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Cattle production: Use your eyes to assess cattle condition

Scanning and scoring cattle condition in the herd is the greatest management tool any stockman can acquire. There’s no better way to assess individual and herd health than to get into the habit of visually assessing your cattle consistently and continuously. A daily routine check will give animal managers early warning of possible problems.

Body Condition Scoring (BCS) uses numbers to estimate cow condition, which is primarily a function of energy reserves. It calls for the examination of animals especially in the loin area between the hipbone and the last rib, and the area around the tail head.
The 5-point system uses numbers 1 to 5, with increases of 0,25 between each number.

A 5-point system

A cow that scores 1 is in very poor condition. The tail head is in a deep, bony cavity and there is no fatty tissue under the skin. The spine is prominent and the horizontal bony processes are sharp. Coat condition is mostly rough.

A BCS score of 2 score will show the tail head in a shallow cavity with the pin bones prominent. There is some fat under the skin and individual horizontal processes can be felt and seen, with rounded ends. The skin is supple.

BCS 3 is the optimum score to aim for, and shows that the cow is neither too thin nor too fat. The end of the horizontal, bony processes in the loin can only be felt with pressure, and the loin depression is slight. There is fat cover over the tail head area. The skin is smooth. Ideally, a beef cow should calve down at BCS 3.

BCS 4 is a score for an over-conditioned animal. The tail head is completely filled and there are folds and patches of fat evident. The bony processes are completely filled and rounded.

BCS 5 will show a grossly fat tail head buried in fatty tissue. The pelvis cannot be felt even under firm pressure.

At the bottom end of the scale, the cow will have low or no milk, general health problems and fail to reconceive. With remedial action and good feeding this can change. Unfortunately, the BCS 5 cow will have fertility problems and should be culled because she will be a burden to the business.

There is a link between codition and reproductive health. Calving down at condition score 3 is ideal for the cow’s successful lactation and re-conception. It is particularly important to calve first-calvers down in good condition, because they are still growing. They are also the future of the herd – whether that herd is small or big. A good BCS means the cow has the reserves to handle the last stage of pregnancy, and the demands of the suckling calf. If the BCS is low, the cow will struggle to maintain her condition. When the condition drops about a month to six weeks after calving, the cow needs to be on a rising plane of nutrition. It is crucial that post-calving cows are able to maintain condition so that they can suckle their calves efficiently, and re-conceive.

In difficult seasons, such as a protracted drought, farmers should look at being proactive and wean calves earlier than usual to stabilise cow condition.

When to conduct a BCS

Farmers should condition score on an ongoing basis. But strategic condition scoring should be done about two months before weaning and at calving. A BCS at these times will show if a cow is in trouble, and two months should be enough time to correct poor condition. Cows with low BCS can be separated from the rest of the herd and given access to a production lick.

Depending on the quality of the veld, the time of year and the needs of the cow, mineral, maintenance and production licks can put out. Production licks contain energy that help cows build condition and gain weight, but they are expensive and should only be given where there is a real and identified need. Grouping and separating animals like this helps with condition improvement. It also saves the farmer money, because only the thin cows are selected for feeding.

Healthy animals in good condition have better immunity and can fight disease threats more easily than animals at the lower end of the scale. It is part of a farmer’s biosecurity.

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Sources: State of Queensland, (Department of Agriculture and fishing), Queensland government (graphics).
NADIS (National Animal Disease Information Service) Body Condition Scoring in beef animals.

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