Efficient Winter Feeding: Group and Evaluate

With J. Benton Glaze, Jr., Ph.D.

Credit: Free Press

Description of Body Condition Scores (BCS)

1 Emaciated

Bone structure of shoulder, ribs, back, hooks, and pins is sharp to the touch and easily visible. Little evidence of fat deposits or muscling.

2 Very Thin

Little evidence of fat deposition but some muscling in the hindquarter. The spinous processes feel sharp to the touch and are easily seen with space between them.

3 Thin

Beginning of fat cover over the loin, back, and foreribs. Backbone is still highly visible. Spinous processes can be identified individually by touch and may still be visible. Spaces between the processes are less pronounced.

4 Borderline.

Foreribs ore not noticeable but the 12th and 13th ribs are still visibly noticeable. Transverse spinous processes can be identified only by palpation (slight pressure) and feel rounded rather than sharp. Full but straight muscling in the hindquarters.

5 Moderate

The 12th and 13th ribs are not visible unless the animal has been shrunk. Spinous processes can only be felt with firm pressure and feel rounded but are not visibly noticeable. Spaces between the processes are not visible and are only distinguishable with firm pressure. Areas on each side of the tail head are well-filled but not mounded.

6 Good

Ribs are fully covered and not visibly noticeable. Hindquarters are plump and full. Noticeable sponginess over the foreribs and on each side of the tail head. Firm pressure is now required to feel the transverse processes.

7 Very Good

Ends of spinous processes can only be felt with firm pressure. Spaces between the processes can barely be distinguished. There is abundant fat cover on either side of the tail head with evident patchiness.

8 Fat

Animal takes on smooth, blocky appearance. Bone structure disappears from sight. Fat cover is thick, spongy and patchiness is likely.

9 Extremely Fat

Bone structure is not seen or easily felt. The tail head is buried in fat. Animal’s mobility may actually be impaired by excessive fat.

Feed represents the largest portion of a beef cattle operation’s variable costs. Per a University of Idaho Extension Livestock Cow-Calf Budget, feed accounts for approximately 60 percent of those annual variable costs. The cost of feed to maintain the cow herd through the winter represents approximately 65 percent of the total annual feed costs. Considering the magnitude of winter feed costs, it is easy to see advantages exist for producers who develop and maintain plans that allow the cow herd to be fed during the winter in an efficient and effective manner.

To optimally meet the nutritional requirements of the cow herd and allow for maximum productivity, beef producers should sort their herd into groups that have similar nutrient and management requirements.

The winter feeding period for many beef operations includes the middle and last trimester of gestation and part of the first trimester of lactation. To gain some understanding of the nutritional requirements of various classes of cattle and begin thinking of how cattle should be grouped (sorted), consider the requirements of a first-calf heifer versus a mature cow. A 900-pound, two-year-old heifer in the last trimester of pregnancy requires a feed that contains 59 percent TDN and 8.5 percent protein. A 1,300-pound, pregnant, mature cow in the last trimester of pregnancy requires a feed that is 52 percent TDN and 7.7 percent protein. The same heifer in the first trimester of lactation requires a feed that is 63 percent TDN and 10 percent protein. The mature cow in the first trimester of lactation requires a feed that is 55 percent TDN and 9 percent protein. In general, these reported requirements show heifers need higher quality feeds.

Keeping in mind the differences in nutrient requirements of various classes of cattle, and considering the number of females that fall into the various age groups, cows should be grouped in the following manner for optimal feeding: Group 1 – 2-year-old, first-calf heifers (17 percent of the herd). Young cows provide the greatest challenge when it comes to integrating them into the herd, providing them with nutrients, getting them to calve, and rebreed. These young cows are required to continue their growth, provide fetal nutrients and maintain body condition. Group 1 has greater nutrient requirements than mature cows that are no longer growing. Generally, females in this group have not yet reached their mature size and may be smaller than other cows. These younger, smaller females are easily bullied and often lose the competition for feed and supplements. Group 2 – old, mature cows (10 years and older) and 3-year-old heifers (26 percent of the herd). Many of the older cows in this group are beginning to show some signs of mouth unsoundness and may have difficulty eating and maintaining their body condition and weight. These older, lighter cows have trouble fending for themselves when placed in a group with younger, mature cows (i.e. Group 3). The young cows in Group 2 have not yet reached their mature size and need additional nutrients to keep them on a plane to reach their full growth potential. These young cows also need adequate nutrients to continue adding condition so that they can rebreed and calve in a timely fashion. Group 2 also serves as a place to put Group 3 females that are unable to maintain condition. Group 3 – cows ranging from 4 to 9 years of age (57 percent of the herd). Group 3 is represented by cows that are mature in size and in adequate condition. The nutritional requirements of the members of this group are very similar. If the breeding program has produced a herd of cows that is somewhat consistent in size, there should not be too many concerns of cows getting pushed away from the feed.

Body condition scores provide the information needed to monitor nutrition (pasture, drylot, etc.) programs. The amount of condition on a cow is a direct reflection of her nutritional status.


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To ensure high levels of reproductive performance, numerous studies have shown that heifers and cows should be in good body condition at calving, weaning, and at the beginning of the breeding season. Now that weaning time has passed for most beef cattle herds, body condition should be evaluated before going into winter. This check allows beef producers to see how the females in the herd are bouncing back following weaning. If some females are lagging behind in adding body fat reserves, they can be separated and provided some additional nutrition. Overall, the goal is to have mature cows in a body condition score of five (5) at calving and breeding and heifers in a body condition score of six (6) at calving and breeding to ensure acceptable reproductive performance. Table 2 provides guidelines that can be used during body condition scoring.

A great deal of variation exists in the quantity and quality of nutrients required by various classes of beef cattle. Sorting beef cattle into proper winter feeding groups can prevent the over- and under-feeding of the animals and assure that adequate levels of nutrition are provided to all cows in the herd. Body condition of cows should be evaluated on a regular basis (weaning, 45 days post-weaning, 90 days pre-calving, calving, and breeding), and the scores should be used to make informed management (feeding, breeding, culling, etc.) decisions. Observing body condition at these strategic times allows producers to monitor the progress their cows are making toward achieving the target body condition (BCS 5 for cows and BCS 6 for heifers).


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