Body Condition Scoring I: Managing Your Cow Herd Through Body Condition Scoring

December 2000

A. Manuel Encinias,
Extension Associate,
Co-Products Initiative
Greg Lardy, Beef Cattle Specialist,
NDSU Extension Service
Department of
Animal and Range Sciences

Importance of Body Condition Scoring to
Cattle Producers

Body condition scoring of beef cattle can be an effective
management tool for evaluating the energy reserves of cows
and the whole nutritional program throughout the year. Adjusting
the nutritional program to obtain desired body condition at
different stages of production
is necessary to enhance
production efficiency. Females that are too thin or too fat can
be an expensive investment. Thin cows can have
difficulty rebreeding, while fat cows are prone to calving problems
and excessive feed costs. Body condition scores (BCS)
allow producers, extension personnel, and researchers to
communicate more effectively regarding the herd’s nutritional status.

What is Body Condition Scoring?

A common scoring system has been developed to estimate
the average body condition of cows in a herd. This system
provides producers a relative score based on an evaluation of fat deposits
in relation to skeletal features.

The most widely used body condition scoring system for
beef cattle in the U.S. (Figure
1) assigns scores from 1
(emaciated and carrying virtually no fat) to 9 (excessively fat).

Figure 1. Body condition scoring system for beef

Adapted from Wagner et al., 1988. Journal of Animal Science

Score  Description


1 Severely emaciated; starving and weak; no palpable fat detectable over back, hips
or ribs; tailhead and individual ribs prominently visible; all skeletal structures are
visible and sharp to the touch; animals are usually disease stricken. Under normal
production systems cattle in this condition score are rare.
2 Emaciated; similar to BCS 1, but not weakened; little visible muscle tissue; tailhead
and ribs less prominent.
3 Very thin; no fat over ribs or in brisket; backbone easily visible, slight increase in
muscling over BCS

4 Borderline; individual ribs noticeable but overall fat cover is lacking; increased
musculature through shoulders and hindquarters; hips and backbone slightly
rounded versus sharp appearance of BCS 3.

5 Moderate; increased fat cover over ribs, generally only
12th and 13th ribs are
individually distinguishable; tailhead full, but not rounded.
6 Good; back, ribs, and tailhead slightly rounded and spongy when palpated; slight
fat deposition in brisket.

7 Fat; cow appears fleshy and carries fat over the back, tailhead, and brisket; ribs are
not visible; area of vulva and external rectum contain moderate fat deposits; may
have slight fat in udder.
8 Very fat; squared appearance due to excess fat over back,
tailhead, and
hindquarters; extreme fat deposition in brisket and throughout ribs; excessive fat around vulva
and rectum, and within udder; mobility may begin to be restricted.
9 Obese; similar to BCS 8, but to a greater degree; majority of fat deposited in
udder limits effective lactation. Under normal production systems cattle in this condition
score are rare.


Nutritional Priorities of Cows

Individual herds vary by breed, frame, or type (i.e., English
or Continental) but their nutritional priorities are similar (Figure 2).
When nutrient intake fulfills the highest priority requirements,
the excess is used to fill lower priority requirements. When all
current requirements are fulfilled, the excess is stored as fat.

arrow graphic showing prioritization of nutritional requirements

Figure 2. Prioritization of nutritional requirements for the beef
cow. Adapted from Short et al., 1990.
Journal of Animal Science


Most English and Continental beef breeds tend to
deposit excess fat externally (subcu-taneous), whereas dairy and
Brahman-influenced breeds deposit more fat internally
(KPH or mesenteric). During periods
of low energy intake, excess external body fat is the first
body tissue used to meet nutritional requirements. When energy
is insufficient, fat stores may not
be enough to fulfill requirements. When this happens,
muscle (protein) is broken down to satisfy energy demand.

Cattle generally deposit external (subcutaneous) fat in the body
in the following order: 1) back
or loin, 2) ribs, 3) tailhead, 4) brisket, 5) flank, 6) vulva
and/or rectum, 7) udder or mammary gland (Figure 3). When
requirements exceed nutrient intake
and external fat is broken down,
it is utilized in the reverse order.

line drawing showing fat deposition sites in the cow

Figure 3.Fat deposition sites in the cow.


Visual Body Condition Scoring

Cattle can normally be scored solely by visual observation (Figures 4 through 9); however, certain
circumstances may occur in which manual palpation along with visual observation may be desirable.
Cattle commonly score in the range from 3 to 7. Scores on the extreme ends of the scale (1, 2, 8 and 9)
are rarely observed.

Research has shown a strong correlation between the current scoring system and actual fat deposition
in the animal (Table 1). This scoring system takes into account 80 to 90 percent of the total variation in fat of
a beef cow.


