Body Condition Scoring

Sections

Optimum body condition = maximum production

The productivity of beef cows depends largely on the amount of fat they carry. A herd of cows maintained in the right condition with an ideal layer of fat cover will have more (and heavier!) calves than a herd of thin or over-fat cows.

What is body condition scoring?

Body condition scoring is a low cost, hands-on method to determine the condition (amount of fat cover) of cattle. This easy hands-on method is much more accurate than just looking at the animals.

Looks can be deceiving, even to the trained and experienced eye. The shadows that help you see the body's dips and hollows are harder to see on black cattle. The accuracy of visual evaluation also varies with the season. Prominent rib, hook and pin bones can be masked by long winter hair coats. Research from the University of Guelph reported that even trained visual evaluators had a hard time accurately predicting the body condition score of cows in winter. The correlation between visual scores and ultrasonic backfat measurements was low (r2 = 0.14) in January to March. Cows in later stages of pregnancy may also appear to have more fat cover. A hands-on evaluation of the body condition score will give you a much better sense of your cows' fat stores.

In Canada, body condition is scored from 1-5, with 1 being extremely thin and 5 being obese. A score of 2.5-3 is ideal.

How do I body condition score?

Why is measuring body condition worthwhile?Feel for fat cover with your hands at:

  • the short ribs
  • the spine
  • the hooks and pins
  • either side of the tail head

An animal in ideal condition will have a thin layer of fat in these areas, so it will take some pressure to feel the bones.

An underconditioned animal's bones will be quite prominent and sharp. In an obese animal, you won't be able to feel any of the individual bones through the thick layer of fat.

See a demonstration in the video below.



Why is measuring body condition worthwhile?

By having an accurate measure of your cows' body condition, you'll have a good indicator of how to manage their rations to maximize their productivity, especially reproduction.

Fact sheet: Reproductive Issues with Overconditioned and Underconditioned CowsReproduction is the most important factor affecting profitability. It is 5X more important than growth rate and 10X more important than carcass quality in terms of profit.

Cows with an ideal body condition score (2.5-3.0) rebreed up to 30 days sooner than thin cows, which allows more cows to calve in the first 21 day cycle. This can add up to 42 lbs in calf weaning weight since the calves born earlier in the calving season will be heavier at weaning time. Cows in ideal body condition also have pregnancy rates double those of cows in poor condition, have improved colostrum quality and milk production, healthier calves, and have fewer instances of calving problems.

The salvage value of cull cows in good condition is also higher. Very thin cows are more likely to experience negative outcomes during transport or to be condemned at the plant. Thin cows reflect poorly on the producer and the industry.

Slide the bar below to see how body condition affects cows' productivity and the value of their weaned calves.

Cold Stress
1.5
2.0
2.5
3.0
3.5
4.0
4.5
5.0
BCS:
1 - Underconditioned
BODY FAT:
3.77%
PROFIT: $
General Description

Emaciated; starving and weak; the entire body is extremely thin, and all skeletal structures are prominently visible. No muscle tissue is evident and no external fat is present. All the skeletal structures are visible and very sharp to the touch. The hair coat appears to be very dull. Survival during stress is doubtful.

Source: Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development
Pregnancy Rate (%):
23
Calving Interval (days):
data unavailable
% Showing Estrus 30 Days After Calving:
46
% Showing Estrus 60 Days After Calving:
66
Post Partum Interval:
data unavailable
Increased Risk of Cull (%):
35
Antibody (IgG) Levels in Colostrum (Mg/dL):
data unavailable
Calf Weaning Weight (lbs):
data unavailable
Calf ADG (lbs):
data unavailable
Calf Death Loss (%):
8
DYSTOCIA

Cows that are in a low body condition (<2.5) are more likely to have low energy during calving and therefore may take longer to calve. As a result, calves will have a lower energy supply both during and after calving.

Milk Production

Thin cows have less energy available for milk production. As a result, calf performance may suffer due to a decreased milk supply.

