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Samantha Foster: Body condition scoring for cow productivity

Fall marks the start of calving season for many cattle producers in the Southeast.

So much emphasis is put on getting calves off to a good start that it can be easy to forget about the other part of the equation: the mother.

A healthy cow or heifer kept in good body condition is essential for producing a calf that performs well. Additionally, this is going to also be a factor in how well she breeds back.

The condition, or fat and muscle that may be used as energy reserves, is a good indicator of performance and health,

The body condition scoring system uses a scale from 1-9 to rank cattle based on the amount of condition that they carry.

A 1 would be extremely thin with muscle atrophy, whereas a 9 would be very obese, even to the point of covering bone structure that should be visible, such as the hooks and pins of the pelvis.

The optimal range is 5-7, especially before calving and breeding.
During certain times of the year, some cows may become threes due to high demands on their energy reserves. A 5 has no vertebrae visible, only one or two ribs visible, and while the hips are visible there is still a covering of fat.

A 6 progresses to having no ribs showing and fat deposits beginning in the brisket and flank, and a 7 begins having slight deposits of fat around the tailhead and udder, with hips only slightly visible. You should still be able to palpate bone structure with mild pressure in sixes and sevens.

The best times to evaluate cows for body condition would be at weaning, 60-90 days before calving, and at calving. At each of these points cows may be regrouped according to their nutritional requirements.

Cattle that are strong outliers should be paid special attention; a cow that struggles to maintain weight while the rest of the herd is at a 5 or higher may have a health or metabolic issue and be a candidate for culling.

Thin cows struggle to breed back and to be productive in general due to their limited energy reserves.

At the opposite end, a cow who easily maintains a score higher than 7 may also face reproductive challenges due to fat deposits around her reproductive organs and a metabolism that is geared toward stockpiling energy versus producing a calf. A cow like this may also be a good candidate for culling.

If cattle remain thin despite adequate nutrition including a quality mineral supplement and a good herd health regimen that includes deworming, it is wise to consult a veterinarian to rule out other health problems.

A thin herd is also a good indication that it is time to wean calves so that mothers have an opportunity to build back up their own energy reserves after the demands of lactation.

For questions, consult your veterinarian or your extension agent at 704-983-3987.

Samantha Foster is the Agricultural Extension Agent, Livestock and Forages with the Stanly County office of N.C. Cooperative Extension. Call 704-983-3987 or Samantha_foster@ ncsu.edu.