Powerful tool gauges feeding

By: Rebecca Greaves

In Livestock16 Minutes

Body condition scoring (BCS) your commercial beef cow herd doesn’t have to be difficult, and it’s a powerful tool to help farmers to lift beef cow performance, Massey University professor Steve Morris says.

“The biggest ‘why’ is it gives an indication of how your feeding is going. The benefit is you can adjust feeding accordingly, maybe you draft out your tail end or low BCS animals and feed them better.”

Morris is a professor in animal science, teaching and research in beef cattle and sheep, and has spoken on a range of topics, including cow BCS, at a series of recent Beef + Lamb New Zealand field days.

Much like sheep, taking out the tail end and looking after them leads to better overall performance, Morris says, notably improved reproductive performance and bigger calves at weaning.

“When cows are in good condition you can also take condition off at certain times, specifically post-weaning, when you want to give priority feed to your ewe flock for mating.”

Beef cows are usually in their best condition at weaning, about a BCS 7 is ideal (using the B+LNZ system from 1-10, 1 being skinny, 10 being fat) and farmers can take off up to two BCS from then until about eight weeks pre-calving. Morris likens it to having hay in a stack.

Key times of the year

The key time to start BCS is at weaning, when cows should be in their best condition, aiming for a BCS of 7. At that time young cows, first or second calvers, might be in poorer condition and it’s a good time to draft them off and look after them.

Two month later, use BCS again to see how the condition has gone, relative to feeding. Six to eight weeks before calving is your last opportunity to get things right. “Draft off anything that hasn’t hacked winter so well and feed accordingly. Likewise, do the same at calving.”
Aim to increase cow condition heading towards mating to 6+, so they are on a rising plane from lactation, mating and through to weaning. The beauty of this is it generally fits the hill country pasture growth curve.

How to do it

When it comes to ‘how’ to BCS, Morris says eye is fine, maybe in a race or pen initially, and consistency is key.

“It’s farmer specific, someone’s seven (condition) might be someone else’s 6.5. As long as they have developed a pattern of scoring you can then do it in the paddock or through a gateway.”

If looking down on a beast, for example in the race, Morris has five sites to consider: spine, short ribs, hips, tail head, and pin bones.
If assessing the animal from the side and back in the pen, consider the rump, hips and spine from the side, and look at the tail head and pin bones from behind.

Morris says the B+LNZ BCS booklet, which was authored in conjunction with the team from Massey, is an excellent starting resource for farmers.

For farmers who are weighing cattle, one condition score change is equivalent to about 30kg of live weight. It is good practice to weigh beef cows occasionally, and for farmers to have a handle on how big their cows are. “The advantage of BCS is you don’t have to weigh – it can be done through a gate. But it’s good for farmers to understand how big their cows are in relation to the size of the calves they are producing. A bigger cow must produce a bigger calf, otherwise you’re wasting a lot of feed maintaining her.”

Uptake of BCS in sheep has been good, but there are not many farmers who BCS their cows. Morris says there is much to be gained, using the same principles as those for ewes, by drafting off lighter animals and managing them accordingly.

“It can be a simple and powerful tool to help you get more out of your cows.”

He says hardly anyone talks about beef cow body condition score, calf weaning percentage, or calf weaning weights. The opportunity is there to capture more from beef cows, while still using them to do the job of cleaning up pasture.

Find a friend

If you’re going to try the BCS system on your beef cattle for the first time, consider bringing in outside expertise. Tararua Vets production animal veterinarian Rachael Fouhy explains that a trained eye can help the first time round.

“It’s about how you equilibrate what you are doing. In a perfect world, if you are doing your pregnancy testing and the vet is there, the cattle are in the yards, that’s the perfect place to start. That would be my gold standard scenario.”

Fouhy says it can be helpful to focus on two to three key areas in cows, looking at the same areas in each cow.

Firstly, over the short ribs, secondly around the tailbone (or pin bones) and finally, over the hips.

“Information is key. If you have enough quality information you can make good decisions.”

Using a standardised system to evaluate each cow individually, rather than as a mob, brings the opportunity to be proactive in managing cows that need help before they become noticeably skinny. Identifying and picking up cows that are lagging behind has many benefits.

These include better calving, better calves at weaning because cows have more fat on their backs and energy to put into their calves with milk, and reduced metabolic and other animal health issues. A well-conditioned cow has a greater ability to buffer any animal health challenges the season throws up.

Heifers in good condition will be more likely to get back in calf, and that’s where the money is to be made.