BCS:
1.5 - Underconditioned
BODY FAT:
7.54%
PROFIT: $
General Description

Very thin, somewhat emaciated; The vertebrae along the topline are prominent. The hooks and tail head are visually less prominent. There is no fat around the hip bone and pin bone and tail head.

Source: Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development
Pregnancy Rate (%):
43
Calving Interval (days):
414
% Showing Estrus 30 Days After Calving:
46
% Showing Estrus 60 Days After Calving:
66
Post Partum Interval:
89
Increased Risk of Cull (%):
8
Antibody (IgG) Levels in Colostrum (Mg/dL):
1998
Calf Weaning Weight (lbs):
374
Calf ADG (lbs):
1.61
Calf Death Loss (%):
8
DYSTOCIA

Cows that are in a low body condition (<2.5) are more likely to have low energy during calving and therefore may take longer to calve. As a result, calves will have a lower energy supply both during and after calving.

Milk Production

Thin cows have less energy available for milk production. As a result, calf performance may suffer due to a decreased milk supply.

BCS:
2 - Underconditioned
BODY FAT:
11.3%
PROFIT: $$
General Description

The animal is thin. The vertebrae along the topline are prominent. Muscle tissue is evident, but not abundant. Individual vertebrae ca be felt, but are not as sharp. The short ribs can be identified individually when touched, but they feel sharp rather than very sharp. Individual ribs can be identified visually. There is some tissue cover around the hook and tail head.

Source: Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development
Pregnancy Rate (%):
61
Calving Interval (days):
381
% Showing Estrus 30 Days After Calving:
61
% Showing Estrus 60 Days After Calving:
92
Post Partum Interval:
70
Increased Risk of Cull (%):
3
Antibody (IgG) Levels in Colostrum (Mg/dL):
2179
Calf Weaning Weight (lbs):
460
Calf ADG (lbs):
1.76
Calf Death Loss (%):
3
DYSTOCIA

Cows that are in a low body condition (<2.5) are more likely to have low energy during calving and therefore may take longer to calve. As a result, calves will have a lower energy supply both during and after calving.

Milk Production

No increased risk.

BCS:
2.5 - Right Condition
BODY FAT:
15.07%
PROFIT: $$$$$
General Description

Individual ribs noticeable but overall fat cover is lacking; increased musculature through shoulders and hindquarters; hips and short ribs feel slightly round versus sharp.

Source: Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development
Pregnancy Rate (%):
86
Calving Interval (days):
364
% Showing Estrus 30 Days After Calving:
61
% Showing Estrus 60 Days After Calving:
92
Post Partum Interval:
59
Increased Risk of Cull (%):
0
Antibody (IgG) Levels in Colostrum (Mg/dL):
2310
Calf Weaning Weight (lbs):
515
Calf ADG (lbs):
1.85
Calf Death Loss (%):
3
DYSTOCIA

No increased risk.

Milk Production

No increased risk.

BCS:
3 - Right Condition
BODY FAT:
18.89%
PROFIT: $$$$$
General Description

Increased fat cover over ribs, and ribcage is only slightly visible. Muscle tissue is nearing the maximum. Generally only the 12 and 13 ribs are individually distinguishable. There are obvious fat deposits behind the front shoulder. Areas on each side of the tail head are fairly well filled but not rounded.

Source: Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development
Pregnancy Rate (%):
93
Calving Interval (days):
364
% Showing Estrus 30 Days After Calving:
91
% Showing Estrus 60 Days After Calving:
100
Post Partum Interval:
52
Increased Risk of Cull (%):
0
Antibody (IgG) Levels in Colostrum (Mg/dL):
2349
Calf Weaning Weight (lbs):
515
Calf ADG (lbs):
1.85
Calf Death Loss (%):
3
Dystocia
No increased risk.
Milk Production
No increased risk.
BCS:
3.5 - Overconditioned
BODY FAT:
22.61%
PROFIT: $$$
General Description

Back, ribs, and tail head slightly rounded and feel spongy when palpated.

