Body condition score

Body condition indicates how much stored energy a cow has for future use. Body condition scoring can help track energy balance and understand production and reproductive performance. The most common body condition scoring system ranks cows from 1 to 5 with a score of 1 being thin and a score of 5 being fat. Areas to evaluate when body condition scoring include hooks, pins, tailhead, and the ligaments around these bones. Body condition of feeding groups should be evaluated. It will reflect the true energy content of the diet. Cows should be scored at calving, during their first postpartum exam, when bred, when checked for pregnancy, some time during late lactation, and at dry-off time.

An evaluation of body condition can help one to understand the past nutritional status of the cows, the reasons for good or bad milk production and reproductive performance, and the future challenges to come. Body condition is an indication of how much energy a cow has stored for future usage. Body condition scoring was developed to help farmers and nutritionists more definitively assess and track body condition. This is especially critical because most research shows that the changes in body condition from month to month are more highly correlated with health, productivity, and reproduction than a cow’s actual body condition on any particular day.

The most common body condition scoring system ranks body condition of cows on a scale of 1 to 5 with a score of 1 for a very thin cow and 5 representing an obese cow. It was developed at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. By sight and touch, one evaluates the amount of fat covering the loin, rump, and tail head. The most critical areas to be evaluated are the hook and pin bones, the ligaments going to the hook and pin bones from the spine, and the tail head. Studies have shown that the amount of fat at these points on the body is related to the amount of fat inside of the cow. Body condition scoring is better for monitoring body energy reserves than body weight. Body weight can change not only due to changes in body fat, but also due to changes in frame size, gut size, and udder size. In a mature cow, one body condition score point is equal to 120 pounds.

Body Condition Score = 1.5

This cow is too thin and is hopefully rarely seen on a farm. This cow will not milk well or reproduce. This cow probably isn’t healthy. The vertebrae, short ribs, hooks, pins, and tail head are very sharp and visible. One-half of the length of the transverse processes is visible. The ligaments are easily seen and the thurl area is very dished. The area around the tail head is very dished and there are folds of skin seen between the tail head and pins.

Body Condition Score = 2

This cow is very thin, causing low milk production and poor reproduction. Health may be O.K. The spine and short ribs can be easily seen, but the individual vertebrae are not real apparent. The short ribs appear scalloped. The upper surfaces of the short ribs can be felt. One-half to 1/3 of the length of the transverse processes is visible. The hooks and pins stand out and the thurl area is very dished. No fat can be felt on the pin bones. The ligaments are sharp and easily seen. The area around the tail head is very dished and there are folds of skin seen between the tail head and pins.

Body Condition Score = 2.5

It is a reasonable goal not to have more than 10% of the herd scoring 2.5 or less. This is the lowest acceptable condition score. A cow with a score of 2.5 has vertebrae showing but they cannot be seen as individual bones. The short ribs can be counted but are not scalloped. One-third to ¼ of the length of the transverse processes is visible. The ligaments are easily seen but not as sharp as with a BCS of 2.0. Both the hooks and pins are angular but some fat can be felt on the pin. The thurl area is dished. The area around the tail head is dished.

Body Condition Score = 3.0

This cow could be a healthy, high-producing cow. But, if a cow calves in at a score of 3.0 or less, she may not have enough body fat to use for high peak milk production and to carry her through until dry matter intake increases. At this score the dish of the rump (thurl area) is at the transition between looking like a “U” and looking like a “V”. Any cow under a BCS of 3.0 has a thurl area which looks like a “V”. The backbone is seen but the individual vertebrae are rounded. Covering the short ribs is ½ to 1-inch of flesh. Less than ¼ of the length of the transverse processes is visible. There is fat covering the ligaments but they are still obvious. The hooks and pins have some fat that can be felt. The area around the tail head is dished but no folds of skin are seen.

Body Condition Score = 3.5

Dry cows and calving cows should have a body condition score of 3.5. On this cow, fat can be felt on the backbone, short ribs, and ligaments. The hooks and pins are rounded. No individual transverse processes can be seen. The thurl is somewhat dished. The coccygeal (tail head) ligament is barely visible but the sacral ligament can still be seen. The area around the tail head is rounded and filled in but not fat.

Body Condition Score = 4.0

Cows calving in at this condition will eat less, lose more weight, and have more metabolic problems. This cow’s back is flat because of the fat that has filled in. The short ribs cannot be seen as individuals but they can just barely be felt. The hooks and pins are obviously fat.The “U” between the hooks and pins is very flat with no depression. The ligaments cannot be seen. The area around the tail head is filled in and folds of fat are seen.

Body Condition Score = 5.0

This cow is extremely fat and will have metabolic and breeding problems. The backbone and short ribs cannot be seen and are hard to feel. The hooks and pins are buried in fat and hard to feel. The thurl is totally filled in. The tail head is buried in fat.

