Farmers need to be proactive to make sure that cows are in top form before calving. Wilma den Hartigh explains how body condition scores can be used to ensure this.
It is essential that cows calve in ideal conditions, and this includes ensuring that the animal is in top condition. One of the best ways to determine the condition and nutritional needs of cows in the herd is through body condition scoring (BCS).
WHAT IS BCS AND HOW DOES IT WORK?
BCS uses numbers to estimate a beef cow’s energy reserves in the form of fat and muscle.
It calls for the examination of animals, especially the loin area between the hipbone and last rib, and the area around the tip of the tail.
- A numeric score of 1 to 5, indicating the BCS, is assigned to each animal.
- A score of 1 means the cow is too thin.
- 2 means the cow is thin, but healthy.
- 3 is the best score to achieve.
- 4 means the animal is fat.
- 5 indicates that the cow is too fat.
If the cow is thin, it will probably have milk production and overall health problems. Such a cow might struggle to conceive again, if at all, or much later than expected. An overweight cow costs the farmer too much to maintain and will struggle to conceive.
Research has also shown that there’s a link between a good BCS and the future reproductive health of the animal. Achieving a BCS of 3 at calving is ideal for the cow’s growth, successful lactation and re-conception.
Also read: Use your eyes to assess cattle condition
A good BCS shows that the beef cow has enough reserves to handle the final stages of pregnancy and the demands of feeding a calf after calving. If the BCS is low, the cow will struggle.
A beef cow’s nutritional requirements are at their highest 4 to 6 weeks after calving, as a cow usually experiences a drop in condition after calving. To cope with this, the cow’s condition has to be right initially, otherwise subsequent conception will be affected.
It is also important to contain weight loss in the animal after calving as this can affect milk production and re-conception. Farmers should anticipate possible changes in the body condition score of a cow. In fact, they could start taking proactive measures before weaning.
Farmers could make the weaning date earlier, particularly in difficult years such as when there is a drought. After weaning, the nutritional needs of a cow gradually increase due to the nutritional needs of the growing calf. If the cow is in low condition before weaning, farmers should consider weaning earlier to remove the stress of a suckling calf.
WHEN TO CONDUCT A BCS
Farmers should carry out BCS on an ongoing basis, and “strategic condition scoring” should be carried out 2 months before weaning and the calving season. A BCS at these times will show if the cow is in trouble. 2 months is enough time to build condition in the animal.
Although weighing animals is a more accurate indication of a drop in condition, BCS is more practical. Once you’ve identified cows that have a poor BCS, you should keep them in a separate group and give them additional feeding, such as a production lick.
Different forms of supplementary feeding, such as mineral, maintenance and production licks, can be used throughout the production process, depending on the time of year, the veld quality and the nutritional needs of the cows.
The nutritional quality of feed is much better in intensive systems, such as artificial pastures, and farmers should use supplements such as hay or silage in periods of low fodder availability, like in winter or droughts.
Farmers who run extensive beef cattle systems don’t have access to these and have to find ways to deal with seasonal nutrient deficiencies in the veld. In such cases, farmers should provide supplementary feeding in the form of mineral, maintenance and production licks.
Production licks contain more energy sources to help cows build condition and put on weight. These licks are expensive, so farmers should only give them to animals that need them. You can do this by separating the animals in need of extra energy sources from the rest of the herd. This will save costs for the farmer.
Maintenance licks are high in protein sources and could be suitable winter feeds. Such licks can help cows gain condition.
Cows in both extensive and intensive systems could benefit from a mineral lick (also known as a salt phosphate lick) in summer. Even in intensive beef production systems, pastures are often deficient in a broad range of minerals and trace minerals important for fertility performance.
He advises farmers to consult animal nutritionists to formulate a good nutritional programme. Some farmers choose to mix their own supplements, because commercial licks are expensive, but he warns that farmers have to ensure supplements are correctly formulated.
DON’T NEGLECT BIOSECURITY
Don’t neglect biosecurity practices, particularly at critical times in the production cycle. Good nutrition is a form of biosecurity, since well-fed animals are more resistant to disease than under-nourished animals.
Farmers should keep an eye on external and internal biosecurity on the farm. Outbreaks of diseases usually occur when there is a break in biosecurity.
External biosecurity measures mean that you know the origin of all cattle, be it the farm they come from, or the specific herd or stud. Farmers should also restrict access to their farms.
Internally, it is essential to have a good vaccination programme in place and ensure that vaccines are transported to the farm with care.
- The vaccines should be kept chilled at all times.
- Although there are general guidelines for vaccines, these aren’t specific to a particular farm.
- Farmers should therefore work out a vaccination programme in consultation with their local veterinarian.
- Farm management practices always remain very important.
Play it safe – vaccinate your livestock
- This article was written by Wilma den Hartigh and first appeared in Farming SA.