Aiming for the best body condition score
By Gilda V. Bryant
Photos by Terryn Drieling
Savvy cow-calf producers check body condition scores (BCS) before breeding, calving and weaning to determine their supplementation strategies. This easy-to-use management tool helps them monitor their animals’ body condition without scales or complicated formulas.
Shane Gadberry, Ph.D., Professor of Ruminant Nutrition at the University of Arkansas, reports that cows kept in ideal body condition wean more total pounds than cows calving in moderately thin or poorer body condition. He says producers [may] monitor their animals’ body condition regularly, but not necessarily make a conscious effort to score them. However, a written record of BCS over time can help troubleshoot production problems that may occur during specific times of the year or with different age groups.
“When managing cattle for condition, it is important to understand that nutrient requirements differ between very young [heifers] and mature females,” Gadberry reports. “Requirements increase as nutrients are needed for fetal development during gestation, for milk production, and – for the young female – growth. One of the most difficult challenges with nutritional management is when the cowherd has all types co-mingled. Consider managing first-calf heifers separately in a co-mingled herd. These females are usually undernourished, and less likely to breed back to have their second calf within 365 days. Managing first-calf heifers separately can help with the economics of correcting nutritional deficiencies.
“If I were to pick a fixed point for recording BCS, I would first choose at calf weaning. This provides an opportunity to sort cows into management groups, if some need to regain condition before calving. It is important to monitor body condition at calving and through breeding to adjust supplementation if needed.”
Gadberry also likes to record BCS at the end of winter. He finds that even with supplementation, cows do not winter well, especially if there was an exceptionally cold, wet winter. He says that too often it is simply a result of not using the right supplement. Cold, wet weather and drought are two circumstances that force animals to expend body reserves, or to have inadequate amounts of nutrients in the diet, causing BCS to drop.
He recommends that producers know which deficiencies commonly occur in their forage systems. For instance, cows on native grasslands are more likely to need additional protein and greater levels of phosphorus supplementation than cattle grazing well-fertilized, improved grass pastures.
Mary Drewnoski, Ph.D., Beef Systems Specialist at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, reports there are several key times when checking and recording BCS are beneficial, such as pre-breeding, weaning and especially at calving.
“For bulls, the pre-breeding time is the most important time for their body condition scores,” Drewnoski explains. “[Studies] have shown bulls that have lost condition 60 days prior to their breeding soundness exam (BSE) often have very low BSE [scores]. They’re not fit for breeding. Right before breeding, make sure you already have them in the right BCS. . . in the five to six range. Keep them in a stable or increased plane of nutrition.”
Cows with a body condition score of five tend to have increased pregnancies, fewer calving difficulties, and provide higher quality colostrum for their calves. They also have higher rebreeding success. Fat cows with a BCS between seven and nine usually have lower fertility, increased calving problems, lower weaning weights and poor milk production.
“[At calving] you want to have your cows in at least a BCS of five and first-calf heifers a 5.5 or six,” Drewnoski advises. “It takes time to make a change in their body condition scores. Look at their BCS about 90 days before calving to make a decision about feeding these animals. It’s really all about getting them in proper BCS for breeding, but we can’t profitably improve BCS while they’re lactating. After calving, it’s almost too late. You can do it, but it’s costly.”
Drewnoski also recommends looking at the cow’s condition to help determine when to wean her calf. For example, if a pasture has enough forage, cows and calves may stay put for a while. If cows are becoming thin, it may be time to change pastures or provide additional feedstuffs.
First-calf heifers need extra attention. If they are not bouncing back after weaning, look at feed resources, and adjust supplementation as needed. Producers may decide to implement short-term calf removal or early weaning. Prior to weaning, cows utilize a lot of energy for lactation and sustaining calves, which are usually in reasonable condition. When cows lose body condition, Drewnoski says it is time to wean calves.
Monitor calves’ body condition when backgrounding them. Calves that are too fat or fleshy are discounted at the feedyard. Although they had rapid rates of gain on the ranch, they generally will not increase their rate of gain in the feedyard as much as thinner calves will.
Applying body condition scores as a management tool is a yearlong process. After observing animals for a year, producers may decide to change their calving time to take advantage of forage resources. For instance, most producers prefer to calve early, so they can take cow-calf pairs to grass. When calving in January and February there may not be a good stand of grass. Producers are likely providing lower quality feed when cows have their highest energy requirements. If it is a challenge to have them in the right BCS during the breeding season, consider changing calving times.
What supplements help animals maintain a body condition score of five? Although a complete mineral program with trace minerals helps cattle maintain immunity status, healthy feet and contributes to successful breeding, they do not help cattle maintain a desirable BCS.
Ted Perry, Leader of Beef Technical Solutions with Purina Animal Nutrition, reports that in most cases forages do not meet cow requirements in the late fall and winter months. That is when producers can supplement those poor forages with protein and energy with hand-fed range cubes or grain mixes, which help maintain and build condition on cattle. Ranchers may also build body condition by supplementing the rumen microbes with free choice blocks and tubs, which increases forage digestibility and the amount of energy cows get from lower quality forages.
“Protein supplementation usually comes from oil seed meals,” Perry explains. “Soybean meal is the most abundant protein supplement for cattle. In addition, ruminants also benefit from small amounts of Non Protein Nitrogen (NPN) as well. NPN will provide nitrogen to the rumen microbes, which allows them to more efficiently ferment feeds in the rumen, which increases feed utilization and efficiency.”
Energy supplements mainly include corn, molasses and wheat middlings. Protein supplements such as soybean meal, cottonseed meal, wheat middlings, molasses, distiller’s grains and corn gluten feed also provide a little energy.
“Never let your cows have a bad day,” Perry advises. “We have more productive cattle genetics than ever before. However, those productive genetics require feed in order to produce at higher levels we expect from today’s cattle herd. Making sure that the cattle requirements are being met is one of the single best management practices that we can do.”
BODY CONDITION SCORE BEGINNINGS
By Gilda V. Bryant
The practice of checking Body Condition Scores (BCS) in beef cattle has been used since the 1960s, but this concept really gained traction in the 1970s and 1980s. Several beef cattle experts at Texas A&M University pioneered this numbering concept to describe the body condition of cattle based on thinness or fatness. This system was first used as a management tool for reproduction and feeding management. A score of nine is a very fat animal while a score of one is extremely thin. Experts prefer scores of five or six.
This beneficial scoring system is easy, convenient and no scales or special computer programs are required. Consider getting another opinion about BCS from a county extension agent, or download an extension publication that has images of different scores. Phone apps, such as http://www.farms.com/agriculture-apps/livestock/cattle/body-condition-beef-cattle are also helpful to producers.