Source: Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development
Pregnancy Rate (%):
95
Calving Interval (days):
data unavailable
% Showing Estrus 30 Days After Calving:
91
% Showing Estrus 60 Days After Calving:
100
Post Partum Interval:
31
Increased Risk of Cull (%):
0
Antibody (IgG) Levels in Colostrum (Mg/dL):
data unavailable
Calf Weaning Weight (lbs):
data unavailable
Calf ADG (lbs):
data unavailable
Calf Death Loss (%):
data unavailable
DYSTOCIA

In overconditioned cows, calves are more likely to have a higher birth weight and excessive fat can accumulate in the pelvis resulting in a smaller birth canal, which together can cause calving difficulties.

Milk Production

When cows are overconditioned, fat begins to deposit in the udder and reduce the amount of space available for milk production. As a result, calf performance may suffer due to decreased milk supply.

BCS:
4 - Overconditioned
BODY FAT:
26.38%
PROFIT: $$
General Description

Moderately fat the bone structure is no longer noticeable. The skeletal structure is difficult to identify. Individual short ribs cannot be felt even with firm pressure. Folds of fat are beginning to develop over the ribs and thurl area of the animal. Fat cover around the tail head is evident on both sides as slight "rounds" that are soft to the touch.

Source: Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development
Pregnancy Rate (%):
data unavailable
Calving Interval (days):
data unavailable
% Showing Estrus 30 Days After Calving:
data unavailable
% Showing Estrus 60 Days After Calving:
data unavailable
Post Partum Interval:
data unavailable
Increased Risk of Cull (%):
1
Antibody (IgG) Levels in Colostrum (Mg/dL):
data unavailable
Calf Weaning Weight (lbs):
data unavailable
Calf ADG (lbs):
data unavailable
Calf Death Loss (%):
data unavailable
DYSTOCIA

In overconditioned cows, calves are more likely to have a higher birth weight and excessive fat can accumulate in the pelvis resulting in a smaller birth canal, which together can cause calving difficulties.

Milk Production

When cows are overconditioned, fat begins to deposit in the udder and reduce the amount of space available for milk production. As a result, calf performance may suffer due to decreased milk supply.

BCS:
4.5 - Overconditioned
BODY FAT:
30.15%
PROFIT: $
General Description

Fat; very fleshy, squared appearance due to excess fat over back, tail head, and hindquarters. Individual short ribs cannot be felt even with firm pressure. Mobility may begin to be restricted.

Source: Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development
Pregnancy Rate (%):
75
Calving Interval (days):
data unavailable
% Showing Estrus 30 Days After Calving:
data unavailable
% Showing Estrus 60 Days After Calving:
data unavailable
Post Partum Interval:
data unavailable
Increased Risk of Cull (%):
13
Antibody (IgG) Levels in Colostrum (Mg/dL):
data unavailable
Calf Weaning Weight (lbs):
data unavailable
Calf ADG (lbs):
data unavailable
Calf Death Loss (%):
data unavailable
DYSTOCIA

In overconditioned cows, calves are more likely to have a higher birth weight and excessive fat can accumulate in the pelvis resulting in a smaller birth canal, which together can cause calving difficulties.

Milk Production

When cows are overconditioned, fat begins to deposit in the udder and reduce the amount of space available for milk production. As a result, calf performance may suffer due to decreased milk supply.

BCS:
5 - Overconditioned
BODY FAT:
33.9%
PROFIT: $
General Description

Very fat or obese - The animal has a "blocky" appearance. The bone structure is not noticeable. The back bone has a flat appearance and cannot be felt even with pressure. Folds of fat are apparent over the ribs, thurl and thighs. The hip bones and tail head to pin area on both sides are completely buried in fat. The animal's mobility is impaired by the large amounts of fat.

Source: Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development
Pregnancy Rate (%):
data unavailable
Calving Interval (days):
data unavailable
% Showing Estrus 30 Days After Calving:
data unavailable
% Showing Estrus 60 Days After Calving:
data unavailable
Post Partum Interval:
data unavailable
Increased Risk of Cull (%):
data unavailable
Antibody (IgG) Levels in Colostrum (Mg/dL):
data unavailable
Calf Weaning Weight (lbs):
data unavailable
Calf ADG (lbs):
data unavailable
Calf Death Loss (%):
data unavailable
DYSTOCIA

In overconditioned cows, calves are more likely to have a higher birth weight and excessive fat can accumulate in the pelvis resulting in a smaller birth canal, which together can cause calving difficulties.

