Article Index "How to Body Condition Score Dairy Animals" Article Index


By: Jeffrey F. Keown,
Extension Dairy Specialist
Issued April 1991
Original Document
About the Author

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Routinely scoring the body condition of dairy animals can help detect potential problems that might cause a decrease in milk production.

As the production level of a herd increases, body condition scoring becomes more important. A routine program for body condition scoring can help detect potential health problems before they significantly reduce milk production. A herd of cattle that is in good body condition will not only produce more, but also will be less susceptible to metabolic disorders, disease, mastitis and reproductive problems. Underconditioned cows are subject to health problems, and overconditioned cows are subject to calving difficulties, fatty liver syndrome and possible death.

It's important to body score heifers as well as the milking herd. Overconditioned heifers will not breed as easily and will have a higher incidence of calving difficulty. They also may have delayed mammary development that could decrease their lifetime production potential.

Body condition scoring is important to any producer planning to use Bovine Somatotropin (BST). BST should not be administered to any cow that is not in excellent body shape, i.e., not overly fat or overly thin, because it could cause lower milk production, extremely thin cows or fatty liver problems, and perhaps, death of the animal. BST causes a cow to increase the conversion of body fat reserves to milk production. Therefore, if a cow is already thin, BST is not recommended.

Routinely scoring the heifers and milking herd will enable a producer to more effectively use the available feed reserves. Overconditioned heifers or milking animals should be fed less. The feed saved can be used to increase the body condition on those animals under the optimum level. Producers who routinely score their herd will be in a better position to reap the rewards of increased management efficiency.

Anyone can learn to score their herd's body condition. All it takes is a little practice and time. In many cases, it may be better to have an outsider score the herd to obtain an objective score. Perhaps a DHI supervisor, dairy fieldman, veterinarian or neighboring producer would be suited to objectively score the herd. It might even be a good idea for dairy producers to score each other's herd.

Body condition scoring should be done on all animals at least three times during lactation. In large herds score at least 20 cows at each stage to obtain a reasonable estimate of the body condition in the whole herd. The three best times are:

    1. within one month after freshening so that feed adjustments can be made on those cattle that have freshened too thin or too heavy,
    2. during mid lactation, and
    3. at the end of lactation so that rations during the dry period can be adjusted so body condition scores are optimum for freshening.

Cattle also may be scored at calving to monitor the effectiveness of the dry cow feeding program.

Heifers also should be scored at least three times before they freshen. Calves should be scored at 6 months of age to be certain they are not gaining weight too quickly or too slowly. Either condition can affect mammary development. Score heifers near breeding age to avoid major reproductive failure. It is also important to check heifers about two months before freshening so nutrient levels can be changed to avoid difficult births and metabolic problems after parturition. A chart of recommended growth rates for replacement heifers is shown in Table I.

Research has shown that Holstein heifers that freshen at 24 months of age produce the most milk in their first lactation if they weigh between 1200 and 1300 pounds soon after freshening. Therefore the growth rates shown in Table I for Holsteins are bare minimums.

Table I. Recommended growth rates for replacement heifers.

Ayrshire and Guernsey Brown Swiss and Holstein Jersey
Age (mo) Heart girth (in) Weight (lb) Height at withers (in) Heart girth (in) Weight (lb) Height at withers (in) Heart girth (in) Weight (in) Height at withers (in)
Birth -- 65 27 29 93 29 -- 56 26
1 26 80 30 32 115 31 -- 70 27
2 32 120 32 36 160 34 31 110 30
4 40 200 36 44 270 39 38 180 34
6 45 300 39 50 390 42 44 280 38
8 50 400 41 55 510 44 48 360 40
10 55 490 43 59 610 46 52 440 42
12 58 570 45 62 700 48 55 510 43
14 60 640 46 64 780 49 58 570 44
16 62 700 47 66 850 50 59 620 45
18 64 760 48 68 910 51 61 670 46
20 66 820 49 70 980 52 63 720 47
22 67 880 50 71 1050 53 64 770 48
24 69 950 51 73 1130 54 66 830 49

How to Body Condition Score Dairy Cows¹<

The body condition score is determined largely by the amount of fat covering the rump and tailhead area. The loin area also is evaluated. The final body condition score can be adjusted one-half score if the loin differs from the rump by more than one point.

diagram: areas of cow used for scoring

Figure 1. Areas of concern in body condition scoring.

Although most body condition scoring is done from directly behind the animal, it is a good idea to observe the cow from the side to get some idea of the depression in the loin area.

To begin scoring, stand directly behind the cow. Make sure the cow is relaxed because muscle tightness will result in inaccurate scoring. Observe the degree of depression around the tailhead. Then score the rump area by placing the hands on the pin bone and pelvic bone and feeling for the amount of fat covering. Figure 1 shows the areas used for scoring and the major bone and muscle groups. Always use the same hand to score cows. Score the rump to the nearest one-half score. Then score the loin area in the same way, using the same hand, also assess this score to the nearest one-half unit.

