By Rick Rasby, University of Nebraska
Body condition at calving, especially for spring-calving cows, not only impacts how cows perform at calving, but also influences performance during the next breeding season. How cows perform during the breeding season impacts profit potential in the cow/calf enterprise in regards to pregnancy rate and when in the breeding season they become pregnant.
Cows that become pregnant early in the breeding season, calve early in the calving season, and their calves are older and heavier at weaning. Over conditioned cows, especially if the extra condition was fed on, is wasting money. Under conditioned cows are risky because their performance can be very inconsistent. Proper conditioned cows are the goal. It's like Goldilocks and the porridge being to hot, to cold, or just right.
Let's refresh the condition scoring system. The most common system used is the 1 to 9 body condition scoring system (BCS). A BCS 1 cow is very thin and emaciated. A BCS 9 cow is very fat and obese. Very seldom do we see the extreme body condition scores. Most cows are between a condition score 3 and 7.
There are six areas on the animal that we visually access the amount of condition (fat): the brisket, ribs, back, hooks (hip area), pins, and tailhead area. A condition score 3 cow will have no fat in the brisket, over the ribs and back, or in the hooks, pins, and tailhead area. In fact, she will have a crease in her hind quarter where she has had to start to mobilize muscle tissue to meet maintenance energy needs. The BCS 3 cow, as she is viewed from the rear, appears pointed because you can easily see her spinus process, hip and pin bones. A condition score 5 cow will have a "smoother” appearance because she has fat in the areas described previously. You can not see the fore-ribs, but can see the 12th and 13th ribs in a condition score 5 cow. A condition score 6 cow will have fat in the brisket, you will not see the 12th or 13th ribs, and there will be two small ponds of fat on both sides of the tailhead. Sometime inexperienced condition scorers will catch cows in the chute and hand palpate them to train the touch to a visually image. It is critical that when condition scoring cows that evaluate condition and not muscle or hair. "Seeing” through the hair can be difficult in the winter.
Cow body condition is a much better gage of your nutrition program as compared to cow weight. When you observe cows daily, it is more difficult to detect changes in condition score. Many times before you realize a change in condition, cows have actually lost more condition than you would like. Producers need to be disciplined to make sure they are not underestimating condition changes so that appropriate action can be taken. If you would like to have new ranch-hands learn about condition scoring beef cows or brush-up on this tool, go through our learning modules Body Condition Scoring Your Beef Cow Herd, A Guide to Condition Scoring Beef Cows, and Using Body Condition Score to Manage the Nutritional Program.
For spring-calving cows, manage cows to calve in a condition score 5. For first-calf-heifers, manage them to calve in a condition score 6. The extra condition is warranted for the young females because they are still growing, lactating for the first time, and trying to get ready for their next pregnancy. Even if you do everything right with these females, their postpartum interval is at least 15 days longer compared to a mature cow.
Cows will gain and lose condition throughout the year. If they are doing a good job of raising their calf, they will likely be thin at weaning. In drought conditions, cows raising a calf will be thin. In most conditions, thin cows should bounce back in condition 45 to 60 days after weaning. If mature cows are always thin and need you to feed them to get them back in condition before calving, check the genetics. Something doesn't match up with the feed resources. Cow size and milk production are the biggest challenges from a nutritional standpoint. May be one or both of these characteristics don't match your feed resources.
Condition scoring cows at weaning seems logical. Pay particular attention to young females weaning their first calf, they are the ones that are likely to be thin. Don't separate them off yet, watch them to make sure they begin to regain condition after the nutrient demand for lactation has been removed. Mature cows that are thin at weaning should bounce back in condition if they are thin at weaning by 60 days post-weaning. These are what I term "elastic” cows, they are thin at weaning but then, like a rubber band when stretched and the stress relieved, return to an acceptable condition once the calf is weaned.
Condition score spring-calving cows again about 90 days prior to calving. This is your last opportunity to get cows in the right condition before calving. Trying to add condition to cows after calving is like trying to push water uphill. The diet will need to be fairly dense in energy and cows that get high energy diets after calving, tend to milk more and calves seem to get milk scours.
If you need to feed thin cows prior to calving to get them back into condition, in the 1996 Nutrient Requirements for Beef Cattle there is a table that, based on cow weight and condition score, has the energy required to move a cow from a lower body condition to the next highest condition. In the learning module URL given above, there is another learning module titled "Using Body Condition Score to Manage the Nutrition Program”. You can learn how to use the 1996 NRC table and there is an example of designing a diet.
You can find more at UNL's Beef Production Page.
- January 2010