Table 1.Relationship between 
body condition score and 
body fat.
        Total  Subcutaneous 
BCS   Body Fat     Fat
        (%)       (in)
  1      0.7      0
  2      5.0      0.004
  3      9.3      0.005
  4     13.7      0.11
  5     18.0      0.19
  6     22.3      0.29
  7     26.7      0.41
  8     31.0      0.54
  9     35.3      0.68
Table adapted from Hardin, 1990. 
Georgia Cooperative Extension 
Service C-817


photo link to larger picture of cows with a body condition score 3
Figure 4. Body Condition Score 3.

(13KB color photo)

photo link to larger picture of cows with a body condition score 4
Figure 5. Body Condition Score 4.

(12KB color photo)

photo link to larger picture of cows with a body condition score 5
Figure 6. Body Condition Score 5.

(12KB color photo)

photo link to larger picture of cows with a body condition score 6
Figure 7. Body Condition Score 6.

(12KB color photo)

photo link to larger picture of cows with a body condition score 7
Figure 8. Body Condition Score 7.

(12KB color photo)

photo link to larger picture of cows with a body condition score 8
Figure 9. Body Condition Score 8.

(11KB color photo)

Important Factors to Consider
When Body
Condition Scoring

For consistent herd evaluations,
a single individual should score cattle over successive years.
The subjectivity of the scoring system may result in variation
between individuals assigning scores.

Many factors influence how cattle look or feel at observation time.
It is important to remember that the scoring system is a
subjective evaluation of fleshing and fat deposition (energy reserves),
not gut fill, hair coat, or body weight.

Consider cow age, breed, and frame size when
determining body condition score. Older cattle tend to carry less condition
over their top than younger cattle.
Fat deposition varies by breed
or type of cattle with dairy- and Brahman-influenced cattle
carrying less subcutaneous fat and more internal fat than British
or Continental type cattle. Small to moderate framed cows
(Angus and Hereford) are often scored higher than larger cattle.

Keep the scoring system simple. A thin cow looks sharp
and angular, whereas a fat one appears smooth and
square. Consistency and simplicity are key in evaluating energy
balance of a cowherd.

Using Body
Condition Score to Evaluate Your Herd

Body condition scoring should
be used to achieve optimal body condition of the cow at
calving. This will maximize the overall reproductive and
economic efficiency of the herd. It is
important, however, to evaluate body condition throughout
the year. A general rule of thumb
is every 90 to 120 days and specifically at: 30 days prior
to breeding, 90 days post-breeding, weaning, 100 days prior
to calving, and calving.

Altering body condition takes time. One body condition score
is equal to about 60 to 80
pounds of body weight in small
to moderate frame cows. Large frame cows require 100 to
150 pounds of body weight to change a single condition score.

Many factors are associated
with changing body condition throughout the year.
Following calving, high nutritional requirements for lactation make
maintaining or improving body condition during the first 60
days of the suckling period almost impossible. It is common for
beef cattle to lose one condition score during this period. In addition
to maintenance and lactation demands, the cow must
prepare for rebreeding during this time. Normal reproductive
function requires a certain level of fat reserves. Mature cows of
all breeds and crosses should be
at BCS 5 or greater at calving
to achieve adequate reproductive function by the
subsequent breeding season. Body condition scores below 5 in mature
cows adversely affect time to first functional estrus or heat
(Table 2).


Table 2.Effect of body 
condition score on number of 
cows in heat at beginning 
of breeding season.
             Days after Calving
BCS at       ------------------
Calving       60 days  90 days
              Cows in Heat (%) 
Thin (3-4)       46      66
Optimum (5-6)    61      92
Table adapted from Whittier and 
Stevens, 1993. Missouri Cooperative 
Extension Service G2230


Recommended body condition score at calving for a
two-year-old, first-calf heifer is BCS 6. First-calf heifers are more
likely than mature cows to fail to rebreed. Additional body
condition provides some
insurance against reproductive failure. However,
excessive fleshing beyond BCS 6 prior to calving in first-calf heifers
may result in increased incidence
of dystocia (calving difficulty).

Cows below BCS 5 at calving should be sorted off and fed
with first-calf heifers that are receiving a higher quality diet than
mature cows. Table 3 provides a guide to predict gain required to
achieve desired body condition at breeding based on BCS at calving.


Table 3. Predicting body weight gains in 
nursing cows in different body conditions.
                       Body Weight Gain Needed 
      BCS                 for Breeding, lbs
------------------  ----------------------------
   At    Needed at  Total Pounds  Days to
Calving  Breeding     Needed*     Breeding   ADG
   3        5           160         80       2.0
   4        5            80         80       1.0
   5        5             0         80       0
   3        5           160         60       2.7
   3        5           160         40       4.0
*pounds to change BCS in moderate frame cows 
Table adapted from Corah et al., 1991. Kansas 
Cooperative Extension Service C-842


Evaluation of body condition midway through the
summer grazing season (approximately 90 days post-breeding) is
suggested because it allows a manager to identify
postpartum nutritional effects and estimate current range or pasture status.
It is also helpful in determining alternatives for cows that
are inefficiently contributing (i.e., low milk production) to the
operation. Cows identified as thin during mid-summer evaluation
will probably be thin at weaning,
and fat cows will probably be
fat at weaning.