Target Body Condition Scores

Stage of Lactation

Ideal Score

Dry

3.5

Calving

3.5

Early Lactation

3.0

Mid Lactation

3.25

Late Lactation

3.5

Growing Heifers

3.0

Heifers at Calving

3.5

(Sniffen and Ferguson, 1991)

It is recommended that cows be scored at calving, during their first postpartum exam, when bred, when checked for pregnancy, some time during late lactation, and at dry-off time. Nutritionists feeding groups of cows should determine the average body condition score of each feeding group. Body condition should be the final word on the energy content of the diet, rather than the computer predicted energy value of the ration. If the cows are too thin during early lactation, adjust the energy content of the diet upward, focus on ways to increase dry matter intake, and determine if metabolic problems are extreme and may be causing the weight loss. Late lactation cows use energy for body reserves more efficiently than dry cows (75% vs. 60% efficiency). So, it is recommended that cows put on condition during mid- to late-lactation (after 75-100 days in milk) and achieve the desired calving body condition score (3.5) at the time rather than during the dry period. If cows are too heavy in late lactation, reduce the energy content of the diet at that time rather than putting them on a diet during the dry period.

When feeding cows as a group, it is important that the group have a fairly uniform body condition score. If they do not, there is most likely a problem. Perhaps some cows are experiencing severe metabolic problems which reduce dry matter intake early in their lactation. Perhaps cows are not being fed a “true TMR”. For example, cows may be sorting or they may be being offered hay separately. Perhaps there are feet and leg problems that limit some cows from getting to the feed bunk. There may be severe reproductive problems causing some cows to stay in a particular group longer than they should, getting fat while others in the group are milking well and getting the nutrients that they need. If the group is not uniform, it is difficult to design the ration to feed all cows properly. Most likely, the compromise will have to be that some cows do not receive a ration with adequate nutrient density while others get too much, get fat, and waste consumed nutrients.

Early Lactation

It is well recognized that a significant amount of the energy that a high-producing cow uses to make milk in early lactation comes from her body fat reserves. Weight losses of 2 to 3 pounds per day are not uncommon during the first 100 days in milk. One pound of mobilized fat can support about 7 pounds of milk. Many herds will average 0.5 body condition score loss by 30 days in milk. A good goal is not to exceed 0.5 body condition score loss during that time. But, it is critical that cows at least not exceed one point of body condition loss by 30 days in milk. Cows with excessive body condition losses will have irregular heats, longer time to first ovulation, and may fail to conceive. These cows will also be less persistent in milk production.

Cows with a body condition score over 3.75 at two weeks prior to calving are more prone to having depressed intakes, weight loss, fatty liver, ketosis, high non-esterified fatty acid (NEFA) levels, calving problems, and reproductive problems. When a cow loses body fat reserves, especially two weeks before and after calving, the liver takes up fat and processes it. Fatty liver and ketosis can then develop. In a Michigan study, 8% of dry cows with a BCS of less than 4.0 had health problems while 17% of cows with a BCS of more than 4.0 had health problems. In another study, cows that had a BCS of 4.0 or greater at dry off were 2.5 times more likely to have reproductive problems.

Even if one could avoid the health and reproductive problems associated with fat cows, it is inefficient to put excessive weight (>3.75 BCS) on during late lactation and the dry period for the express purpose of taking it off after calving. It takes energy for the cow to process energy into body fat and then to mobilize it for later use.

Dry Period

If cows are overconditioned at the time of dry off, it is not recommended that they be put on a diet due to the risk of fatty liver even at this time. It is inefficient but acceptable to put body condition on during the dry period if it is needed to achieve a BCS of 3.5 at calving. Total body weight should increase during the dry period regardless of body condition because the calf developing inside the cow will gain 1-1.5 pounds per day.

References:

Body Condition Scoring, Elanco Products Company, Indianapolis, IN.

Ferguson, J.D. 1991. Nutrition and reproduction in dairy cattle. In: Dairy Nutrition Management, The Veterinary Clinics of North America: Food Animal Practice, W.B. Saunders Company, Philadelphia, p. 483.

Ferguson, J., J. Ferry, P. Ruegg, D. Byers, P. Johnson, and L. Weaver. 1994. Body condition of lactating cows, Part 1. Agri-Practice. 15:4:17.

Gearhart, M.A., C.R. Curtis, H.N Erb, R.D. Smith, C.J. Sniffen, L.E. Chase, and M.D. Cooper. 1990. Relationship of changes in condition score to cow health in Holsteins. J. Dairy Sci. 73:3132.

Hutjens, M.F. 1994. Body condition score advice often differs. Hoard’s Dairyman. February 25, 1994, p. 147.

Seymour, W. 1990. A dairy cow depends on energy reserves. Agway Cooperator. October 1990, p. 12.

Sniffen, C.J. and J.D. Ferguson. 1991. Body Condition Scoring Guide. Church & Dwight Co., Inc., Princeton, NJ.

Staples, C.R., W.W. Thatcher, C.M. Garcia-Bojalil, and M.C. Lucy. 1992. Nutritional influences on reproductive function. In: Large Dairy Herd Management. Edited by H.H. Van Horn and C.J. Wilcox, American Dairy Science Association.

Related Links:

How to Body Condition Score Dairy Animals
Jeff Keown, University of Nebraska - Lincoln

Feeding Dairy Cattle for Proper Body Condition Score

Feeding Dairy Cattle for Proper Body Condition Score
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Author

Mary Beth de Ondarza

Mary Beth de Ondarza
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Nutritional consultant for the dairy feed industry at Paradox Nutrition, LLC.

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Dr. de Ondarza received her Ph. D. from Michigan State University and her Masters Degree from Cornell University, both in the field of Dairy Nutrition.

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Paradox Nutrition

Paradox Nutrition

Paradox Nutrition, LLC is a nutritional consultation business for the dairy feed industry. Mary Beth de Ondarza, Ph.D. is the sole proprietor.

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