You can win at cattle breeding – if you know the score.
The body condition score, that is. It’s on a scale of 1-9, with 1 being the thinnest cows and 9 the most obese; producers can use body condition scoring to determine whether their cows are likely to breed back after calving.
“We just utilize body condition score as a visual estimate of the body fat reserves for livestock,” said Dr. Shane Gadberry, a specialist in beef cattle nutrition with the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service. “Animals in good condition have better pregnancy rates, which brings better calf crop percentages. So there’s an economic benefit to keeping cows in adequate body fatness.”
Scoring is mainly done visually, by examining the amount of fat cover over the animal’s ribs and back and in her hindquarters, and her muscle expression. “But also,” Gadberry told Ozarks Farm & Neighbor, “if we have an animal chuteside, we can actually put our hands over the back and feel the spinous processes (the upward, bony protrusions), to see how much fat is laying in those processes.”
The goal is to make sure that by calving time a mature beef cow is in at least a body condition score of 5, and first calf heifers are at least at 6. “Not only are they trying to nurse a calf, but they are still growing during the period of still nursing a calf, so energy reserves are going to be very important for that female,” Gadberry said. As those reserves are used up, it’s not unusual for the score to drop to 4 by weaning, particularly if the cow is a high milk producer. “If we visually appraise our cows at weaning time, and separate those thin cows from the cows that are in good condition, we can manage those to gain sufficient condition between weaning and next calving,” he said
While scarce forage supplies have forced producers to make difficult decisions, Gadberry said they’re taking a chance if they let cows get out of condition. He said, “Although hay and supplement are expensive, so is the cost of owning cows that are too thin to breed back 60-80 days following calving. Thin cows have a longer interval between calving and breeding, which means some cows may not breed back if the breeding season is a 60-90 day controlled breeding period, and those that have a longer interval will wean a lighter calf.” He said research at the University of Nebraska showed that the only time keeping non-pregnant cows was economically feasible was if the percentage of non-pregnant cows was greater than 30 percent, and the value of cull cows was less than $40/cwt. “Even then,” Gadberry said, “retaining replacement heifers was a more economical decision than keeping open cows.”
Dona Goede, livestock specialist with the University of Missouri’s Cedar County Extension office, told OFN producers use body condition scoring to determine whether they’re feeding their cows enough. “A lot of them understand that we need to have our cows many times between a 5 and a 6,” she said, but “some of them don’t know exactly what determines, for instance, between a 2 and a 3.”
Hopefully, producers will never have to deal with cows in the 2s and 3s, which are very thin and are most often seen in sick animals or animal abuse cases. The difference between a 5 and a 6 body condition score is the ability to see the back two ribs as an indentation, but not all the way around; fat deposits, such as around the tail head and in the brisket, are also an indication of body condition score.
And it’s possible for cows to get too fat. Goede said, “A lot of our open cows – the ones that are not getting pregnant – will start going up on their body condition because they’re not trying to raise a calf, and that’s when we do know that there might be something else going on with that cow.”
The cure for a low body condition score is more energy in the diet, either through better quality forage or supplementing with corn or another grain. “One body condition score is over 100 pounds,” Goede said. “It can take 60 days for them to get that body condition back, if you want them to gain slowly and not put a lot of feed into them.” Feeding too quickly, especially heifers, can cause the cows to lay on fat where you don’t want it, around the reproductive track and the udder.
Goede also cautioned producers not to be deceived by the cow’s coat. “Many times we have to go up there and put our hands on the animal and feel their ribs,” she said “just to make sure they are what we think they are, because their long hair sometimes can hide some of the flaws that we have in the cows.”


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