Keep cows in condition for better breeding

Understanding the relationship between body condition scores and rebreeding efficiency is a powerful management tool for cattle produc­ers. Ensuring that a cow calves in good flesh is one of the most effec­tive ways to encourage reproductive efficiency. Body condition scoring allows the manager to evaluate the nutritional program’s efficacy.

Body condition scores are num­bers used to suggest the fatness or body composition of the cow. Producers calibrate the BCS system under their own conditions using their own cattle. When you use BCS, keep the procedure simple. It is not worth your time and effort to use a 100-point scale trying to de­cide if a cow is a 52 or a 53. Cows are in good flesh, or they are not.

The most commonly used system consists of 9 grades. A cow with a BCS of 1 is very emaciated and unlikely to be seen in the field alive. A cow scoring as a 2 or 3 means “thin.” The cow will look angular, skinny, and sharp. A cow with a BCS of 7, 8 or 9 is fat. It looks boxy and smooth and its bone structure is hidden from sight and feel. “Nor­mal” commercial beef cows will typically have BCS of 4, 5 and 6.

Over the years, beef experts have settled on a few times of year that are optimal for checking body con­dition. These points are significant in the breeding cycle. If you pay close attention, you’ll have an op­portunity to help cows recover body condition through feeding and sort­ing. Typically, it’s a 90- to 120-day schedule, with particular scrutiny at 30 days prior to breeding, 90 days post-breeding, weaning, 100 days prior to calving, and at calving. By evaluating BCS at set times, a man­ager can strategically allocate forage resources and offer supplements to correct nutrient deficiencies.

One of the main constraints in reproductive performance of beef cows is the post-calving anestrous period—the length of time between calving and when she is once again able to become pregnant. To main­tain a standard 60-day breeding program, cows need to go into calving in adequate condition. Cows that have low body condition at calving are less likely to return to estrus in a timely manner. It is possible but difficult and expensive to dramatically improve body con­dition after calving. Cows in early lactation already have many physio­logical demands, and the timeframe in which to work is short.

The best practice is for cows to go into calving season in good condition but not over-conditioned. Fat cows have their own set of problems. Cows in good flesh have adequate energy reserves without carrying excess flesh.

Routine monitoring of BCS is a valuable tool to evaluate your nutrition program and help prevent problems before they become serious. Shortcomings are easier to fix the sooner they are noticed and addressed. MFA livestock specialists can help with learning how to score cattle. The image above is a score­card MFA has developed. You can also find many other industry and university publications on BCS.

The idea is to look in a few key areas on the animals: the ribs, the vertebrae in front of the hooks, and the tail head. Using select criteria for each area, the animals are scored against a rubric. For instance, if the outline of the vertebrae is apparent, the cow will score 4 or lower. If more than two ribs are easily seen, the cow will score 5 or lower.

For spring calvers, taking cows into winter with a good body condition score provides long-term benefits. Cows in good condi­tion generally deliver healthier calves and have a higher chance of successful breed-back. Take time this fall to evaluate your cattle, and make corrective measures if nec­essary. Your MFA livestock experts will be happy to help.

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