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Body Condition Score of Spring calving suckler herds- Time to assess!

In the next 8 weeks a large number of spring calving suckler cows will be coming close to start of calving. In most cases, as seen from national data, calving spread of suckler herds is spread out over many months. Alan Dillon, Beef Specialist, plans to ensure body condition score (BCS) is on target

That said, planning is now required for a feeding strategy for suckler cows to ensure body condition score (BCS) is on target.  Body Condition Score estimates the cover of flesh on the ‘frame’ of the animal. The range goes from 0 (emaciated) to 5 (grossly over-fat). Individual condition score units are usually divided into half and quarter scores. Body condition scoring provides a guideline for feeding suckler cows at various stages of the production cycle (calving, weaning, housing, etc.).

Body Condition Scores on 5 point scale

Score 1: Individual transverse processes fairly sharp to the touch & no fat around tail head. Hip bones, tail head & ribs visually prominent.

Score 2: Transverse processes identified individually when touched, but feel rounded rather than sharp. Some tissue cover around tail head & over hip bones. Individual ribs no longer obvious.

Score 3: Transverse processes can only be felt with firm pressure. Areas either side of tail head have fat cover that is felt easily.

Score 4: Fat cover around tail head evident as slight “rounds,” soft to touch. Transverse processes cannot be felt even with firm pressure. Folds of fat developing over ribs.

Score 5: Bone structure no longer noticeable & animal presents a “blocky” appearance. Tail head & hip bones almost completely buried in fat, & folds of fat are apparent over ribs. Transverse processes are completely covered by fat, & animal’s mobility is impaired

Targets: Body Condition Scores

                                                            Spring Calving           Autumn Calving

Housing                                                3.0-3.5                        2.5-3.0

At Calving                                              2.5                             3.0

At turnout to pasture                           2.0+                            2.0

At Breeding                                           2.0 – 2.5                      2.5

Feeding requirements for suckler cows

Cow feed requirements during late pregnancy are for maintenance of the cow, some growth of the cow particularly if she is young (especially applies to first-calvers) and for the growing foetus. The foetus gains between 75 and 80% of its total birth weight during the last 3 months of pregnancy. Where mature cows are in good BCS (~3.0) at the start of the winter their feed energy intake can be restricted such that some of the body reserves of fat are utilised to reduce winter feed requirements. This feed energy restriction can result in a feed saving equivalent to 1.0 to 1.5 tonnes fresh weight of grass silage. The feed energy restriction can occur in various ways, such as offering moderate quality grass silage (65 DMD) to appetite, “diluting” the energy value of good quality silage with straw and offering that to appetite, or by restricting the amount of good-quality silage offered daily. Another option is feeding good-quality straw with supplementary concentrates.

Points to note

  • Where the amount of feed is restricted it is important that feeding space is adequate such that all cows can eat at the same time.
  • If cows are below good BCS, they cannot be restricted and must be fed to requirements. • Always offer an appropriate dry cow mineral/vitamin mix. How to Feed cows pre-calving
  • Group cows according to BCS. Assuming a BCS of 3.0-3.5 at housing: This body condition can be used to reduce winter feed costs.
  • If moderate to good quality silage (65-70 DMD) is available, intake can be restricted to 30-35 kg fresh silage prior to calving.
  • Assuming a BCS 2.5-3.0, cows should be fed such silage to appetite, if an adequate supply is available; while thinner cows will need 1-2 kg concentrate before calving.
  • Good-quality straw plus 2-3 kg of concentrates (including minerals & vitamins) is suitable for dry cows in good body condition. The crude protein content of the concentrate should be at least 18% in order to meet the dietary protein requirement. Feeding straw is not suitable for cows in poor BCS or for cows after calving. Body Condition Score, nutrition & calving difficult

Body Condition Score, nutrition & calving difficulty

Calf birth weight and internal pelvic area of the cow account for most of the variation in calving difficulty (dystocia). As cow BCS increases above a moderate level, calving difficulty can increase. Over-fat cows have increased calving difficulty because fat is deposited in the pelvic area, thereby reducing the size of the pelvic canal. Very thin cows also have increased calving problems (and increased calf mortality) due to insufficient strength to withstand the birth process and giving birth to weak, non-vigorous calves. Low levels of feeding during the last one-third of pregnancy will not result in predictable effects on calf birth weight or calving difficulty


In the event cows appear to be too thin or too well fleshed at this stage, there is still time to take remedial action with regards diet and feeding regime prior to calving. Ensure if cows are on a restricted diet that all cows can access feed at the same time.

Complete a follow up assessment of BCS in January by handling all cows again to track progress. Cows that are not on target should be grouped and fed separate to the main group.

Pay particular attention to first calvers and in calf heifers as they may need extra attention to ensure adequate condition pre and post calving.