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Virginia Cooperative Extension -
 Knowledge for the CommonWealth

The Cow-Calf Manager

Livestock Update, October 1999

John Hall, Extension Animal Scientist, Beef, Virginia Tech

Body Condition Scoring Especially Important This Year

Both spring and fall calving cows in most parts of Virginia are going into fall thinner than normal. After three dry summers, cows have lost a little more weight each year. Recently, we weighed and body conditioned cows and calves at one of our research stations. The cows had lost 1 body condition score and the calves had only gained 20 pounds in a little over a month. Often cows lose body condition before we realize it especially if we don't body condition score our cows regularly.

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 Point123456789
Physically weakyesnononononononono
Muscle atrophyyesyesslightnononononono
Outline of spine visibleyesyesyesslightnonononono
Outline of ribs visibleallallall3-51-20000
Fat in brisket and flanksnononononosomefullfullextreme
Outline of hip & pin bones visibleyesyesyesyesyesyesslightnono
Fat udder & patchy fat around tail headnonononononoslight yesextreme

Fall-calving cows that are in BCS 4 or below are in real trouble. Thin cows will have trouble breeding back. Thin cows could be delayed by 30 to 60 days or more in breeding back. In addition, pregnancy rates will be reduced in thin cows. The chart below shows the effects of BCS at calving and weight gain or loss after calving on the percentage of cows that are cycling. These thin fall-calving cows need to gain weight before the breeding season.

Spring calving cows that are thin at weaning need to gain weight by December or January so they are in the proper condition for calving. Calves born to thin cows are more likely to die at calving or be more susceptible to illness like scours or pneumonia.

The best way to avoid problems is to get cows into condition before calving rather than after calving. Diets for dry cows are rather simple and based on body weight. Table 2 lists some diets to allow dry cows to gain weight. This table is based on cows that should weigh 1200 lbs. at BCS 5, but currently are 1050 lbs. at BCS 3.

Diets for lactating cows are based on milk production as well as body condition and body weight. A few diets for lactating cows are shown in table 3. However, producers with thin fall calving cows are encouraged to check with their extension agent or consulting nutritionist for a more personalized ration. Also, some other steps like temporary weaning near the start of the breeding season or sorting cows into feeding groups may be needed before the breeding season. As you can see, it will not be easy or inexpensive to get weight back on lactating cows.

Table 2. Diets to help dry cows gain weight

 Diet Composition (lbs. per cow per day)
IngredientDiet 1Diet 2Diet 3Diet 4Diet 5
Fescue Hay19.518.
Soybean meal0.50000
Corn Gluten Feed07.016.000
Poultry litter00012.017.0
Days to gain 1 condition score4657272134
Cost per cow per day$1.00$0.89$1.04$0.94$0.65

Table 3. Diets to help lactating cows gain weight

 Diet Composition (lbs. per cow per day)
IngredientDiet 1Diet 2Diet 3Diet 4Diet 5
Fescue Hay15.
Soybean meal2.0001.00
Corn Gluten Feed0019.0012.0
Poultry litter014.0000
Soy Hulls00020.00
Days to gain 1 condition score7950815334
Cost per cow per day$1.18$1.01$1.17$1.16$1.38

The diets in table 3. Assume that cattle will be brought up on grain gradually, and all diets are relatively high in fiber. Diet 5 is a very high concentrate ration and needs to be fed by experience cattle feeders only.

Finally, these diets do not guarantee breeding success in thin cows unless cows reach BCS 5 or better by calving. However, research indicates that thin cows that are gaining weight prior to breeding have a 20% better conception rate than thin cows that don't gain weight.

The drought has made it a tough year, but with cheap feed prices many feeds are good alternatives to hay. It will cost more to let cows remain in thin condition than to get them in good shape.

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