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Extension > Extension in your Community > Murray > County Agriculture Educator > Articles > Now is the time to evaluate cow condition

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Now is the time to evaluate cow condition

With harvest wrapped up, machinery cleaned and put away for the year, and most cow herds back at (or close to) home, now is an opportune time to take a long, hard look at the cows and what shape they’re in.  Many cowherds in this area are spring calving herds, which makes this time of the year (mid to late gestation) sort of a “last-chance effort” to put on necessary body condition before calving.

Body condition scores (BCS) are numbers used to estimate an animal’s energy reserves in the form of fat and muscle.  These scores range from 1, meaning extremely thin, to 9, being very obese.  Body condition scores are excellent indicators of the overall nutritional status of a beef cow.  In every herd and across different breeds the “ideal” mature weight of cows varies, whereas the universal method of visually evaluating body condition and assigning a score of 1-9 tends to be a more reliable and objective tool when one sets aside biases based on frame, breed, and other personal size preferences. 

Most beef specialists agree the optimal time to evaluate BCS in cows is at calving; however, producers that wait to assess cows in poor condition at calving will find it difficult and expensive to try and increase the body condition of a lactating cow.  Economically speaking it is much easier to increase cow condition  prior to calving than it is to do it after calving because their nutrient requirements are lower; therefore, evaluating BCS 60-90 days prior to calving makes more sense. 

Why is it important to BCS your beef herd?  There are several reasons to do so, both from an economical as well as a longevity standpoint.  First, it allows you to better manage your feed resources.  By not overfeeding high quality feedstuffs to mature cows that are simply maintaining, you allow yourself to save these valuable feed resources for later, and by separating females into groups you can better allocate the more nutrient-dense rations for those cows that need it.  Second, it leads to healthier, more vigorous calves next spring.  Cows in good condition have less trouble calving, produce more and better quality colostrum, and have calves less likely to scour and are generally healthier overall.  And as a female’s condition increases to a moderate BCS (5-6), the length of time between calving and the first estrus, the postpartum interval, is decreased.  What this means for you the producer is that you can increase the longevity of the cowherd by properly managing younger cows early on, when they are still lactating, growing, and trying to get rebred. 

Formally assessing the BCS in the spring (around calving) and fall (around weaning) of the year will help you as a producer make important management decisions that will help optimize the productivity of each female.   With a March-calving herd, for example, there is still time to evaluate the herd’s BCS and make management decisions that will have substantial impact on the herd.  Bred females can be sorted into groups to better manage feed resources and ensure they are not being over or underfed.  An example of groups would include sorting off first-calf heifers, and possibly even second-calf females, and feeding them as one management group because their nutritional needs are very similar.  Bred heifers need to have a higher level of nutrition (compared to a mature cow) just because they are still growing and will need to have energy reserves once they start lactating. Second-calvers have just weaned their first calf, been rebred, and need to put condition back on because they are still growing.  Older, thinner cows and heavy-milking cows could also fall into this category of females that require more energy to get them back into condition prior to calving. 

So what BCS should you aim for?  The ideal BCS of a mature cow should be between 5 and 6 at calving.  There is less flexibility with first-calf heifers, and these should be targeted towards a BCS of 6 to make sure that following calving they are in adequate condition to produce sufficient and quality colostrum, begin cycling for re-breeding, all while continuing to grow and reach their eventual-mature cow weight.  Young cows, such as first-calf heifers (and most likely your second-calvers) will need a higher quality diet  both before and after calving so that they can calve in a BCS of 6 and maintain that score until the start of breeding season (UNL-Extension, Body Condition Scoring Beef Cows: A Tool for Managing the Nutrition Program for Beef Herds). 

If you are unfamiliar with the 1-9 BCS system or need to brush up on your scoring criteria, there are numerous resources available online, or check with your local veterinarian or Extension Office.  UNL-Extension has an excellent resource available online that includes color photos, drawings, and factors to consider that could alter your visual appraisal of scoring the cows (age, hair coat, fill, time spent in holding pen, etc.)  Body condition scoring can be an extremely valuable tool, but only if we allow it to be.  It doesn’t do much good to visually appraise the cow herd if we’re not going to use the information we’ve gathered.  Therefore the value of this tool all depends on how you utilize the information to affect your management decisions going forward.


Source:  Melissa Runck, County Extension Educator - U of M Extension - Murray and Pipestone Counties

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