January 15, 2009

Cattle farm husbandry – body condition scoring

Cattle, farming, husbandry, body condition scoring, easy method to learn & use, implication of scoring errors, replacing body condition

By Dr Clive Dalton

What is Body Condition Scoring ( Condition Scoring)?
  • Condition Scoring (CS) is when you assess a beast’s status by the amount of condition it is carrying. “Condition” means fat under the skin that you can see and feel, but fat reserves in and around internal organs such as kidneys that you cannot see are also part of the story.
  • Condition scoring also includes muscle mass, because when the cow has used up all its fat reserves it will break down muscle tissue to provide energy to survive.
  • From an animal’s condition you judge its state of current health and well-being and its ability to keep on producing.
  • Weighing an animal tells you its overall body mass but not necessarily its condition. So you can have a heavy big-framed cow that is a walking skeleton, that weighs the same as a light-weight cow rolling in fat.
  • So both weight and CS are needed to give the total picture. Scales will alert you to changes very quickly, whereas changes in condition score may be more difficult to pick up quickly, especially if you see your stock every day.
  • Visiting friends never tell you what your stock are really like and never tell you when they are getting really skinny. If asked, it’s safest to score all animals at CS 4.5. This is the “non-confrontational” condition score that won’t upset anyone and you’ll be asked back.
  • There are a few different methods to CS cows but they all use the same scale. This goes from 1 to 10, but a CS1 cow would be so thin it would be near death, and a CS 10 cow would be so fat it would be at death’s door through obesity or ready to explode! So a scale from 1 to 8 is enough.
  • The same scale applies to both beef and dairy cattle, but you don’t see any dairy cows above CS 6.
  • Don’t try to get more accurate than assessing half scores as the whole business is not an exact science. Indeed, if you can score accurately and honestly to single scores, that would be good enough for most management decisions.
What happens if you get it wrong?
If you unknowingly ‘underscore’ cows by being too generous with your scores – there are a number of consequences, some very serious. The following is what can happen, either singly or in combination:
  • Cows are milked too long at the end of lactation when they should be dried off. This risks milk quality penalties from high Somatic Cell Counts.
  • You won’t feed animals enough when their nutritional needs are critical. This is the with dairy cows coming up to calving when your error will only feed them maintenance, and they need much more. Cows should calve at the recommended CS 5 and heifers at CS 5.5.
  • So immediately after calving, and during the weeks up and including peak lactation when there is maximum nutritional drain on the cow, her performance will be below expectations. The cow will not regain this lost production during the rest of the lactation resulting in large financial loss.
  • It takes 180kg of Dry Matter to replace 1 Condition Score, on top of maintenance, and this can take at least 3 weeks to happen with good quality feed.
  • This works out at feeding a thin cow when dry the same as if she was in full milk, so farmers regularly run out of time, and they run out of good quality pasture and supplements to achieve the result.
  • Increasing CS from 3-4 increases production by an extra 17.5kg MS, from 3.5-4.5 will increase MS by 15kg MS, and increasing from 4-5 will produce an extra 12kg MS.
  • Inevitably low CS cows cause more work for staff at calving as thin cows are more prone to problems.
  • Low CS cows will have more metabolic diseases in late pregnancy, at calving and in early lactation. Production losses will occur and even deaths.
  • Higher calf mortality and retained foetal membranes (RFM) are likely.
  • Low CS cows are slow to return to heat, after calving and will be late calving next season with consequent loss of income.
  • Research has shown that at CS 4 18% cows will be non-cyclers, whereas cows at CS5 only 9.7% will not have cycled.
  • Maintaining an annual calving pattern will need resorting to inductions (abortions) to fix this, which means veterinary costs, has animal welfare implications and includes the loss of genetic potential from the calves which either die or must be culled.
  • Thin cows calving late will need hormone treatment devices to start them off cycling, and this requires vet and drug charges.
  • Thin cows which calve late, will most likely need more than one insemination to get pregnant and this will increase costs and waste good semen.
  • You will need the added cost of obtaining a bull to mate these late cows when the AI period is over.
  • Your farm budget will now have extra (unplanned) costs which bank managers don’t like.
  • Cows under CS 3 are officially ‘emaciated’ and risk a prosecution under the Animal Welfare Act 1999. As a ‘boner’ cow killed for meat, their meat yield is too low for an economic return to the meat processor.
  • Working with skinny cows is depressing for staff and can kill motivation. They will be looking for other jobs and changing staff can cost the farm business thousands of dollars.
An easy method to learn
The following method was developed by M. Ellis and C. Dalton at the Waikato Polytechnic around 1998. There was an urgent need to find a quick, easy and repeatable method to teach new farming recruits as the current system was too vague. Learning how to CS had been far too big a mystery up till then, and we found that most farmers and veterinarians were consistently half a score too generous, and there were many others who were even a whole score wrong.

