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West: Body condition scoring for cow herd improvement in the fall

Carmen Willmore for Progressive Cattle Published on 23 October 2020

Body condition scoring (BCS) your cows may seem like a fruitless effort. You take the time to record all the data and maybe even sort the thin ones and fat ones out and feed them separately, but does it really pay for that extra work? Well, the answer to that question is: Yes.

Especially in the Western states where cows graze public lands or desert pastures, you may only see them a few times throughout the summer, so it’s important you take stock of those animals when you can and make appropriate management decisions while they are close to home.

Evaluating BCS is a means of categorizing cattle by their degree of body energy reserves (i.e., fatness). It is used to evaluate a cow herd’s nutrition program and monitor herd health. Fall is a great time to condition score, as it is the easiest time of year to supplement extra feed for the cows that may need it. Beef BCS are a numerical scale ranging from 1 to 9 – emaciated to obese, respectively.

Body features used for observations are visible bone structures, muscling and fat deposits. You should ignore hair coat, bodyweight, gut fill, stage of pregnancy and age of the cow. The visible bone structures you should be observing are the spinous process, transverse process, and hooks and pins. Fat cover deposits over the back and loin, tailhead, flank, brisket and ribs. And muscling over the loin, rump and round. Cows with less muscling and fat cover over these areas are considered in the lower categories (BCS 1 to 4). As they gain muscling and their condition improves, they will move into the 5 to 6 range, where they will increase fat cover. Cows with a BCS of 7 and greater would be considered fleshy, and at a 9 they would be obese.

The best time to condition score is at weaning. Any thin cows can be supplemented and re-evaluated 45 days later to determine if they are regaining their condition. It is important to remember maintenance for the cow comes before fetal growth, breeding and lactation, so cows in lower condition will have a harder time maintaining a healthy pregnancy, providing enough milk for their calf and breeding back.

The best time to put on condition is from weaning to 90 days pre-calving. If you wait too long, it is much more expensive to put condition on a cow that is lactating and too late to help her through late gestation and early parturition.

It may take extra time to score, sort and supplement your cow herd, but it pays for the calf crop the next year, as those mother cows have the condition they need to care for their calves and rebreed.  end mark

Carmen Willmore
  • Carmen Willmore

  • Extension Educator
  • University of Idaho Extension – Lincoln County
  • Email Carmen Willmore