Milk Production

When cows are overconditioned, fat begins to deposit in the udder and reduce the amount of space available for milk production. As a result, calf performance may suffer due to decreased milk supply.

The value of your weaned calves based on this BCS

Number of Cows


Sale Price of Weaned Calves ($/lb.)


Value of weaned calves for this BCS:
$

To see the full version of the Body Condition Scoring tool, Please visit www.beefresearch.ca from your tablet or personal computer.



Feed Cost Calculator

Scenario: Increase BCS from 2 to 3 in a 1400 lb cow in mid gestation in thermoneutral weather .

Instructions: Use the drop down menu to choose a feeding period. Use the drop down in the "Proportions of Diet" column to approximate the proportion of each feedstuff in the diet (the combined values of the four dropdowns must add to 100%). Manually enter the cost/lb of each desired feedstuff into the "Feedstuff" column. All the rest of the cells will autocalculate.

Disclaimer: This calculator is for demonstration purposes only and may not apply to your cowherd and feeding situation. To get a precise idea of what your cows need, please get your feed tested and then consult ration balancing software (e.g. CowBytes) or a nutritionist.



Supplemental Feedstuff
Proportions of Diet (must add up to 100%)
Feedstuff Required per Day (lbs)
Feedstuff Cost per lb ($)

In this scenario, the extra feed cost to improve condition from BCS 2 to 3 does not offset the extra value of the weaned calf crop but consider:


1. Alternative ways to improve condition at other times of the year:

  • It is easier and more economical to add condition in early-mid gestation (summer/early fall) than in mid-late gestation (late fall/winter). Next year, if working to improve condition, consider supplying high quality feed or pasture at an earlier and more economical time of the season.
  • Weaning calves from thin cows early will lower those cows' energy needs.

2. Poor condition is a slippery slope:

  • If poor condition is not improved, reproductive momentum will be lost: first the calving season will lengthen, subsequently weaning weights will decrease, and open rates will increase.
  • Selling an open thin cull cow will not offset calf revenue from a cow that remains in the herd and calves on time for many years.
  • Thin bred cows will continue to lose condition, which could develop into a significant welfare concern if not remedied.

Extra Feed Cost to Improve Condition per Cow per Day
Extra Feed Cost to Improve Condition per Cow per Feeding Period
Total Feed Cost per Cow per Day
Total Feed Cost per Cow per Feeding Period

NOTE: the following data is based on the "Number of Cows" and "Sale Price of Weaned Calves" values from the calculator above the Feed Cost Calculator; ie. changing those values will also affect this data.


Extra Value of Weaned Calf Crop Earned per Cow per Day
Extra Value of Weaned Calf Crop Earned per Cow per Feeding Period


**In some instances a cow will not be able to physically consume enough of a particular feedstuff to get the nutrients required. For a 1400 lb cow on barley, maximum intake is about 33 lbs/day, for average quality alfalfa grass hay and cereal silage, 29 lbs/day, and good quality cereal straw 27 lbs/day. If any of your feedstuffs in the "Total lbs of feedstuff required/day" column are above those numbers, you need to readjust the proportions of each feedstuff in the diet.

**During periods of cold temperatures, a general rule of thumb is to increase the energy component of the ration by feeding additional grain or pellets at a rate of one lb. per head per day for every -5° C that the temperature is below -20° C at mid-day. For example, if the afternoon air temperature was -35° C, feed an additional three lb. of grain or pellets per cow.

**Some types of extended grazing, such as swath grazing, can increase energy requirements by 18-21%.

**Cows in late gestation or lactation will have 20-45% higher energy and 40-80% higher protein requirements than cows in mid-gestation.

When do I body condition score?

One of the best times to body condition score is during fall processing or pregnancy checking. This will give you time to add condition on thinner cows before winter sets in. Reproductive performance in the spring depends on nutritional planning in the fall.

