5, Reinhardt says. This cow will show the last one to two ribs first thing in the morning before feeding and have good fullness of muscle in the round with definite muscle definition. In addition, the spine will be apparent, but individual vertebrae will not be discernable, and with no obvious fat deposits behind the shoulder or around the tail head. “We would say this cow has a good bloom,” he adds. A change in BCS (from 4 to 5, for example) requires the addition of 75–100 lbs. of live body weight, depending on the mature size or frame size of the cows, he says.
“If you’re two months from the start of calving and would like to add 0.5 to 1.0 BCS, you need to feed the cows for maintenance, the last one-third of gestation and an additional 1.0 to 1.5 lbs. per day of gain. This means increasing the amount of good quality hay as well as the amount of supplement.” Reinhardt says that thin cows (BCS 4 or below) can be separated off and fed at a higher plane of nutrition.
“The argument can be made that this creates ‘welfare cows,’” he adds. “However, good record-keeping will indicate whether these cows are perennial ‘hard-keepers’ or if they are simply too young or too old to compete with the mature cows. If they’re too young, another year of maturity should cure this; if they’re too old, you may consider culling them after weaning time. The key here is that good record keeping allows you to cull intentionally based on productivity, not based on lack of observation and management.”
Cows at a BCS 5 at the time of calving should provide adequate colostrum and nutrition for their calf and breed back in a timely fashion. Cows that calve below a BCS 5 will delay their return to estrus and breed back late. If these cows do not maintain a 365-day calving cycle, they could, after one to two late breedings, effectively cull themselves due to being open at pregnancy checking time.
“Young cows are especially susceptible to this because they are gestating a calf, nursing a calf and still growing frame and muscle themselves,” Reinhardt explains. “Unfortunately, young cows are the future of the herd and possibly the most progressive genetics. Hopefully these cows aren’t culled simply for lack of nutrients.”
Reinhardt encourages producers to take time to critically evaluate the nutrient status of their cow herds this winter, and to use the body scoring system to manage the fertility and health of their herds going into next spring. “That way, producers can give themselves full control over the genetics of their herd for years to come.”