Learn to BCS

No Cost, Big Impact Tool for Cattle Producers

Victoria G Myers
By  Victoria G. Myers , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
Body condition scoring (BCS) is a powerful management tool when used correctly to manage cow herds.(Photo by Getty Images)

One simple tool can help any cattle producer make good nutritional decisions, sort animals correctly and even predict reproductive success. Known simply as "BCS," it's a technique of assigning a body condition score to every cow in the herd and managing her based on that score.

"This only takes a set of eyes, and, if you want to go high tech, you write it down on a piece of paper," Matt Hersom says. The line about going high tech is one this beef Extension specialist for the University of Florida uses often, and, it usually gets him a laugh in front of groups of cattle producers. His goal is simple: Get them listening, and, get them comfortable with this time-proven concept.

"We, in the cattle industry, have this tool at our disposal, and, it's incredibly powerful. It doesn't cost us anything. Anyone can learn this and utilize it. There's no reason not to," Hersom says.

FIND THE BCS SWEET SPOT

A body condition score is simply a visual assessment of how much fat a cow is carrying. Just like people, she can have too much or too little. Either way, it impacts her nutritional needs and her ability to reproduce or feed a calf. That, in turn, affects the size of the calf crop and weaned weights of those calves that do hit the ground.

In studies using BCS as a cow herd management tool, Ryon Walker, livestock consultant with the Noble Research Institute, notes that over a 75-day breeding season, body condition will be a strong determinant in percent of cows bred.

For example, 56% of cows with a BCS of 3 will be pregnant in that 75-day period. At a BCS of 5, however, that jumps to 88%; at a BCS of 6, it's 89%. Miss that interval, and, it starts to drop off, going to 67% at a BCS of 7.

BCS is gauged by looking at six spots on a cow: backbone, tailhead, pins, hooks, ribs and brisket. Based on the criteria listed below, the cow will fall into one of nine scores, with 1 being pretty much a walking skeleton, and, 9 being extremely obese.

In a mature cow, it takes about 80 pounds to move up or down one BCS. So, if a cow is at a BCS of 4, and, she needs to be at a 6 for breeding, she'll have to put on about 160 pounds. Figure 2 pounds a day average gain, and, you can see how long it can take to make up lost condition.

"To gain BCS," Hersom notes, "a cow has to increase its intake to consume more energy, which can be directed toward fat and lean tissue gain."

There is a cost analysis element that should come into play when a cow needs to gain significant body condition. First, consider whether she is a viable part of the breeding herd or on the cull list. If she's going to be culled, what will it cost to carry her and maintain or improve BCS? If she's in the breeding herd, what will it cost to carry her for another year if she doesn't conceive due to low BCS? What would it cost to get her to the right BCS for breeding successfully? Every producer has a different set of resources, so, every answer is different.

"The key thing to understand is you can lose body condition on a cow faster than you can put it back," Hersom explains. "There are scenarios where cows lose, especially right after calving, when they are hit with the demands of lactation, a recovering reproductive system and the need to initiate reproduction again. She is at peak caloric requirements when this is going on, and, it's easy to lose condition. It's like a freight train. Once it gets going, it's hard to stop and turn it around. Cows lose condition at the most critical times fairly easily. First-calf heifers even more so."

Hersom tells producers to start feeding or supplementing cows before they think they need to. "By the time you can see there's a loss, they've been losing for a while," he notes.

"The first places most producers can easily spot fat loss on a cow are the ribs and the spine," he says. The brisket area is often the hardest to assess. Some breeds are more difficult to evaluate. Hersom notes Bos indicus-influenced cattle, for example, have more skin down in the brisket area. They are also constructed differently than an Angus-influenced animal, which is often blockier in build.

"Brahman influence are more angular in construction," Hersom continues. "With Angus, a novice to BCS will see that blocky build and assume she is fat or has a heavier muscle disposition than the Bos indicus. What's important is to use those six areas and look at the fat covering rather than how much muscle that animal carries. Bos indicus breeds will always look thinner than the Bos taurus cattle."

Because most cattle fall between a BCS of 3 and a BCS of 6, those criteria are followed. Below a 3 or above a 7, adjustments need to be made quickly.

WHAT IS A 3 BCS?

These cattle will appear thin, and you will note:

> Backbone, hooks and pins are prominent.

> Body fat is not obvious.

> Weight needed to reach a moderate condition of 5 is 160 pounds.

WHAT IS A 4 BCS?

It can be hard to differentiate a 4 BCS from a 3 BCS as a novice. The 3 BCS is considered "marginal." Note:

> Backbone, hooks and pins are still prominent but less visible.

> Muscle tissue is abundant.

> Fat is beginning to cover ribs, but, they are visible.

> Weight to reach the moderate condition of a 5 is 80 pounds.

WHAT IS A 5 BCS?

For many, this is the ideal flesh to have a cow in at weaning. Note:

> Muscle tissue is near maximum.

> Hooks and pins are visible, not obvious.

> Ribs are covered slightly with fat, with the last rib still visible.

WHAT IS A 6 BCS?

This is considered by many to be the ideal condition to have a cow in at calving. She will lose down naturally to the 5 BCS through lactation, so, it's best to have her here when she calves. Note:

> Muscle tissue is at a maximum.

> Hooks and pins are less prominent, more rounded.

> Fat deposit behind the shoulder is now obvious.

> Ribs are completely covered, with fat beginning to cover the rump.

TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING

Hersom notes that first-calf heifers should always be at that BCS of 6 at calving, because she is in such a high-energy time of life. He cautions against the idea that if a 6 is good, a 7 or an 8 is better. "If she gets too fat, especially as a first-calf heifer, she can develop fat in her udder, which will negatively impact future milk production potential."

Hersom says sometimes, bred-heifer sales tend to bring out a heavier BCS animal, because she will look good in the sale ring. But, heifers that are too fat sometimes don't adapt well to new nutritional environments.

"You've almost set her up to fail if you overdo it. She'll probably never achieve the level of nutrition she was at in that home environment again. So, there is a balance it's important to maintain if the goal is to have her be a successful member of the cow herd for years to come."

(AG/CZ)

Victoria Myers