Body Condition Scoring in Your Beef Herd

As producers, how do we know our herd is reaching its maximum potential? Learning how to take Body Condition Scores (BCS) of our cattle can help us with this! Taking the BCS of cattle allows us to assess their fat reserves during various stages of production. By working with your veterinarian, this data can be used to help you make management and feeding decisions.

What is it?
The BCS system uses numbers to describe the cow’s relative fatness or body composition. The scoring system for beef cattle ranges from 1 to 9, with 1 (emaciated) representing very thin cows and 9 (obese) representing very fat cows. A cow with a BCS of 5 is said to be in average condition; however, the perception of an “average” conditioned cow varies with each producer. According to the Beef Quality Assurance Field Guide, cattle producers should “target a BCS between 5 and 7 for cows at calving for optimum production and cow and calf health.”

How can I use it with my herd?
Cow-calf producers can use BCS to ensure that breeding cattle are in appropriate condition at different stages of their production cycle. The condition of cows at calving is associated with the length of postpartum anestrus, subsequent lactation performance, and health of the newborn calf. A BCS can be assigned to a cow by looking at the animal, palpation, or combining sight and touch. During the colder months when cattle have longer hair, handling is recommended. When hair is short, a visual assessment of the animal is acceptable. Be cautious, as gut fill and heavily bred animals can appear larger than they are.

The calving interval is defined as the period from the birth of one calf to the next. To have a 12-month calving interval, a cow must breed back within 80 days of the birth of her calf. If a calving interval is longer than 12 months, it is often caused by nutritional stress before the calving season or during the following breeding season. When your cows are in appropriate condition, you will prevent feeding open cows longer than necessary.

When is the best time to BCS my herd?
Several points during the year are beneficial to take the BCS of your herd. Late summer and early fall are good times to test if cows are thin and potentially wean calves early. Once these cows are dry, they have a chance to gain condition through grazing. Weaning is another great time to check the BCS of your herd. They often appear thin at this time. Be certain that these cows have access to higher-quality forage. Doing another assessment at 45 days post-weaning will give you a better idea if your cows are “bouncing back” after weaning.

Ninety days prior to calving is the last opportunity you will have to get condition on your cows without too much cost. At calving, if we have a significant number of thin cows, we need to check our pre-calving nutrition program. If our cows are thin, they will produce less colostrum. They will give birth to less vigorous calves which will make them more susceptible to diseases like scours and pneumonia. When nursing, cows need extra calories to provide adequate nutrition for their calves.

The body condition of our cattle, most importantly at calving time has a significant impact on pregnancy outcomes of cow-calf operations. Being practical in our management strategies can help keep cows in seasonally appropriate body condition, allowing each operation to achieve ideal reproductive performance.