Eye on Extension: Body condition scoring animals


VALLEY — Body condition scores on animals describe the relative fatness, or body condition, of an animal. For cattle and horses, a nine-point scale is used. For sheep or goats, a five-point scale is used. For cattle or horses a body condition score of five (BCS 5) is an average score. It is the preferred score for mature animals in good condition. A BCS of 1 is extremely low for all animals while a BCS 9 is extremely fat or obese. 

While I’ll talk mostly about beef cattle the same holds true for dairy cattle or horses.  For sheep and goats, a BCS of 3 is average and a 2 moderate thin or 4 a moderate fat animal.

With weaning time coming up in a few weeks, many beef producers will have their animals where they can get a look and feel of their animals. This is a great time to evaluate the BCS on an animal. It also allows time to increase the BCS for cows before calving next year. If an increase in BCS is needed after weaning is the easiest time to do so.

A body condition score for beef cattle at the time of calving has the greatest impact on rebreeding. A mature cow should be in a BCS of 5 or close to there. This allows the cow a chance to lose a little weight at calving but still be able to rebreed in the correct time. Heifers should be in a BCS of about 6 at calving. Heifers are still growing so they need a little more condition to make up for the extra energy used for growth. 

Mature cows can do well with a BCS of 4.5 if they get good nutrition at and after calving. Heifers should not be nutritionally challenged while still growing. 

For a cow to maintain a 365-day calving cycle she needs to rebreed by 82 days after calving. On average, cows that calve with a BCS of 3 or 4 will have a hard time maintaining the 365-day calving cycle. Cows with a BCS of 7 will recycle sooner, however, it isn’t economically feasible to feed for a BCS 7. 

Thin cows at calving (BCS 4 or lower) produce less colostrum, give birth to less vigorous calves that are slower to stand and these calves have lower immunoglobulin levels, making them susceptible to early calf-hood diseases.

Body condition scoring is done through a visual and if possible, touching or palpation of the animal. Key points to look at and feel on an animal are; 1. In the chest or brisket area, 2. Behind the front shoulder, 3. Ribs, 4. Back, 5. Tail head, 6. Hip bones, 7. Pin bones. Look or feel for fat cover in these areas. The more prominent the bones the less muscle or fat cover they have.

Body condition scores at calving will have the greatest impact on next year’s performance and rebreeding potential. There are several times that a producer can score his animals. Weaning is a time to pay attention to young animals especially.  To know if you are making progress check them again in 45 days. Then again 90 days before calving. This is the last chance to put on condition before calving. At calving time if cows are thin a change in the feeding program may be needed. At the beginning of the breeding season is a time to estimate what the future holds. You can’t change much but you will have an idea what to expect in the future.

For additional information on body condition scoring animals, contact the Colorado State University Extension Office, San Luis Valley Area at 719-852-7381.

Extension programs are available to all without discrimination, Colorado State University Extension, U.S. Department of Agriculture and Colorado counties cooperating.

Marvin Reynolds is the Area Extension Director for the San Luis Valley Area.