Body Condition Scoring in Beef Cattle, Is It Important?

People may argue what the key to success is for a cow-calf operation, but most believe a cow giving birth to a healthy calf every year is a defining characteristic of success. Herd health, mineral, nutrition, and grazing programs should be designed to promote greater reproductive efficiency and provide more pounds of marketable beef. Decisions and investments made on cow-calf operations today can have implications for more than a 10-year period. It is very difficult to measure short-term success of day-to-day management decisions. One very quick and easy production measure that can be assessed and analyzed to evaluate the impact of some short-term decisions is body condition score (BCS). A poor BCS or changes in BCS can indicate several things: (1) nutritive quality of grazed forages and supplemental feedstuffs; (2) potential health concerns with regard to infection, parasite load, lameness, or subacute/chronic problems that do not present obvious symptoms; and (3) other environmentally-induced stressors such as heat or fescue toxicosis. Keeping good records and monitoring BCS over time will identify problems with individual animals or overall herd-management concerns.

Body condition scoring in beef cattle is a tool that tends to be underutilized. A cow’s BCS is a numerical value from 1 (severely emaciated) to 9 (very obese) that reflects overall condition or fatness of the animal.1 According to the NAHMS survey, only about 23.3% of beef cattle operations in the United States utilize BCS to aid in management decisions.2

This is surprising when one considers what BCS can reveal to producers. In addition to the issues previously stated, BCS can have a profound impact on reproductive efficiency. Numerous studies have shown the impact of BCS on calving interval (figure 1), estrus-cycling status (figure 2), and pregnancy rates (table 1).

Figure 1. Calving interval (days) in response to body condition score.3 Cows in good body condition (BCS 5 to 6) are able to cycle back and conceive sooner than cows that are under- or severely over-conditioned. Having a calf every year (or a calving interval ≤ 365 days), increases cow longevity and profitability for the producer.

Figure 2. Percentage of cows cycling at various body condition scores.4 If a cow does not have enough energy reserves in her body, her physiological processes will not function normally. With reproduction almost last on her list of priorities, even a cow’s estrous cycles are likely to be negatively impacted by a low body condition score.

Table 1. Birth weight and reproductive performance of 2-year-old beef cows as affected by body condition.

BCS* Number of Cows Calf Birth Weights % Pregnant by Days of Breeding Season

20 Days 40 Days 60 Days

4 73 64 27 43 56
5 107 67 35 65 80
6 60 71 47 90 96

Source: Journal of Animal Science.*Note: Body condition score (BCS) were accessed at calving.

Table 2. Body Condition Scoring System (BCS) for Beef Cattle.

Condition BCS Description
Thin 1 Emaciated – Cow is extremely emaciated with no palpable fat detectable
2 Poor – Cow still appears somewhat emaciated but tail-head and ribs are less prominent. Individual spinous processes are still rather sharp to the touch, but some tissue cover over dorsal portion of ribs.
3 Thin – Ribs are still individual identifiable but not quite as sharp to the touch. There is obvious palpable fat along spine and over tail-head with some tissue cover dorsal portion of ribs.
Borderline 4 Borderline – Individual ribs are no longer visually obvious. The spinous processes can be identified individually on palpation but feel rounded rather than sharp. Some fat cover over ribs, transverse processes, and hip bones.
Optimum/moderate 5 Moderate – Cow has general good overall appearance. On palpation, fat cover over ribs feels spongy and areas on either side of tail-head now have palpable fat cover.
6 High moderate – Firm pressure now needs to be applied to feel spinous processes. A high degree of fat is palpable over ribs and around tail-head.
Fat 7 Good – Cow appears fleshy and obviously carries considerable fat. Very spongy fat cover over ribs and around tail-head. In fact, “rounds” or “pones” beginning to be obvious. Some fat around vulva and in crotch.
8 Fat – Cow very fleshy and over-conditioned. Spinous processes almost impossible to palpate. Cow has large fat deposits over tailhead.

Source: Journal of Animal Science.

Body condition scoring can be impacted with nutrition and management at certain points in time. Making a BCS assessment between forty-five and sixty days prior to calving is an appropriate time to increase nutrition and improve condition if needed to moderate a mature cow’s BCS. Once a cow calves, it becomes difficult to moderate or change her BCS due to the nutritional demand of lactation. It is imperative to understand that although using BCS to quantify energy status is the goal, there is a bit of time lag between current energy level and a change in BCS. Body condition scoring can be used as an effective tool to evaluate the impact of some short-term decisions, but producers must ensure cattle are taking in a surplus of energy leading up to the breeding season. For assistance in assessing nutritional need or feed quality, please contact a Livestock and Forage Agent at your local Extension County Office.

References Cited

  1. Nutritional management in beef cow-calf herds. Fort Collins (CO): United States Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS); 1998 May. Veterinary Services, Info Sheet.
  2. Guidelines for uniform beef improvement programs. 9th ed. Verona (MS): Beef Improvement Federation; 2018.
  3. Paterson JA. 1983. Effects of Body Condition on Reproductive Performance. In: 1992-1993 Regional Beef Meetings. Management for Efficient Reproduction. p. 32, University of Missouri Press.
  4. Stevenson JS, Johnson SK, Milliken GA. 2003. Incidence of postpartum anestrus in suckled beef cattle: treatments to induce estrus, ovulation, and conception. The Professional Animal Scientist. 19(2):124-34.
  5. Richards MW, Spitzer JC, Warner MB. 1986. Effect of varying levels of postpartum nutrition and body condition at calving on subsequent reproductive performance in beef cattle. Journal of Animal Science. 62(2):300-6.

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