The problem was that none of us had actually been taught how to condition score; we were supposed to have learned it from photos of dairy cows’ rear ends. And none of us when challenged dared admit we couldn’t do it. So we always fudged and dived for the safety of “around 4.5”. If you felt threatened then you’d say 4.4 and if you felt confident you’d say 4.6. It was all a big con job and in too many situations nothing has changed today.

There are only two steps to learning how to do condition score using the Waikato Polytech method:

Step 1.
Learn where 7 points are on a cow in a set order from 1 to 7. Think of them as bus stops on a journey and you have to decide where to get off. (See Figure below).

Diagram to show the points to locate and feel in the cow

Step 2.
At each stop decide if you are at the right one, and if not, whether you should go back or forwards. As CS 5 is the middle of the range, and you won’t see many dairy cows above this, it’s a great place to start and then most often go up for beef and down for dairy cows.

Scoring going down from CS 5
Stop 1 – the hip bone.
Press the palm of your hand on the hip bone and feel if it’s rounded or flat.
  • A rounded hip that fills your cupped palm is CS 5 or above.
Rounded hip well covered must be CS5 or above Viewed looking to the rear of the cow

  • A flat hip is below CS 5 so go down to the next stop.

Very flat top on the hip bone of a thin Holstein Friesian cow.
This cow must be below CS5.

Use the palm of your hand to feel how flat it is

Stop 2. The backbone
Press your outstretched fingers along the backbone and “jiggle” them to feel any gaps between the vertebrae.
  • If there are no hollows – that’s CS 4.5
  • If you feel definite hollows and bumps for the vertebrae – that’s below CS 4.5. Go down to the next stop.
Ph0to of "bumpy" backbone. This cow must be below CS 4.5

On a hairy cow 'Jiggle' you fingers along the backbone to feel for hollows

Stop 3 –The pin bone “dimples”
The pin bone has a flat top and a bone that goes down from it in the shape of a capital letter “T”. With your finger and thumb, pinch the dimples at either side of the stem of the T. This bone is sometimes called the “tap” as it’s shaped like the top of a water tap.
  • If there are no dimples – that’s CS 4.
  • If there are dimples – that’s below CS 4. Go down to the next stop.

Pin bones showing the hollows (dimples) either side of the ridge in the centre of the pin bone.
This cow has no muscle or fat there so she cannot be above CS 4.

On a hairy cow use your finger and thumb to 'pinch' the dimples

Stop 4 – The rear-end view from the side
Here check the cow's rear end where the last bit of the pin bone sticks out. Look to see if she is concave (hollow), straight, or convex (protrudes). Make sure you view a straight leg that she has weight on, and not one that she has moved forward.
  • Straight down or convex – that’s CS 3.5.
  • Hollow (convex) – that’s below CS 3.5. Go down to the next stop.
Photo shows the hollow (concave) rear end of the cow behind the pin bones. She is missing a mass of muscle due to underfeeding. A cow in good condition will be vertical or convex in this area. She cannot be above CS 3.5

On a hairy cow, use your hand to feel for the protruding pin bone

Stop 5 – The shoulder

Here check the shape of the shoulder ridge with your thumb one side and fingers the other.
  • Make sure the cow has its head up.
  • If you feel a definite ridge – that’s below CS 3. Go down to the next stop.
This photo shows a very prominant shoulder ridge on this very skinny cow.
She cannot be above CS 3.

This photo shows where your hand is placed on the high point of the shoulder, near the shoulder blades. Here you can see the thumb being pressed in to feel any protruding bones at the side (see below).

Stop 6 – The side of the shoulder
Here feel the small bones that stick out from the sides of the shoulder vertebrae. So with thumb on one side and fingers opposite, squeeze to see what you can feel.
  • No prominent bones is CS 2.5.
  • Prominent bones and where your fingers go right below the processes, is below CS 2. Go to the next stop.
  • Look back at the photo above and you can see that if you pressed at the sides of that shoulder ridge, she's so thin that your fingers would go right in.