The more often you body condition score throughout the year, the better you'll be able to manage their nutrition to keep them at a score of 2.5-3.0 year-round.

What should I do if my animals are underconditioned?

If you have animals at a body condition score of 2.0 or lower, you'll need to manage them differently than you have been in order to add body fat and bring them up to a 2.5-3.0.

Fact sheet: Develop a Winter Feeding Program for Underconditioned/Thin CowsIf cows are thin when they come home from pasture in the fall, work to improve their condition right away. Cow maintenance requirements increase substantially (up to 40% more) during the winter and during late gestation.

A 1400 lb cow will require about 200 lbs of body weight gain to move from a body condition score 2.0 to 3.0. To make this change in 90 days requires 20% more energy than a cow that is maintaining condition; to do it in 60 days requires 30% more energy. It will be 20-30% more expensive to try and increase condition during the winter.

When looking at a group of cows, if a small number of them are thin, that may mean that those few thin animals simply don't fit a given environment or management system. Larger numbers of thin cows within a group suggest the group doesn't have enough feed or that their feed is poor quality.

Feed testing is inexpensive and necessary to be sure that your cows are getting enough nutrition. Judging your forages based on their plant type, colour, leaf content and knowledge of cutting time does not substitute for feed testing. Learn more about the value of feed testing and the nutritional needs of cows and heifers in each trimester at http://www.beefresearch.ca/blog/feed-testing/

Fact sheet: Maintain Condition Year-Round for Maximum ProfitabilityCattle that are thinner or fatter than the rest of the group should be sorted out and managed separately. Your winter feeding groups might look something like this:

Group 1: Mature cows in good condition

  • These cows will fare quite well on average quality forage or extended grazing systems

Group 2: Bred Replacement Heifers/2nd Calvers

  • These animals are still growing and need better quality feed to meet their requirements. They also don't compete well with older cows for feed. They will need good quality forage, and may require supplementation especially during very cold weather.

Group 3: Thin and Old Cows

  • These cows need good quality forage and will need some grain/pellet supplementation to get through the winter in good condition.

Considerations

  • Nutrient levels of forages and grasses fluctuate widely from year to year (up to 25-30%) so feed testing is very important.
  • If cows are thin coming off grass in the fall, they will likely be thin going onto grass the following spring unless winter rations are adjusted to increase energy and protein.
  • Cows reach peak lactation around 6 weeks post-calving. Energy and protein demands are highest at this time.
  • A cow's nutrient requirements (energy, protein, minerals) will increase about 30-40% percent with calving. Forage intake will generally increase about 30% with calving.
    Animal Nutrient Requirements, effective of cow body size
  • Energy is usually the first-limiting nutrient (especially in winter), but protein should also be a consideration, especially when feeding low quality forages.
  • Swath grazing increases energy requirements by 18-21% over drylot feeding.
  • Early grazing is not always the answer when winter rations dwindle. Early grazing of forages and grasses reduces individual plant energy reserves, affecting pasture growth for the season. Each day grazing is delayed in the spring adds two or more days of grazing in the fall.
  • It is important to note that although increasing reproductive performance will generally increase profitability, striving for 100% may not be the most economical for your operation. The costs to increase reproductive efficiency those last few percentage points to 100% may far outweigh the increased returns. If your operation's  reproductive efficiency is already high, it is recommended to determine a cost and return strategy for your operation before implementing changes to increase it further. Some tools to help with this can be found in the economics section of the Decision Making Tools page.