“When they calve as two-year-olds they usually then go in with the mixed age cows at three-years-old, and can fall behind.

“That’s where BCS can be helpful and, if they’re looked after, they will have better longevity and productivity outcomes over their lifetime.”

Once cows are set stocked for calving there is little opportunity for farmers to influence their BCS before the bull goes out. “If they are in good nick when they go out and calve, then the grass grows, they are more likely to be in good nick when weaning. Good condition means they will also recover from calving quicker.”

She also uses the B+LNZ system and works off BCS of 5 as a minimum goal. Aim to put weight on before winter and don’t let cows fall below BCS 4.

“Once you get to BCS 7 that’s money in the bank. They are able to carry their hay barn on their back and that’s when you can work them to make quality ewe feed.”

You don’t necessarily need to lay a hand on every beast, eye is fine, but if the cattle are in the yards and up the race at certain times like TB testing, drenching or pregnancy testing, then it can be a good chance to feel the difference.

“Feeling the animal can give you a stronger connection with what’s happening. If cows go up the race they are standing still and it means you assess each animal individually to get your eye in and be clear.”

Make a habit of scanning for BCS each time animals are in the yards. The more you practice, the better your eye will become, and the quicker the process will be.

“If you run 1000 beef cows I’m not suggesting you need to put every animal up the race. For larger herds perhaps put a proportion up the race to get your eye in and use as a reference point.”

Fouhy says asking the advice of outside people can be valuable too. “Have a talk to the people who come on your farm about how they think your animals are looking. It could be the vet, scanner or TB tester – that’s free advice.”

If you are undertaking BCS with your beef cattle it can be useful to keep some kind of records, to refer back to and identify trends over time. An example would be keeping a tally of how many cows were at each BCS number at weaning.

“It’s about identifying your replacements – what are the cows I want to breed from? We do it for sheep, why not for cattle?”

A farmer’s perspective

BCS aids Gladstone farmer Willie Falloon in sire and replacement selection at his Pinebank Wai Group Angus stud. Honing his eye over 17 years of undertaking BCS in his herd of 400 stud cattle (including heifers), Falloon prefers to look down on the animal and gives a score from 1 (whale) to 5 (skeleton). His aim is for cattle to be in BCS 2-3.

The catalyst for starting BCS was to lift the percentage of bodyweight weaned for each cow.

“As a stockman, a cow might not be really fat but it could have a wicked calf. I don’t want big fat whales with rubbish calves. I started weighing cows and calves and condition scoring.”

Falloon was keen to put some maths around what he was seeing, to enable a gain in percentage of bodyweight (BW) weaned for his cows. He put his calves through a calculation, adjusting every calf to 200 days and recording the percentage of the cow’s BW when weaned.

“I was looking at efficiency. Why is a big, fat cow weaning a rubbish calf? She’s fat because she’s putting nothing into the calf.”

When he started records the average was 42% of bodyweight weaned, per cow. Now, his average is over 56%. He also started using BCS and percentage of bodyweight weaned as a selection pressure on what he kept in the herd. He killed the bottom ranking 10-15 cows each year, based on these numbers, and continues to do so.

Putting a BCS on them and culling this way has resulted in slightly smaller, but much more efficient, cows that leave better calves, he says. When choosing replacements, they must be weaned over a certain percentage in BW and be out of a 2 or 3 BCS cow.

“I weigh cows at weaning and pre-winter. The reality is, those 2s and 3s, we can take weight off over winter. They can be mobbed up to do a job, and still retain a good BW.

“Your cow is your only animal, in winter, that you can take a large % of BW off when feed isn’t growing, and it still performs very well.”
Falloon’s method for BCS is to look down on top of each cow when it is in the yards. He has four key areas he looks at – hips, pins, backbone and ribs. The fifth point assessed is the actual weight showing on the scales.

“I find when you look down on an animal from the top you can see so much. It doesn’t really matter how you do it, as long as you’re consistent in what you’re doing.”

Although Falloon only uses BCS in his stud herd, he says there are benefits for commercial farmers too. “Say you have 150 cows and the heifers coming into the herd, you want them coming in as a productive animal. It’s about identifying your replacements – what are the cows I want to breed from? We do it for sheep, why not for cattle?

“I strongly believe we are farmers of grass, not livestock. The aim is to have the animal that converts the highest amount of kilograms of drymatter to kilograms of product weaned or weighed. The way to do that is to weigh the animal.”