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Virginia Cooperative Extension -
 Knowledge for the CommonWealth

Some Beef Cows in Critical Condition

Livestock Update, March 2004

John B. Hall, Extension Animal Scientist, Beef, Virginia Tech

Recent reports from veterinarians and extension agents indicate that Virginia's beef cows may be in worse nutritional status than most years at this time. Extremely cold weather and snow cover combined with the very poor quality of the 2003 hay crop has created conditions for nutritional stress for beef cows. Cows need to be body condition scored immediately.

Based on the hay samples the VA Tech forage lab has received this year over 50% of grass hay tested did not meet the energy needs of dry beef cows, and 70 % of it failed to meet the energy needs of beef cows in late gestation and early lactation. This means cows will continue to lose weight until significant amounts of grazing are available in mid to late April.

Body Condition Scoring
One of the best tools we have to know if our cows are in good shape is Body Condition Scoring. It may sound strange, but many producers don't know if their cows are in the proper flesh. Quite frankly, many cows are too thin. Just ride up and down the road and look at cowherds in Virginia and you'll quickly see what I mean.

Body condition scoring (BCS) is easy to learn and really easy to do. Cows are given a score from 1 to 9 with 1 = emaciated, weak and 9 = obese. You can learn from your extension agent or a producer that's already doing BCS. Using the chart below will help you learn how to body condition score.

Body Condition Scores
Reference Point 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
Physically weakyes no no no no no no no no
Muscle atrophyyes yes slight no no No no no no
Outline of spine visibleyes yes yes slight no No no no no
Outline of ribs visible all all all 3-5 1-2 0 0 0 0
Fat in brisket and flanks no no no no no some full full extreme
Outline of hip & pin bones visible yes yes yes yes yes yes slight no no
Fat udder & patchy fat around tail head no no no no no No slight yes extreme
Adapted from Pruitt, 1988

Supplementation strategies
Cows that are < BCS 5 need energy supplementation, and cows that are BCS < 3 are in critical energy status. The amount of energy needed will depend on the body condition score of the cow, age (first calf heifer vs mature), and hay quality. In general, most spring calving beef cows in Virginia could benefit from 7 to 8 pounds/head/day of corn, corn gluten feed, soy hulls, wheat mids or brewers grains. Extremely poor quality hay may need to be supplemented with 12 to 16 lbs of energy supplement.

In most cases, cows will not need supplementary protein. Results from this years hay test indicated that only 25 to 30% of hays did not meet protein requirements. In addition, all the energy supplements mentioned above except corn also provide addition protein. Cows should not be fed supplementary protein without high levels of energy. Feeding extra protein to cows eating low energy hay is like putting them on a bovine version of the Atkins diet. In general, protein lick tanks and tubs do not have sufficient energy in them to compensate for this years poor hay.

Feeding energy supplements usually means daily feeding of cows. However, supplements such as corn gluten feed and soy hulls can be fed every other day depending on the amount cows need. In addition, these supplements can be self-fed by limiting intake with salt or using other strategies. Producers interested in feeding options or proper supplementation of cows should contact their County Agricultural Extension Agent.

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