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Five ways to maintain your cow herd’s body condition score year-round

Steven Paisley for Progressive Cattleman Published on 12 October 2016
maintaining a cow's BCS

Body condition scoring (BCS) is an essential tool used to estimate the cow’s energy reserves at key points during the yearly production cycle.

By evaluating cattle on a 1 to 9 scale, beef producers can not only evaluate the current nutritional management of the cattle, but also adjust future grazing and feeding decisions to fit the current situation. Managing and maintaining BCS is important for short-term feeding and grazing decisions, and can also play a role in long-term fertility and longevity of the cow herd.

Below are ways to maintain BCS:

1. Regularly evaluate BCS and consider sorting cows

This falls into the category of “you can’t manage what you don’t measure.” Sometimes the simplest things are also the most important things to do. Consider taking the time to regularly evaluate overall condition of the herd and identify cows that may have lower condition scores. It’s sometimes helpful to include an additional evaluator, as the monotony of regular monitoring can cause your BCS estimates to unintentionally drift.

2. Feed analysis and ration evaluation

Surprisingly, one of the best cost-saving and condition-saving tools for cow-calf operations is often underutilized by small and midsized cow-calf operations. Feed analysis combined with ration evaluation is a great tool to help reduce overall costs and improve feed utilization. Seasonal rainfall and summer weather patterns impact meadow hay as well as pasture quality. Strategically sampling the bale pile and standing forage in winter pastures and determining their nutritive value will help in developing a balanced ration throughout the winter, meeting nutrient requirements and effectively maintaining condition on the cow herd.

3. Strategic weaning

Early weaning is another tool to manage body condition of cows, especially during years of limited forage. By removing the calf, the cow’s energy and protein requirements drop by 30 percent. Strategic weaning may not be needed every year, but it may be an important tool to consider when managing young growing cows, as well as older cows that carry less condition during late summer. Weaning in smaller, strategic groups may also reduce stress on weaning facilities and workers.

4. Strategic supplementation

Instead of looking at supplements as an expense line in the budget, think of supplementation as a tool to not only replace or supply needed nutrients, but as a tool to help manage forage resources as well as cattle. Strategic protein supplementation of cattle grazing low-quality grasses will not only make better utilization of the forage, it will stimulate appetite and increase rate of passage – both of which increase forage (and total energy) intake of the cow.

Strategic supplementation in the fall can maintain body condition on cows during mid-gestation, when their energy requirements are at their lowest. It is definitely easier to maintain or add condition to a cow in mid to late fall. Feeding to increase weight on late pregnant or lactating cows during colder weather requires considerably more energy (and feed).

5. Managing internal and external parasites

The impacts of both internal and external parasites can have a surprising impact on the herd, depending on the level or degree of parasitic load. Flies and other biting insects not only impact herd health, but they have a significant impact on herd behavior and grazing patterns. Internal parasites not only affect nutrient adsorption by the animal, but internal parasites can also impact immune status and reproductive performance.

When budgets are tight, the immediate reaction is to make short-term decisions, including spending less on feed. Continuing research on nutritional impacts during pregnancy and cow longevity suggest that these short-term decisions may have long-term negative impacts on heifer fertility and the productive life span of the cow.

Maintaining BCS throughout the year is like proper maintenance of your vehicle. Routine maintenance is important to minimizing breakdowns (injuries and illness in the herd). Short-term financial savings may not be worth the increased risks of managing the herd to extremes.  end mark

Steven Paisley
  • Steven Paisley

  • Extension Beef Cattle Specialist
  • University of Wyoming
  • Email Steven Paisley

PHOTO: It is important to monitor your cow herd's body condition score (BCS) throughout the year and make adjustments when necessary. Illustration by Kristin Phillips.