Cow-calf producers have faced significant increases in feed and other input costs the last 12 months. Most. producers constantly search for the cheapest way to feed or supplement herds. However, produc- ers may need to look at improving other management practices in order to save on input costs.
There are very few management practices that do not require some sort of monetary input. Evaluating a herd's nutritional status by using the nine-point body condition score (BCS) system is one. The system may be more than most want to take time to do, but simply categorizing cows into four groups (thin, borderline, moderate and heavy condition) could aid in reducing inputs.
While BCS should be conducted every couple of months, there are certain times of the year that are more crucial for management decisions. The most important time during a cow's production cycle to evaluate BCS is at weaning, especially for spring-calving herds. Other key times of the year to assess BCS include 30 days prior to breeding, 90 days post-breeding, 100 days prior to calving, and at calving. Managing the herd by BCS can reduce feed inputs and improve subsequent reproductive performance.
Body condition scoring is an objective visual assessment of the herd's nutritional status. It is the easiest and cheapest way to evaluate how much a cowherd has left in the "gas tank." Standard body condition scores for beef cattle range from 1 (emaciated) to 9 (obese), with a BCS of 5 considered optimum in most operations.
Cows considered thin and border-line (BCS 3 to 4) will be more angular in appearance, with the spine and the last three to five ribs slightly visible.
This group will require the most attention due to the need for increased feed and are at the highest risk of reduced reproductive performance. Cows in really good condition are squarer and smoother in appearance, with the ribs and spine not showing. Cows beyond the optimum BCS will start to show much more deposition of fat over the ribs and spine extending to the brisket and flank, with extremely heavy condition cows starting to deposit fat around the tailhead and udder area.
The importance of evaluating a cowherd's BCS is that it can affect a producer's bottom line in many ways. It takes about 80 to 90 pounds of weight gain to increase a cow one body condition score. The best time to add weight to a cow is when her nutrient requirements are the lowest. This time frame typically is the flrst 60 days post-weaning, as lactation requirements have ended and pregnancy demands wIll be relatively low.
Assessing BCS at weaning in a spring-calving herd can save you money in supplemental costs as well as improving subsequent reproductive performance. For example, sorting the herd into groups of thin and optimum BCS at weaning will allow cows requiring extra nutrients to be fed in a group by themselves. If the whole herd is fed together, there is no guarantee the thin cows will be consuming the needed nutrients or that heavier conditioned cows will only get their share.
Making sure cows are in proper condition entering the calving season is a must. For example, if a cow is in thin condition (BCS 3) at calving and will be bred in 80 days, she will need to gain two BCS scores by breeding time, or 160 pounds. Expecting two pounds of gain a day during lactation in late winter to early spring will not be feasible in most cases. The longer producers wait to evaluate BCS after calving, the harder it will be to achieve the desired BCS at breeding. There have been many studies that have evaluated the effects of BCS at calving on subsequent reproductive performance. A study done at Colorado State University showed fewer thin (BCS 4 or less) than moderate (BCS 5 and 6) cows cycling by 60 days post-calving. By 90 days post-calving only 66 percent of thin cows were cycling compared to 92 percent of moderate cows.
A 2003 Kansas State University study summarized data from over 3,200 cows with BCS taken just prior to breeding. The proportion of cows cycling prior to the start of the breeding season was 42, 59 and 80 percent for cows with condition scores of 4, 5 and 6, respectively. Cows that are not cycling at the beginning of the breeding season will calve later and wean lighter weight calves the following year if they conceive at all.
The optimum BCS for each individual operation is dependent on the overall production goals. Managing cows to be in good to moderate condition at key times of the year will set up a scenario in which less feed may be required and nutrition should not affect the reproductive efficiency of the herd. Body condition scoring is a low input tool that is simple to use and can produce significant returns.
Source: Karl Harborth, Kansas State University.