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Body Condition Scores

Body condition  (degree of fatness) has been shown to have a very important relationship to rebreeding performance in postpartum cows.  In fact, cow condition at calving seems to be the single most important factor in determining how quickly a cow returns to estrus following calving.  Research in recent years has shown that beef cows in moderate to good condition exhibit a significantly earlier return to estrus after calving and a higher pregnancy rate than cows in thin condition.  Subjective systems for scoring body condition have been developed as a result of this research.  The data has shown that subjective condition scores in live cows are highly correlated with carcass fatness.

                The most widely adopted system is one based on a scale of 1 to 9.

1.  Severely emaciated.  Rarely seen.  All ribs and bone structures easily visible.  Very little visible muscle tissue.  Physically weak.

2.  Emaciated.  Similar to Condition score 1, but not weakened.  Little visible muscle tissue.

3.  Very thin.  No fat over ribs or in brisket.  More apparent muscling than on Condition Score 2.  Backbone easily visible.

4.  Thin.  Ribs usually visible with shoulders and hindquarters showing modest muscling.  Backbone visible.

5.  Moderate.  Last two or three ribs can be seen.  Little evidence of fat in brisket, over ribs or around tailhead.

6.  High moderate.  Smooth appearance throughout.  Slight fat deposition in brisket and over tailhead.  Ribs covered, and back appears slightly rounded.

7.  Good.  Brisket full.  Tailhead shows pockets of fat.  Back appears well rounded due to fat.  Ribs appear very smooth.

8.  Obese.  Back square due to fat.  Brisket distended.  Heavy fat pockets around tailhead.  Neck thick.

9.  Very obese.  Rarely seen.  Similar to Condition Score 8, but more extreme.  Heavy deposition of udder fat.



Studies have shown that only 24% of cows with Condition Score 4 will be pregnant after 60 days of breeding, compared to 87% of cows with Condition Score 7.  Furthermore, a greater percent of cows with higher scores will cycle and rebreed during the first 20 days of the breeding season.



How to use Condition Scores

Research has shown that mature cows need to condition score from 5 to 6 at calving time to consistently rebreed in the 90 percent range by 80 days postpartum.  Furthermore, first calf heifers may need to be in slightly better condition than mature cows.

In utilizing condition scores, it is recommended that the condition of the cow herd be evaluated at weaning time or, at the latest, about three months before calving.  Thin cows (4 or less) should be sorted out from those in moderate (5) or higher condition and fed to calve in moderate to good condition.  Then, at least moderate condition should be maintained from calving to breeding season.

It should be noted that cows with dairy breeding can be as much as one condition score lower than straight beef-type cows and still exhibit comparable rebreeding performance.  This is presumably due to the fact that they carry a lower percent of their total body fat as external fat and a higher percent in the form of seam fat and kidney, heart and pelvic fat.



















This 3 year old heifer is an example of unacceptable body condition.  She was returned to us as a non -breeder with a juvenile reproductive tract.  I was horrified when she arrived back on the farm.  She weighed 800 pounds, about 50 pounds more than she weighed when we had sold her 1 1/2 years before.  You can see the lack of muscling in the neck, particularly compared to the older cow to the left. Her backbone is evident, and it can't be appreciated, but her hips were also devoid of muscling.  This heifer should have weighed 200-300 pounds more than she did.  Incidentally, she was put on good feed (pasture and haylage, no grain) and was turned out with the bull 2 months later.  She calved the following spring, with a healthy bull calf, that became a herd sire in Nebraska.

Here is another view, but it truly doesn't show just how emaciated this heifer was. If you are buying heifers  that look like this, be prepared to give them ample time to gain some weight in order to be successful breeders. Economically, this heifer has a significantly lower value than a well grown and well-conditioned  animal of the same age, or even a younger age. I would never recommend purchasing animals in this type of condition. Fortunately, this heifer had been fed well as a calf and was not permanently stunted. Calves with this poor body condition may well never recover.

This cow is another example of an extremely thin animal.  She was purchased in calf and very thin at that time.  (This is one of the disadvantages of purchasing cattle based only on photographs;  her body condition was hidden by a substantial haircoat.  Had she been viewed in person, her condition would have been more evident.) You can easily visualize her spine, pelvis and shoulder blade.  She has a somewhat ewe-neck appearance with very little muscle cover. 

This same cow did have a normal and healthy calf without any problems.  Unfortunately for her, she is a pretty heavy milker, and she has actually lost condtion since calving, despite good feed.  I doubt an animal in this condtion will rebreed.  Her calf should be weaned early to allow her ample time to regain some weight prior to cold weather. Both the yellow heifer above and this dun cow would qualify as Body Condition 2.

For comparison purposes, here is the same cow about a year later.  She did not rebreed in time for a spring calf, but a 6 month hiatus gave her enough time to gain some weight, conceive and deliver a gorgeous heifer calf in September of 2016. She does not look like the same cow.

This mature cow is probably Body Condition high 4 or low 5.  She is thin, with shoulder, back, hip and ribs easily visible, yet there is obvioius muscling evident as well.  She still demonstrates a stout and strong appearance despite her thin condition. Furthermore, she will rebreed in this condition.  She is an Impact Dam and is presently nursing a calf.

This 4 year old cow is nursing a calf:  she is probably Body Condition 5. Her last ribs are evident, and there is no evidence of fat deposits around her tailhead.

This mature cow is Body Condition 6.  She is relatively smooth throughout, yet there are no fat deposits over her tailhead. She is nursing a heavy calf that shows excellent growth for his age.  She is an Elite Impact Dam.

This mature cow is easily Body Condition 7. She is smooth throughout, with obvious fat pockets over and around her tail head.  She has lost 2 quarters of her udder to injury, and does not produce nearly as much milk as she once did.  This factors into why she maintains excellent body condition but her calf does suffer for the decreased production of milk. She is also an Elite Impact Dam, although she could never have reached that pinnacle based on her present milk production.

This mature cow is easily Body Condition 7 and borders on 8.  She is very smooth overall, but the fat deposits over her tail head are not evident in the photograph.  If you could see her brisket it would look close to the size of a basketball. She is what would be termed an "easy keeper." She is nursing a well proportioned calf that will be gorgeous, but not with a particularly outstanding weaning weight as she is not a particularly heavy milker. She is, however, an Impact Dam.

The main part of the article has been adapted from Extension Bulletin E-2412, Cooperative Extension Service, Michigan State University

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