Unfortunately, meteorologists are forecasting continued drought for many parts of the United States. Regardless of current weather conditions, however, it is a good idea to formalize a drought recovery plan. If your cattle have less than optimum body condition scores, then the plan should include strategies for adding flesh to the animals.
It’s All About Body Condition
Dr. Rick Rasby at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln said that body condition scores describe the relative fatness of a cow herd through the use of a nine-point scale. A body condition score five (BCS 5) cow is in average flesh and represents a logical target for most cow herds. A BCS 1 cow is emaciated while a BCS 9 cow is obese.
Cows must calve every year to cover their maintenance costs and to generate a profit. Rasby explained that body condition scores of beef cows at the time of calving have the greatest impact on subsequent rebreeding performance. Postpartum interval is the length of time from calving to first estrus (heat) after giving birth. For a cow to maintain a 365 day calving interval, she must rebreed by no more than 82 days after calving (283 day gestation + 82 day postpartum interval = 365 days).
On the average, cows that calve in a BCS 3 or 4 have difficulty exhibiting their first heat by 80 days after calving. Whereas cows that calve in BCS 5 or 6 tend to exhibit heat by 55 days after calving and have a better opportunity to maintain a 365 day calving interval Although cows that calve in a BCS 7 have a shorter postpartum interval, it is not economical to feed cows to this body condition score.
“Thin cows at calving (BCS 4 or thinner) produce less colostrum and give birth to less vigorous calves,” said Rasby. “They are slower to stand and have lower immune levels that impair their ability to overcome early calf-hood disease challenges. This illustrates the importance of targeting mature cows to calve in a BCS of at least 5. Because first-calf-heifers have only reached about 85 percent of their mature weight after calving and require additional nutrients to support growth, they need to be fed so they are a BCS of 6 at calving.”
Base Future Management on BCS
Since body condition scores determine herd productivity, it is important to assess your herd. Have you been able to keep your cattle at a BCS of 5 or better during drought or have they slipped to a 4 BCS or lower?
If you are not proficient in scoring body condition, ask a qualified agriculture extension agent, agricultural science teacher, or another beef producer to help assess your herd. Visual depictions of body condition scoring are available on several university and industry websites. Since future management decisions will be based on these assessments, it is important that scoring is accurate.
Prepare herd inventory records that contain the animal’s identification number, their BCS and the date the animal was scored. The inventory facilitates sorting cattle into management groups based on their body condition scores and provides a format for keeping annual production records on each animal.
Cody Parsons, Oregon State University, recommends sorting cattle into two groups. The first group will likely include thin mature cows with BCS of 4 or less, and the second group will be younger cows with BCSs of 5 or better. The first group will need to be fed to their body condition. Cows in the second group with an adequate BCS should be fed a maintenance ration.
If all or a large number of your cows are in the first group, there are some economic decisions to make. For a cow to go from a BCS 4 to a 5 BCS, she has to gain 150 to 200 pounds and from a 3 BCS to a 5 BCS, a gain of 200 to 300 pounds is needed. A cow needs to gain 300 to 350 pounds to move from 2 BCS to a 5. If a cow has a 1 BCS, it will take in an excess of 350 pounds gain for her to reach a 5 BCS.
Feed expenses required to move your cattle to a 5 BCS should be compared with their value on the cull cow market. You may make more money by selling cattle with 4 or less BCS and replacing them with cow-calf pairs. Economics are certainly questionable on feeding BCS 1 and 2 animals until they reach a BCS of 5.
“If you continue to keep cows with low body condition scores, expect reduced reproduction,” said Dr. Stephen Hammack, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. “It will be extremely expensive to rebuild body condition until pastures fully recover from the drought. Even with sufficient forage, it takes time to put flesh back on cattle and, during this time, they will not calve on a 365-day cycle.”
“In addition to BCS, herds confronting recovery from drought might dictate broader considerations,” continues Hammack. “Do you sell these cattle and then restock? Do you quit ranching and lease the land? Do you turn the ranch over to the children? Do you sell the cattle and the ranch? These are tough questions, but they will need to be answered in the drought recovery plan.”