By: Eileen Coite, County Extension Director, NC Cooperative Extension
So many of us have been buzzing around the last few weeks, busy as ever with holiday preparation and festivities. With the chilly temperatures and frosty mornings that come this time of year, we need to remember our animals — especially those that live outdoors. Along with the decreased temperatures and decline in forage growth, comes an increase in calories needed for farm animals to maintain weight, keep warm, and often even to nurse their young. Minimum essentials for our animals are adequate nutrition, whether forage, feed, or both, along with clean water and some type of shelter. With days like we have experienced (will see more of in the coming month or two), being able to provide water instead of a block of ice is critical. Many feed and farm supply stores sell stock tank de-icers and other heated buckets that come in handy. Making an investment in this type of equipment might save you the cost of a vet bill later; or even worse, the loss of an animal as a result of cold weather dehydration. Increased demands for forage — usually hay this time of year — will help keep outdoor grazing animals warm as well as in good condition. The term "hay burner" might often be thought of by the cost of animals eating hay, when in reality it is how the hay is digested. The digestion process of forage in itself will help outdoor animals stay warm.
In addition to meeting nutritional needs in the winter, it’s a good idea to be familiar with body condition scoring systems, and to recognize when there’s a need to increase condition to individuals of the herd. Unfortunately, all livestock and horse body condition score (BCS) charts are not uniform. It would be nice if they were, but the bottom line is to recognize when an animal is in condition, too thin, or too fat. Beef cattle and horses are scored on a 1-9 system, while hogs, goats and dairy cattle are scored from 1-5. Condition not only affects nutritional status, but also influences rebreeding after calving, foaling, kidding, etc. If reproductive efficiency is important to you, then maintaining BCS should be a primary goal of your management scheme. Body condition can be evaluated in any number of locations on the body. The shoulder, neck, back, ribs, hooks or hip area, pin bones, and tail can be evaluated, in addition to the brisket in cattle. A visual evaluation of these areas is useful, although a hands-on technique to feel for fat cover is preferred, especially in the winter when hair coats are thick and long.
Body condition should be assessed frequently enough to make changes and see a difference before the next scoring if animals are out of condition. At a minimum, score animals as the seasons change or when handling for vaccination, pregnancy testing, and other procedures. A good rule of thumb would be to score at least once a quarter. For cattle, the ideal BCS is a 6, but can increase to 7 when forages are abundant, or fall to a 5 when they are low quality and quantity. Condition scores should not be allowed to fall under a 5 or above a 7. Target condition scores for all livestock vary slightly according to reproductive, growth, and activity status, but for the most part, the moderate condition range of a BCS score of 4-6 is ideal when using the 1-9 scale. Animals that are out of this condition range are prone to several problems. Under conditioned animals will have problems conceiving when re-bred. Milking adequately and providing the nutritional needs of their young will also be affected. Over conditioned animals may also have reproductive and lactation problems.
Best wishes for a happy and healthy new year, and to keeping our animals’ body condition in check throughout the winter months.