Scoring cow condition (Animal Science Update)
(Editor’s note: Michael Westendorf is with the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, Rutgers.)
Profitability for beef cow producers is affected by the percentage of cows calving every 12 months.
Proper nutrition 45-60 days before and 90 days after calving is the most critical factor in the cow’s ability to rebreed and maintain a 365-day calving interval.
If cows are underfed during this period, they will take longer to begin to go into heat and longer before they have their next calves.
Because the relation between nutrition and reproductive performance is so important, beef producers need a quick, reliable way to evaluate whether each cow is in proper condition.
Such a method, called ‘Beef Cow Condition Scoring,” exists and it enables you to assess body condition and judge its adequacy.
Once you arrive at condition scores for each animal, these scores can help you plan supplemental feeding programs to maintain productivity.
This fact sheet https://njaes.rutgers.edu/pubs/publication.php?pid=FS764 describes a scoring system that can be effectively used to assess body condition, to determine whether cows are too thin or too fat and to make feeding and management decisions.
Beef cows must:have a healthy body, produce milk for the calf, rebreed for another calf, and in the case of heifers, continue growing.
How well the cow or heifer meets these expectations partly depends on her genetic capabilities, but environment is even more important.
Nutrition is the environment’s most important component.
A cow underfed over a long period will lose weight, both fat and muscle.
If underfeeding continues the cow’s body will take drastic measures to conserve available nutrients.
If she is nursing a calf and not yet rebred, her ovaries will become reproductively “dormant” and remain so until nutrition improves. Such cows will not exhibit estrus or rebreed during these periods.
If a cow continues to lose body weight and if energy is not provided, she will gradually produce less milk, and at the extreme, stop producing entirely.
When the cow’s energy out-go exceeds the intake, certain functions begin to cease in this order: the cow first loses weight, then ceases to reproduce, lessens milk production and ultimately dies.
Body Condition Scores are numbers used to suggest the cow’s relative fatness or thinness.
Most often a scoring range of 1-9 is used, with a score of 1 being very thin and 9 extreme fatness.
A thin cow is very sharp, angular and bony, while a fat one is smooth and boxy with bone structure hidden from sight or touch.
The figures in this fact sheet describes the 1-9 condition scoring standards.
The following table describes how reproductive performance may vary as body condition changes.
Obese cows also have liabilities.
One research study (Arnett, et al.) compared 24 twins, half which were fed very high energy levels to induce fatness, and half fed recommended energy levels.
These twins were then studied when they calved.
Fat cows required more assistance at calving, lost more calves and had shorter productive life spans than did the cows normally fed. In addition, milk production decreased and services per conception were increased in the obese cows.
Over-conditioning or obesity is primarily a problem in heifers that become overfat while they are growing and developing. It is less serious in mature cows.
However, since fat cows are more expensive to maintain, obesity is uneconomical and may indicate overall production deficiencies.
Although the range of body condition runs from 1-9, it may be easier to narrow this group to manageable ranges such as thin, borderline, good, and fat cows.
Fall is an excellent time to check on condition in spring-calving cows.
There is still three to four months from spring-calving and there is time to feed a regain condition in thin cows.
As you identify thin or borderline condition cows, you will still have time to feed them accordingly and get them back to a good range before calving.
A Body Condition Score of 5 should always be seen as a minimum acceptable level of condition necessary for rebreeding.
At the same time you will identify over-conditioned cows and, if possible, manage them as a separate group.
The cow’s body condition, lactation status and quality of forage are major factors to consider in planning a supplemental feeding program.
Remember that other factors also influence nutritional requirements, such as weight, mature size, breed type, milk production level and weather conditions.
As you plan your supplemental feed program, consider the 45-60 days before calving as critical for ensuring that nutrient requirements are met.
Roughing dry cows through the winter is practical if it is recognized that the cow needs to gain the weight of the fetus she is carrying plus any condition required to attain a good condition score at calving.
Remember that early spring pasture alone is often inadequate to meet the needs of a cow nursing a calf, especially if the cow was in poor condition at calving or if the cow is very young.
Forages usually contain enough protein to meet cow requirements.
However, certain cows need energy supplementation in the form of corn or some other concentrate feed: young cows, cows in poor condition, and cows consuming low quality forage.
If you use a protein supplement, a product high in natural protein is preferred over a non-protein nitrogen source.
For mineral and vitamin supplements, the animal’s body condition does not make much difference.
In all situations, use mineral supplements with emphasis on salt, phosphorus, magnesium, copper, zinc, calcium and selenium.
With excellent forage, vitamin A supplements may not be needed, unless you are using hay stored for a long period of time.
Use vitamin A supplements for lactating cows consuming lower quality forages, regardless of their body condition.
Calving and rebreeding are stressful times when adequate nutrition is essential for timely rebreeding.
Cows that are too thin at calving will take longer to rebreed and may only rebreed after months of supplemental feeding.
Avoid having cows too fat or too thin.
Rather, try to have your cows attain good range scores of 5-7 at calving (on a 1 to 9 scale).
You can use these condition scores to make decisions about supplemental feeding and to group cows by condition for feeding.
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