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BCS helps determine which cow is 'just right'

University of Missouri Extension Published on 03 October 2011

Everyone knows the story about Goldilocks and the three bears. But, have you have heard about Goldilocks and the three cows?

After entering the bear’s house, Goldilocks found many things too extreme -- like the porridge, chairs and beds – but usually one was “just right.”

Goldilocks, the beef cow rancher, also has that dilemma with the cows in her pasture, some being too thin, some are too fat, but some are “just right.”

“Goldilocks should take a lead from beef research and body condition scores (BCS) her cows and uses that as part of her feeding management strategy. It’s especially helpful this year as feed supplies are short and expensive,” said Eldon Cole, a livestock specialist with University of Missouri Extension.

BCS has been around since the 1970’s, but it is often forgotten. BCS provides a system for all breeding stock using a 1 to 9 score that represents very thin cows, 1 through 4, very fat, obese cows 7, 8 and 9 and those that are just right, 5’s and 6’s.

“Condition scoring is typically done visually in the pasture and may or may not be done on each individual cow,” said Cole.

Indictors of fat over the back and ribs, around the tailhead and through the brisket are key areas to be evaluated.  Some producers prefer to handle the cows for fat thickness if they are being put through a chute for pregnancy checking or other practices.

Ultrasound measuring could even be used to more accurately measure fat thickness over the ribs and in the rump region.

Cows, heifers and bulls that have most of their ribs visible as well as their backbones will fall into the 1 to 4 BCS range. They also show a loss of apparent muscle thickness in the rear quarters as viewed from behind.

The 5 and 6, “just right” breeding animals will mostly be smooth due to fat covering. However a 5 score is usually given to those with the last pair or two of ribs just beginning to show. This is acceptable for mature cows, but a heifer that’s getting ready to calve should be at least a 6.

As fat thickness and deposits in the brisket region and around the tailhead increase, scores of 7, 8 and even a rare 9 usually indicates overfeeding, genetic differences, abundant high quality pasture or animal’s that have been on vacation.

A BCS change of “one” usually reflects an 80-pound change in weight on a medium frame cow. Small frame animals may show a change with less while a large frame cow may need 100 pounds or more to move from a 4 to a 5.

“A weight change of 80 pounds may take several weeks to make, especially when it’s being added. For this reason, cattle should be evaluated well ahead of calving or the breeding season if that is when you want a 4 BCS animal to become a 5,” said Cole.

The problems associated with low BCS scores include: slower return to estrus after calving; lower pregnancy rate; slower stand up times for newborns; greater assist rate in first-calf heifers; bulls may have lowered fertility.

“By the same token extremely fat breeding animals may experience reproduction and lactation problems. Bulls may experience reduced fertility if they lose BCS too rapidly. This may happen with young bulls that are out on pasture for their first breeding season,” said Cole.

In 2011 when feed supplies are short and expensive, sorting the herd on BCS and feeding according to their true needs makes a lot of sense. It certainly isn’t economical to run cows that are 3’s and 4’s in the same pasture as 6’s and 7’s.

“It may be more convenient for you, but remember Goldilocks will be sorting her cows this year in order to better use her limited forage supplies maybe your should too,” said Cole. end_mark