Determining the perfect formulation of a cattle feed is not an exact science. We start with a baseline informed by scientific research and then go from there. On the farm, owners and farmhands rely on a variety of factors to determine feed ingredients and schedules. Among those factors is something known as body condition scoring (BCS).

BCS is an inexact science as well. Nonetheless, it is a non-invasive way to assess a cow’s overall health and energy status by evaluating the amount of fat on the body. BCS is a touch-intense measurement that requires feeling around targeted areas.

The link between BCS and feed decisions is easy enough to see. An underweight animal’s score clearly demonstrates the need for increased energy intake. Likewise, a higher score dictates that an overweight cow needs a modified diet to encourage weight loss.

How BCS Is Implemented

BCS primarily measures fat reserves. Those conducting the scoring know exactly where to look and feel. They also know what to expect in a healthy animal at different times in the lactation cycle. During early lactation, for example, peak milk production relies on adequate fat reserves.

As the farmer or ranch hand conducts the scoring exam, a scale of 1-5 is used to determine cow health. A score of 1 indicates a very thin animal with minimal fat reserves and prominent bones. This is a cow that will not produce much quality milk, if any at all.

A score of 5 represents the other end of the spectrum. Scoring a 5 indicates an overweight animal with excessive fat deposits. While this might seem ideal given the fact that larger fat reserves tend to promote better milk production, obese cows still need to lose weight.

Tailoring Food Based on Score

In both cases, cattle feed can make an enormous difference. Specialty feed ingredients can help the thin cow put on weight. We are particularly thinking of bypass fats here. Likewise, a farmer can tailor an obese cow’s feed to get her weight down.

Ideally, a good BCS score falls somewhere between 2.25 and 3.25 depending on lactation stage. Farmers like to see something on the upper end (3-3.25) at calving. A score at the lower end (2.25-2.75) is acceptable during peak lactation.

The fatty acid content in cattle feed can have a measurable impact on BCS when managed properly. But again, feed needs to be tailored accordingly. Offering the same feed without considering differences in BCS doesn’t serve cattle well.

Additional BCS Functions

Although BCS does inform feed decisions, determining what to feed cattle isn’t the only reason for scoring. BCS offers a number of additional functions that contribute to a healthy dairy farm. They include:

  • Monitoring – Regular BCS is a tool for monitoring overall cow health. Maintaining optimal health maintains productivity.
  • Reproduction – Maintaining optimal BCS can lead to improved reproductive efficiency among dairy cows.
  • Animal Welfare – Conducting routine BCS is also a way of monitoring animal welfare. Consistent scores on either end of the spectrum could indicate poor animal management or persistent health problems in need of further investigation.

An experienced dairy farmer can approach BCS by way of a visual assessment and physical palpation. The experienced farmer knows what to look for and how a healthy cow’s body should feel. When things are not right, the answer is often as simple as adjusting the cattle feed.

Just as BCS informs a farmer about feed choices, those choices inform us as we constantly strive to improve our cattle feeds. When we do well, the cows we feed do well, too.