Assessing the herd before winter
One of the biggest challenges facing producers in recent months is keeping cattle in good body condition. No doubt the combination of drought and input costs make it increasingly difficult to maintain cows in good flesh.
Importance of BCS Evaluation
Livestock specialists recommend producers evaluate body condition year-round to make sure all the animals in the herd are meeting the recommended body condition score (BCS) at the appropriate time in their production cycle. Now is a good time to appraise body condition, particularly with winter right around the corner. “BCS is one of the greatest tools a producer can use to evaluate the nutritional and health status of their animal,” Earl Ward, northeast area livestock specialist with Oklahoma State University Extension, said. “BCS is evaluating the flesh of the animal, which is what is important to ensure the animal can handle the cold weather of winter.”
Fall BCS Targets
When assessing an animal’s body condition this time of year, there are a few general guidelines to keep in mind. “Fall calving cows will be approaching breeding in the winter months, so for optimum pregnancy rates they should be in a 5 to 6 body condition score,” Patrick Davis, Ph.D., livestock specialist with the University of Missouri Extension explained. “Spring calving cows that are just weaned could be in a body condition score of 4 and 5, which is alright because they should have ample time to return to an optimum body condition score prior to the next calving season.” After a cow’s calf is weaned, the cow can focus her energy on building her flesh back to a BCS of a 5 or 6 before the next calving season.
In addition, livestock specialists encourage producers to keep a close eye on heifers and bred females. Heifers should maintain a BCS of a 6. Heifers have an elevated nutrition requirement compared to a mature cow because they are still growing and maintaining production.
When it comes to bred females, they also need monitoring, so their condition doesn’t fall off a producer’s radar. “It is not uncommon to let cows slip down in BCS if they are confirmed bred, but I would caution that when coming into the winter because they need fleshiness to maintain body heat,” Ward explained.
Drought Impact on BCS
Drought conditions create an environment that sheds light on cattle that can easily maintain a proper body condition. “I always say that good nutrition masks bad genetics,” Ward stated. “So, during a time of nutritional stress we will see the animals that are more efficient or “easy keepers” if you will because the others will be dropping off fast.” Producers can use this information when making culling decisions.
However, livestock specialists point out BCS is only one factor to consider when deciding whether a female should stay or go. “I would also look at if the cow is bred and her previous performance,” Davis advised. “I would also consider age, temperament, and other blemishes the cow might have such as structural soundness and udder issues.” Culling should also be based on available feed resources.
Livestock specialists offer some management practices to keep in mind with cows that are newly weaned. First, conduct pregnancy checks and cull any open cows. Next, determine each cow’s BCS and group cows into feeding groups based on condition. Thin cows will have a BCS of 4 or less and moderate cows will have a BCS of 5 and greater. “Evaluate feed resources and determine if resources are available to feed thin cows to a body condition 5 or 6 prior to the next calving season, which potentially means they may need to gain approximately 100 to 200 pounds,” Davis explained.
If resources are available, livestock specialists recommend feeding the thin cows. However, if the resources are not available producers may want to consider culling the lower performing females and females that may have temperament, structural and udder issues.
When it comes to moderate condition cows, Davis advises producers to feed them to maintain their condition. “Also, if resources are limited then look at culling lower performing, poor structured, and bad udder bred females with moderate condition,” Davis added.
Livestock specialists state it is beneficial for producers to keep excellent records of their cows’ body condition scores. “Years like this one show us that we need some sort of measurement to evaluate our animals on,” Ward said. “Always make note of a cow’s BCS at calving, weaning and pre-breeding.”