Table II gives desirable body condition scores for various lactation stages and various heifer ages. Due to normal animal-to-animal variation, you should expect a range in body condition scores among cows in the same lactation stage. However, if your animals differ drastically from the given values, consider modifying their rations.

Table II. Desired and reasonable body condition scores of dairy cattle at critical times.²
Time of scoring Desired score Reasonable range
Calving 3.5 3.0-4.0
Peak Milk 2.0 1.5-2.0
Mid-lactation 2.5 2.0-2.5
Dry Off 3.5 3.0-3.5
6 Months 2.5 2.0-3.0
Breeding 2.5 2.0-3.0
Calving 3.5 3.0-4.0

Table III lists some causes of undesirable scores and possible remedies.

Body condition scoring can be a valuable tool in fine tuning your management skills as well as uncovering potential problems in the herd. If a person rigorously follows a body condition scoring program, many day to day nutrition problems can be avoided.

Examples of body condition scores

photo: cow with BCS 1Body Condition Score 1Body Condition Score 1
Rump Area: Deep cavity around tailhead. No fatty tissue felt between pins. Pelvic bone easily felt. Skin is supple.
Loin Area: Ends of short ribs sharp to touch. Upper surfaces can be felt easily. Deep depression in loin.
Cows after having a severe DA are typically scored a 1.
photo: cow BCS 2Body Condition Score 2Body Condition Score 2
Rump Area: Shallow cavity lined with fatty tissue at tailhead. Some fatty tissue felt under pin bone. Pelvis easily felt.
Loin Area: Ends of short ribs feel rounded. Upper surface felt with slight pressure. Depression visible in loin.
High-producing, early lactation cows should score 2.
photo: cow with BCS 3Body Condition Score 3Body Condition Score 3
Rump Area: No visible cavity around tailhead. Fatty tissue is easily felt over whole rump. Skin appears smooth. Pelvis is felt with slight pressure.
Loin Area: Ends of short ribs can be felt with pressure. There is a thick layer of tissue on top. There is only a slight depression in the loin.
photo: cow with BCS 4Body Condition Score 4Body Condition Score 4
Rump Area: Folds of fatty tissue are visible around tailhead. Patches of fat are present around the pin bones. Pelvis is felt only with firm pressure.
Loin Area: Short ribs cannot be felt even with firm pressure. No depression is visible in loin between backbone and hip bone.
photo: cow with BSC 5Body Condition Score 5Body Condition Score 5
Rump Area: Tailhead is buried in fatty tissue. Skin is distended. No part of pelvis can be felt even with firm pressure.
Loin Area: Folds of fatty tissue over short ribs. Bone structures cannot be felt.
These cows are good candidates for fat cow syndrome.

Table III. Cause of undesirable body condition scores and possible remedies.²
Time Score Possible Cause Remedy
Calving High Dry cows gaining excessive weight. Reduce energy in dry cow ration

Cows dry off in excessive condition. Reduce ration energy during the last one-third of lactation.

Cows dry too long. Limit dry period to 60 days.

Low Dry cows losing weight on dry cow ration. Increase energy and/or protein.

Cows dry off in poor condition. Increase energy during the last one-third of lactation.
Peak High Cows fail to achieve peak milk production. Increase crude protein in ration of 17%.

Low Cows too thin at calving. Adjust body condition during the last one-third of lactation.

Cows lose weight excessively. Increase/decrease grain to .76 MCal per lb of ration dry matter; raise fiber to 20% ADF, 30% NDF.
Mid High Cows fail to milk. Cull cows that fail to milk or that fatten excessively.

Cows on high energy diet for too long. Balance ration to meet energy needs in late lactation.

Low Cows not recovering from loss of condition in early lactation. Maintain energy density of .76 MCal/lb; avoid switching to rations with much lower energy densities.
Dry off High Cows receive excess energy in late lactation. Balance energy to cows' productive needs.

Cows not rebred on time. Consider culling.

Low Cows not gaining adequate condition during the last one-third of lactation. Increase energy in ration during the last one-third of lactation.
6 months High Too much energy in diet. Reduce amount of grain fed to 5 lbs/day.

Low Too little energy in diet. Increase amount of grain in diet; consider a commercial calf starter.

Disease Consult veterinarian.
Breeding High Too much energy. Reduce amount of grain fed; limit amount of corn silage.

Lack of adequate protein. Raise protein in diet to 13-15%.

Low Lack of energy in the diet. Increase energy as grain and/or switch to higher quality forage.
Calving High Too much energy in diet. Little danger to first calf heifer unless body score approaches 5.

Low Lack energy in diet. Increase energy as grain and/or feed quality forage. Heifers should gain 1 condition score from breeding to calving.

About the author: ¹Figures are from Body Condition Scoring of Dairy Cattle. R. Parker. Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food. Ontario, Canada, January 1989.

²Tables II and III have been adapted from Body Condition Scoring -- A Management Tool. R.A. Patton, H.F. Bucholtz, M.K. Schmidt and F.M. Hall. Department of Animal Science, Michigan State University, East Lansing Michigan, September 1988.

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