Economic losses from thin cows can be substantial. As the graph below shows, the thinner the cow, the less likely she is to become pregnant. While weaning weight may not always be a good measure of your success as a producer, calves from skinny cows will have lower weaning weights, which could result in lower revenues. This is because skinny cows produce less colostrum, so their calves may not be as healthy, or may not even survive.
So how skinny is too skinny? The table below gives you an idea of what kind of production you can expect from cows at different body condition scores. According to Dr. Matt Poore of North Carolina State University, “There will always be individual cows that will be exceptions to the rule, but on a herd basis, having an average score lower than 5 will mean reduced breeding rates.” He notes two studies, one from Texas and one from Florida demonstrating this. In Texas, 1041 cows were body condition scored at the start of the breeding season. Those cows with a score of 4 had a 58% breeding rate, those with a 5 had an 85% breeding rate, and those with a 6 score had a 95% breeding rate. In the Florida study, 624 cows were scored at the pregnancy check. Cows with a BCS of 3 had a 43% breeding rate, cows with BCS of 4 had a 66% breeding rate, and cows with a BCS of 5 had a 94% breeding rate.
DIY Body Condition Scoring
The graph above and the studies described use a 1-9 scale for beef cattle, where 1 is extremely thin and 9 is extremely fat. (Dairy cattle are typically measured on a 1 to 5 scale.) It basically breaks down as thin (1-3) OK (4-6) and fat (7-9). You can tell where your cow is on the scale by looking at her brisket, ribs, tail head, and the top of her back. As you do this, don’t forget to factor in things like how full the cow might be, or how thick her coat is during certain parts of the season.
To help you here are descriptions and photos from Dr. Poore’s fact sheet on body condition scoring. (Click here to download a one pager with all the pictures shown below and a checklist. If you like, you can laminate it and then take it into the pasture with you to help you judge your herds body condition scores.)
BCS 1 – Extremely thin and weak. Severe muscle wasting. Animal is near death.
BCS 2 – Extremely thin but not weak. Muscle wasting is evident in the hind quarter.
BCS 3 – Very thin. All ribs and back bone easily visible and no apparent fat deposits anywhere on the body. Individual vertebrae are visible along the back bone. Some muscle wasting is evident in the hind quarter.
BCS 4 – Thin. Ribs and backbone visible, but individual vertebrae not visible. No muscle wasting. Sunk in appearance around the tail head.
BCS 5 – Moderate condition. Last two or three ribs usually visible, and little fat is evident in the brisket or around tail head, but area around the tail head is not sunken.
BCS 6 – Smooth appearance. Ribs not easily visible. A small amount of fat is evident around the tail head and in the brisket.
BCS 7 – Fleshy appearance. Brisket and tail head have considerable fat deposits, and the back has a flattened appearance.
BCS 8 – Obese. Neck appears short. Back is flat with dimples at the backbone. A lot of fat is present in the brisket and around the tail head.
BCS 9 – Extremely obese. Appearance is similar to an 8, but more exaggerated. Brisket is extremely full of fat and large fat deposits are found around the tail head.
This checklist from Virginia Tech Cooperative Extension is another good tool for helping you judge body condition.
How Can You Use This?
When you’re checking your livestock in pasture, take some time to assess individual body scores. Dr. Poore suggests, “Start by trying to estimate the average for the whole herd, and identify the high scoring and the low scoring cow. Most operations will have a working range from 3 to 7. Low scores can indicate malnutrition, parasites or old age. Only barren cows or animals being overfed will hit the 8 and 9 range. If you find the average score is less than a 5, if the minimum score is less than a 4, or if the high score is higher than a 7 then you should take steps to alter your management program to get closer to the target scores.” He also recommends paying attention to those cows that are consistently lower on the scale. If their condition begins to slip, that might be an indication that the rest of your herd might begin to slip as well. If you’re working animals in chutes before breeding and for pregnancy checks, you can record their body condition scores at the same time. That way you’ll have an idea of how well your feeding program is going, and what kind of pregnancy rates you can expect.
Being able to look at your herd and determine how healthy it is based on body condition scores means you can make adjustments to increase pregnancy rates and calf health. It’s just one more, no-cost way to add to your bottom line.
This article was drawn from our On Pasture archives. We have so many new readers (80,000/month now) that we wanted to make sure you’re getting the information we’ve got for you.