Body condition scoring

Body condition score is a critical measure of a dairy feeding system's effectiveness. Adequate body fat reserves promote milk production, reproductive efficiency and herd longevity. Excessively fat cows or overly thin cows run much greater risks of metabolic problems, lower milk yield, poor conception rates and dystocia (difficulty calving). Failure to attain proper body condition or rapid changes in body condition score during early lactation may indicate problems in herd health or feeding management. Condition score should be monitored at each reproductive examination, including:

  • At calving
  • Postpartum examinations
  • Breeding
  • Pregnancy checking
  • Late lactation (about 250 days in milk)
  • At dry-off

How to do body condition scoring

You use sight and touch to evaluate the amount of fat covering the loin, rump and tail head with a score from one to five. 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 show that the amount of fat at these points on the body is related to the amount of fat inside the cow. Body condition scoring is better for monitoring body energy reserves than body weight. Body weight can change due to changes in body fat, frame size, gut size and udder size.

Body condition score Vertebrae at the middle of the back Rear view (cross section) of the hook bones Side view of the line between the hook and pin bones Cavity between tail head and pin bone Rear view and Angeled view
1. Severe under-conditioning

2. Frame obvious

3. Frame and covering well

4. Frame not as visible as covering

5. Severe over conditioning

BCS = 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. The area around the tail head and the dish of the rump (thurl) are very dished. There are folds of skin seen between the tail head and pins.

BCS = 2

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

BCS = 2.5

It is a reasonable goal not to have more than 10 percent 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 a quarter 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 areas around the tail head and thurl are dished.

BCS = 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) 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 looking like a “V”. The backbone can be seen but the individual vertebrae are rounded. Covering the short ribs is half to one inch of flesh. Less than quarter 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.

BCS = 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.

BCS = 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 fat has filled it in. The short ribs can not be seen individually 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.

BCS = 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 for milking cows:

Body condition by stage of lactation

Fresh cows (0 to 4 weeks after calving)

Remember that cows should calve at condition score 3.0 to 3.5. By four weeks they should not have fallen below 3.0 to 2.5 (very high producing cows may drop to 2.0).

If rapid loss of body condition occurs during the first four weeks, and the cow is otherwise healthy, examine intake, dietary energy and protein, fiber adequacy, and feeding strategy.

Early lactation (1 to 4 months)

Recommended score is 2.5 to 3.0. Try to maintain cows in the condition score 3 range and allow the cow to regain positive energy balance. If many cows fall to condition score 2, especially if they are not high producers, check feed intake. Remember that high levels of milk production and good body condition can only be achieved when feed intake is maximized. If cows remain in good condition (3 to 3.5), but do not peak very high, check for inadequate protein, macro minerals or water intake.

Mid-lactation (4 to 8 months)

Recommended score is approximately 3. The nutritional objective is to meet or slightly exceed energy requirements so body reserves can be built-up. If cows become over-conditioned during mid-lactation (3.5 to 4.0), reduce energy intake, check crude protein levels and consider culling inefficient producers (cows that fail to milk or that fatten excessively). If cows become under-conditioned (2 to 2.5 range), the ration is probably low in energy. Check the early lactation ration as well because the problem often begins at this time.

Late lactation (8 months to dry-off)

Recommended score is about 3.5. The nutritional goals are to completely replenish body fat reserves, yet prevent over-conditioning.

If many cows reach the condition 4 range, reduce dietary energy concentration. If cows are in the low 3 range, increase dietary energy to the mid-lactation group. Also, examine early lactation diets because conditioning problems in late lactation may begin during early as well as mid-lactation.

Read more:

Body condition score by Mary Beth de Ondarza

Cow Comfort - Body condition score by DeLaval

Feeding dairy cattle for proper body condition score by R.J. Grant and J.F. Keown