The period from weaning to calving is a time when it is
easy to alter cow body condition
since a dry cow’s only nutritional requirements are body
maintenance and fetal development. Cows with adequate or
optimum BCS at weaning will usually maintain or increase body
condition after suckling has ended and may not need to
be evaluated until approximately
100 days prior to calving.

Determining the nutritional status of the herd through BCS
scoring at weaning or 100 days prior
to calving is critical. It allows
a producer time to develop nutritional programs that
achieve optimum BCS at calving. This practice is fundamental
for maintaining a cow’s overall productivity, ability to suckle
and wean a calf, and ability
to rebreed.

Cows with a BCS lower than 5 during summer grazing can
be sorted at weaning to provide sufficient time to achieve
a desired calving BCS. Table 4 provides a guide to predict
gain in moderate frame cows to achieve a desired body
condition at calving based on BCS at weaning. In spring-calving
herds within the Northern Great Plains region, it is recommended
that weaning occur by early to mid October to ensure ample time
for improving body condition when maintenance and
gestation requirements are generally lowest and cold stress is not
an issue.


Table 4.Body weight gains (lbs) required in pregnant 
cows in varying body condition scores from 100 to 200 days 
prior to calving to achieve optimum calving body condition.
             BCS    Calf and   Body
  BCS      Needed   Placenta  Weight  Total  Days to
Weaning  at Calving  Weight    Gain*  Gain   Calving   ADG
   3          5       100      160     260     120     2.2
   4          5       100       80     180     120     1.5
   5          5       100        0     100     120     0.8
   3          5       100      160     260     200     1.3
   3          5       100      160     260     100     2.6
*pounds to change BCS in moderate frame cows
Table adapted from Corah et al., 1991. Kansas Cooperative 
Extension Service C-817


A greater percentage of cows that calve early will rebreed
than those that calve later due to the added days to “cycle back.”
Body condition scoring at least 30 days prior to the beginning
of the breeding season allows a producer to increase diet
quality on thinner cows (BCS 3 to 4)
and first-calf heifers to increase the probability of rebreeding.

Cows in moderate BCS (greater than BCS 5) at calving also
tend to have healthier calves, according to data gathered at
Colorado State University. Calves nursing cows in BCS 3 or 4 had
lower serum immunoglobulin (a
measure of potential disease resistance) levels than
calves nursing dams in BCS 5 or 6 (Table 5). Thin cows and
those that have not been fed properly prior to calving typically
produce lower volumes of colostrum (which contains
immunoglobulins) and therefore have weak calves that tend to be
more susceptible to disease.


Table 5.Effect of cow condition
at calving on calf serum
immunoglobulin level.
                 Cow BCS
Item       3     4     5     6
(mg/dL)   146   157   193   304
(mg/dL)  1998  2179  2310  2349
*immunoglobulin M
**immunoglobulin G
Data adapted from Odde, 1997. 
Proceedings Bovine Connection to Profit.


Cows that are too thin at calving typically have higher
incidences of calving difficulty and weaker calves at birth. In addition,
these calves often have lower weaning weights.

Early weaning (weaning 45 to
75 days prior to normal weaning date) is one management
tool that can be used to increase BCS in thin cows during late
summer. Removing the nutrient demands of lactation will increase
energy available to the cow or heifer.
This increase in available energy should allow for gain in fat
reserves and increase in body condition. Young, thin cows
(2- and 3-year olds; BCS less than 4) may be candidates
for early weaning.


Body condition scoring is one
tool producers can easily use to monitor nutritional programs in
a cowherd. Body condition score at calving affects calf
survival, calf vigor, and subsequent
reproductive performance of
the cow. Critical times to monitor body condition score of
the cowherd are 30 days prior to breeding, 90 days
post-breeding, weaning, 100 days prior to calving, and at calving.

Additional Sources

Boyles, S. 1998. Beef cow nutrition. The Ohio State University Extension
Beef Team Library ( nutr.html).

Corah, L.R., R.P. Lemenager, P.L. Houghton, and D.A. Blasi. 1991.
Feeding your cows by body condition. C-842. Kansas State
University Agricultural Experiment Station
and Cooperative Extension Service.

Hardin, R. 1990. Using body condition scoring in beef cattle management.
C-817. University of Georgia College
of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Cooperative
Extension Service.

Odde, K.G. 1997. Reproductive efficiency precalving nutrition and improving
calf survival. Proc. Bovine Connection.
p. 86-92.

Short, R.E., R.A. Bellows, R.B. Staigmiller, J.G. Berardinelli, and E.E. Custer.
1990. Physiological mechanisms controlling anestrus and infertility in
postpartum beef cattle. J. Anim. Sci. 68:799-816.

Whittier, J.C. and B. Steevens. 1993.
Body condition scoring of beef and
dairy animals. G2230. University of Missouri Cooperative Extension.

December 2000


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