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Beef Cattle Body Condition Scoring (BCS)

Cows come in all shapes and sizes. But should they?

A lot of research has been done to determine what the best weight is for ole Moo. The result of this research is BCS.

BCS means Body Condition Scoring.

It is a tool for monitoring the nutritional condition of a cow. To be exact, it determines the amount of subcutaneous body fat or body fat reserves of a cow.

Why is it important or useful to know the Moo's BCS? Well, it certainly isn't to figure out her dress size. No, not at all.

A cow's BCS is closely linked to her reproductive success. If the cow doesn't have enough body fat, she will breed at an unacceptable rate. That means, there won't be enough cows to go around.

BCS is an important management tool for maximizing milk production and reproductive efficiency while reducing the risk of various diseases.

It is a tool used by many producers, university personnel, industry representatives and veterinarians to monitor the effectiveness of nutritional programs.

Why BCS?

Basically, BCS is a visual estimate of how much fat or body reserves a cow is carrying.

It is a very helpful tool that allows producers to sort cows according to their nutritional needs. In other words, it helps "farmers" to plan different menus for different cows.

Splitting up the groups makes the nutritional programs more efficient. Those which need more get it, those which could stand to lose a few pounds receive less.

Let me give you an example.

100 days before calving is the last opportunity to gain body condition. This would be a good time to separate thin cows from cows in good condition so they can increase feed to these skinny cows.

It is expensive to increase condition on thin cows after calving. Also, these cows have weak calves that have low energy, need more time to stand up and nurse, and are more at risk for illness. This creates an expensive and difficult cycle.

Think of some reasons why this is true.

Okay, so what? Why is it important to know what the energy reserves of a cow are?

Basically because nature has a priority list for using the nutrients the beef cow gets: body maintenance comes first, followed by lactation and growth (in young cows), with reproduction last. Because reproduction is not truly a necessity, more of a luxury, it simply won't happen if the cow's nutrition is inadequate.

Result: fewer cows.

How to BCS

This chart will help you to score a cow.

Body Condition Scoring (BCS)
BCS Description
1 Skeletal structure is easily visible and sharp to touch in the shoulder, scapula, all ribs, dorsal vertebral and transverse spinous processes, hooks, greater trachantor, pins. No evidence of fat and very little muscling.
2 No fat deposits, some muscling in hindquarters. Skeletal structures are still seen - shoulder, ribs, dorsal and transverse vertebral spinous processes are seen and easily felt. Spaces between vertebrae are easily seen.
3 Some muscle depletion. Beginning to have slight fat over fore ribs, loin and back. Backbone is visible but spaces between vertebrae are not easily seen but dorsal and transverse processes can be identified easily by touch.
4 Some fat cover over fore ribs, but the 12th and 13th ribs are seen in most animals. Full, straight muscling in the hindquarters. Backbone is visible but spaces between vertebrae are not seen. Dorsal and transverse vertebral processes can be identified easily by touch but have a rounded feel.
5 The 12th and 13th ribs are not seen unless the animals are shrunk. Dorsal and transverse vertebral processes cannot be seen and are felt only by firm palpation. Areas on each side of the tail are filled but not plump. Full muscling in the hindquarters with some bulge.
6 Ribs are not seen. Hindquarters are plump and full. Fat cover on each side of tail head and in brisket. Noticeable sponginess over ribs and loin. Firm pressure is required to palpate transverse processes of vertebrae.
7 Abundant fat over ribs and brisket. Pones of fat on each side of tail head. Ends of dorsal and transverse vertebral processes are difficult to feel. Back appears square and smooth. Only an outline of the hooks and pins is seen.
8 Extensive fat deposits in brisket, over ribs, loin and around tail head. Animal appears smooth and blocky. Bone structure is not seen. Fat covering is thick an patchy, very spongy.
9 Extremely fat thick brisket, ribs and loin. Tail head is buried. Bone structure is not seen.

 

The Skinny on Too Skinny

Here you will see four cows, which are all below the optimal BCS range. These cows are too thin (BCS < 5). If or when they calve (give birth), they may have problems making enough milk to feed their young. Also, it will take them longer to become pregnant again. Can you think of some possible results?

BCS 1

This cow receives the lowest BCS score. Notice how her ribs protrude. Actually, her entire skeletal structure is easy to see. She shows very little fat or muscling.

A cow with so little body fat would have a hard time getting pregnant. If she did and then calved, her milk production might not be adequate. Why do you think this would be a problem?

BCS 2

This cow has been rated BCS 2. She has no fat deposits and very little muscling in her hindquarters. If you ran your hand along her spine, you would be able to feel each vertebrae.

She would experience the same difficulties as the cow above, but with the proper nutrition would reach a higher BCS in less time.

BCS 3

Here you see a female who has been ranked as BCS 3. She is beginning to have slight fat over fore ribs, loin and back. Her backbone is still visible but the spaces between the vertebrae are not so clear.

This cow, like the one below, is shy of being within the good range. Proper nutrition and care should have them in good shape in a short time.

BCS 4

There she is, Ms. BCS 4. She has more fat covering the fore ribs, but the 12th and 13th ribs are still clearly visible. She is almost there! However, she, and those above, are less likely to breed or rebreed.

Now, let's take a look at the optimal range.

Home on the Optimal Range

Welcome to the Optimal Range. Because these cows have received scores from 5 to 8, they carry higher contraception rates. You should know that a BCS of 7 or greater is not needed for the most efficient reproduction. So basically, the best scores to have are 5 and 6. Let's meet our winners.

BCS 5

Here we see a BCS 5. She still has a thin appearance, with her last two ribs slightly visible. You will also notice some muscling in the hindquarters, backbone and shoulder area. The areas on each side of the tail are filled but not plump.

BCS 6

Check out Miss BCS 6. She has a moderate weight. She was given her score because she has some fat in her brisket and over the tail head. Her ribs are covered and her hindquarters are plump and full.

BCS 7

This cow, scoring BCS 7, has a smooth-finish look. She has an abundant amount of fat over her ribs. Her brisket is full. Notice how her back appears square and smooth. Only an outline of the hooks and pins can be seen.

BCS 8

This cow has a fat, blocky appearance. She is a typical BCS 8 with heavy fat deposits in her brisket, along her back and around the tail head. She has so much fat that her bone structure cannot be seen.

It's Lonely at the Top

BCS 9

Weighing in at BCS 9 is our last contender. This cow will most likely breed, but she is simply overweight. This is an unhealthy  condition, which also requires an adjustment in nutritional planning.

This cow is obese. She has an extremely fat brisket. Her tail head is buried. And there is no way of seeing her bone structure.

Her extreme weight will interfere with efficient reproduction. Often times when a cow is this heavy, it can mean that she is not milking well, has not calved, or didn't raise a calf the year before.

If there are many cows like this in the herd, this can be a sign that the nutritional program is not as efficient as it needs to be. This is why BCS is so useful. A producer can separate cows into different groups so that they all receive the proper and healthy amount of feed.

 

Last Updated April 10, 2007

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