Downloads / Fact Sheets

Learn More

  • Body Condition: Implications for Managing Beef Cows Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development |  Visit Website
  • Body Condition Scoring Beef Cows University of Georgia Cooperative Extension |  Visit Website
  • Influence of Body Condition on Reproductive Performance of Beef Cows South Dakota State University Extension |  Visit Website
  • Managing Body Condition to Improve Reproductive Efficiency in Beef Cows University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service |  Visit Website
  • Feeding Beef Cows Based on Body Condition Scores University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service |  Visit Website
  • Matching Forage Resources with Cow Herd Supplementation University of Arizona Cooperative Extension |  Visit Website
  • Body Condition Scoring Phone App University of Nebraska-Lincoln |  Visit Website
  • The High Cost of Shortchanging Cows - BCRC Blog | Visit Website
  • Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Beef Cattle - Appendix A - Body Condition Scoring Visit Website
References
  • Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development. Body condition scoring your cow herd |  Visit Website
  • Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development. 2000. Body Condition: Implications for Managing Beef Cows. |  Visit Website
  • Beverly, J. R. 1985. Reproduction in beef cattle as related to nutrition and body condition. Kentucky roundup of reproductive efficiency in beef cattle. pp.1-12.
  • Colorado State University. Preventative measures to decrease the incidence of dystocia:  |  Visit Website
  • Doig, B. 2010. Beef Cow Rations and Winter Feeding Guidelines. Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture  |  Visit Website
  • Foragebeef.ca. Body condition scoring:  |  Visit Website
  • Hammack S.P., and Gill. R.J. 2009. Texas adapted genetic strategies for beef cattle X: Frame score, frame size and weight. Texas A&M AgriLIFE Extension Publication E-192.  |  Visit Website
  • Herd D.B., and Sprott L.R. 2012. Body Condition, nutrition and reproduction of beef cows. Texas AgriLife Extension:  |  Visit Website
  • Houghton, P.L., R.P. Lemenager, L.A. Horstman, K.S. Hendrix, and G.E. Moss. 1990. Effects of Body Composition, Pre- and Postpartum Energy Level and Early Weaning on Reproductive Performance of Beef Cows and Preweaning Calf Gain. J. Anim. Sci. 68:1438-1446.  |  Visit Website
  • Lalman, D. Nutrient Requirements of Beef Cattle. Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service Publication E-974.  |  Visit Website
  • Owens F.N., Dubeski P., and Hanson C.F. 1993. Factors that alter the growth and development of ruminants. J Anim Sci. 17: 3138-3150  |  Visit Website
  • Parsons C.T. Body condition scoring: monitoring the beef cows energy reserves. Oregon State University Beef Cattle Library Publication BEEF001.  |  Visit Website
  • Rankins, D. 2007. Nutrient Requirements of Beef Cattle. Alabama Cooperative Extension System Publication ANR-60  |  Visit Website
  • Rasby R. Body condition scouring your beef cow herd. University of Nebraska- Lincoln:  |  Visit Website
  • Rasby R. J., Stalker A., Funston R. N. 2014. Body condition scoring beef cows: A tool for managing the nutrition program for beef herds. University of Nebraska Extension.  |  Visit Website
  • Ringwall, K. 2009. BeefTalk: Four tons of calf is not easy to give up. North Dakota State University Extension Service.  |  Visit Website
  • Siemens M., and VanderVelde K. Body condition, nutrition and reproduction of beef cows:  |  Visit Website
  • Thurlow K. 2014. Body Condition Scores are a great tool for the beef cow herd. Michigan State university.  |  Visit Website
  • Walker J., and Perry G. Cow Condition and Reproductive performance. South Dakota State university department of animal and range sciences  |  Visit Website
  • Whitman, R. W. 1975. Weight change, body condition and beef-cow reproduction. Ph.D. Dissertation. Colorado State Univ., Fort Collins.
  • Wren G. 2010. Dystocia and body condition score. Bovine veterinarian:  |  Visit Website

Body condition scoring order USB stick

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A collaboration between:

Alberta Beef Producers Farm & Food Care Beef Cattle Research Council University of Saskatchewan Government of Saskatchewan

with funding provided by

Growing Forrward 2 Alberta Government Canada

and special thanks to

Western Beef

Body condition scoring - Too Thin

Body condition scoring - Too Ideal

Body condition scoring - Too Fat

Body Condition Score System
Canada American (U.S.A)
Underconditioned/Thin
1 1
1.5 2
2 3
Right Condition / Optimum
2.5 4
3 5
3.5 6
Overconditioned/Fat
4 7
4.5 8
5 9
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