Why BCS is so important

Dairy cow body condition – is your ‘eye’ometer calibrated?

LIC dairy Herd grazing UK

There is a lot to manage in modern dairy farming. With farmers being pulled in so many directions sometimes it’s the simple things that can be overlooked. And I believe body condition scoring is one of these.

Dairy cow body condition is fundamental to herd health, which in turn results in productivity, fertility, longevity; and ultimately profitability. If we get body condition right many other challenges can be avoided or limited.

Firstly it is important that all dairy farmers have some understanding around body condition score (BCS) and what this should look like for their herd. The most well-known condition scoring system in the UK was developed in the USA based on a Holstein cow and assesses four key areas of her body. With modern dairy cows coming in all shapes and sizes this system may not be the best fit for your herd, so upskilling on an across-breeds system of condition scoring may be more applicable. These assess more areas of a cow’s body, as different breeds carry fat in different places.

Secondly it is important to understand the acceptable levels of body condition for the different stages of lactation. All stock lose body condition after giving birth as they mobilise their own body fat for energy to lactate. Dairy cows have been genetically bred to over-emphasise this milk response and lose a significant amount of weight post-calving. We cannot stop this happening as it is governed by genetics. What we can do however is ensure weight loss post-calving is within the realms of ‘normal’ (that which is genetically programmed). For example using the New Zealand across-breed BCS system, on average a herd (or cow) should lose no more than 1.0 BCS post-calving. Provided she calved at the correct BCS this leaves her with enough body condition to resume cycling and get back in-calf in the optimal time period. Identifying if your cows are losing too much body condition, and finding the cause of this will do a lot to improve subsequent challenges (including the cost of the extra energy she will need to regain condition; energy that won’t go into milk production)

All herds have some skinny cows and some fat cows, again genetics has a role to play. But this only goes so far. Knowing the percentage of your herd that is outside the target range for their stage of lactation can help pinpoint a link for multiple problems. For example if more than 15% of your herd are too fat when they calve there is something wrong with the management of these animals in the months preceding calving that needs to be addressed, both from a cow welfare and an economic perspective. On farm this ‘over-conditioning’ is often seen in other ways, for example difficult calvings, high proportion of milk fever, ketosis or retained cleansings; even excessive post-calving weight loss – all exacerbated by excessive BCS at calving.

If there is a best time to target getting BCS right, it is at calving. This will set cows up for the greatest chance of a productive lactation and getting back in-calf regularly. This means a real focus in late lactation when you can most economically influence cow BCS. It can be difficult to see subtle changes in BCS over time when you work with stock on a daily basis so using someone independent to assess your herd’s BCS at key times will result in an unbiased, more accurate view. We all like to think its not a problem, that we ‘know our stock’ but sometimes we all need to recalibrate what a healthy dairy cow should look like.

To upskill yourself or your staff on BCS or you think BCS may be linked to issues you are experiencing, get in touch with Bess for a no obligation chat on 07717 732324.

LIC Pasture to Profit logo
by Katrina Younger
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