Stop 7 – The pelvic ridge (the ski jump)
This is the sharp ridge on the pelvis that stretches from the backbone to the hip bone. Run your fingers along the cow’s back and over this bone like a ski jump to see if the journey is smooth, or the bone sticks up and blocks the way.
  • If there is no sharp ridge sticking up – that’s CS 1.5
  • If the ridge is very prominent and almost sticking through the skin – that’s CS 1.

Note very protruding pelvic ridge ( the ski jump).
When you run your hand along this cow's back it won't ski over the ridge.
They'll hit it head on and stop.

Picture shows the action of your hand as you slide it towards the back
of the cow over the 'ski jump'. Long hair on a skinny cow can hide how sharp the bone is.

KEY POINT: As far as animal welfare is concerned, veterinarians now accept that CS 3 or below as “emaciated” as the beast will have severely depleted fat reserves and will also have lost considerable muscle mass. It will require immediate action to improve its condition and health as you could easily risk prosecution.

Scoring going up from CS 5
In terms of animals at risk, any beast above CS 5 will have no problems. Indeed. above CS 6 the concern will be with obesity and the effects it may have on health such as at calving, and animals being too fat for the meat works. Forget about half scores between scores above CS 5.
  • CS 6 - Rounded across the loin and you cannot feel the ends of the short ribs.
  • CS 7 – Flat across the loin and you have to press really hard on the backbone to feel it.
  • CS 8- Big ugly folds of fat hanging around the tail head.
Forget about scoring above this and call them all obese.

An obese pet cow - she must be at least CS 10 and very happy cow!

Scoring in the paddock from a distance
You’ll be doing most condition scoring in the paddock a distance from the animal, but you’ll find the close-up “hands-on” knowledge above will give you the confidence to score accurately from a distance, now that you know what to look for.

The impact of getting condition score wrong
Getting condition scoring wrong can have serious implications for the stock and your income. If you’re a bit skeptical about the importance of cow condition, consider these issues below that will compound if you underscore animals and don’t realise you are doing it:

The farmer who has put these cows for sale as "boners" probably
doesn't realise they are CS 2.5 and are "emaciated".
  • You won’t feed the animals enough – they’ll probably get only maintenance when they need feed to replace lost condition on top of their production needs.
  • Their performance will be below your expectations, and you may not notice until you have to spend money to fix things.
  • Cows will be more prone to metabolic diseases in late pregnancy and at calving.
  • Cows will be slow to return to heat after calving and will be late calving next season.
  • So if you want to maintain an annual calving you will have to resort to inductions (abortions) to fix this and accept the cost and welfare implications.
  • You’ll have to spend money on intra-vaginal hormone treatment devices to start them off cycling.
  • Cows will need more than one insemination to get pregnant which will cost more and waste good semen.
  • Your farm budget will now have some surprises, and you’ll have to explain them to your bank manager - and bank managers don’t like surprises.
  • You’ll be the farmer in the district with the skinny cows and everybody will be talking about them behind your back. They won’t tell you of course. They’ll phone MAF or the SPCA first.
  • If you have staff they will probably (or they should) leave to go and work with some decent well-fed stock.

Feeding to replace condition
The general rule is that it takes 180 kg of DM to replace 1 CS, above what the animal needs to be fed for maintenance. It’s extremely important to realise this is extra to maintenance. This 180kg is a very general value, and can vary from say 150kg DM for a small cow, to 250kg for a large cow.

And remember the impact of the time limit there may be to put this condition back. Many farmers have great intentions to build their stock up in condition before calving, when the accepted rule is that cows calve at CS 5 and heifers at CS 5.5. But in practice they regularly run out of time and run out of feed so never make their targets. They permanently have skinny stock so think this is normal and everyone else’s cows are too fat and their stocking rate is too low!

Beef farmers who buy boner dairy cows (that are nearly always skinny) to put weight on them for the export trade comment make an interesting comment. They have noticed that these poor beasts need a month’s total rest before they start to put on any weight at all because they are physically exhausted from the stress of being in a big herd and constantly disturbed for grazing and milking. It’s maybe why cows seem to need a much longer period to build up condition than the nutrition tables say!

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