Balancing Body Condition
The goal of body condition scoring dairy cows is to find the sweet spot.
On a scale of 1-5, that’s 3.5, according to Tony Rickard, University of Missouri Extension dairy specialist and program director for Barry County and the southwest region. If the cows gain too much flesh above 3.5, Rickard told Ozarks Farm & Neighbor, “then we’re going to have some metabolic issues when those cows finally freshen. If we carry less body condition score, it’s going to end up costing us milk production.”
Rickard said while body condition scoring is not an exact science, there are visual cues to watch for. “In a 3.5 body condition score, when you look at the thighs they’re going to tend to be more flat, and in an animal that’s been milking or not in better body condition score it’s going to be cutting in,” he said. “When you look up at the hooks and the pins you’re going to start getting some roundness, and one of the areas that I really look at is the short ribs, which are just in front of the hooks on the cows. If you start getting some flatness of that area under the short ribs, then you’re getting the cow into proper condition.”
The biggest reason to have optimal flesh on the cow is the time period between peak milk production at 6-8 weeks after freshening, and her peak period of dry matter intake at 10-14 weeks. Rickard said the cow makes up the difference by utilizing her own tissue. “For every pound of body weight that she mobilizes, there’s actually enough energy for 6-7 pounds of milk production,” he said. “Protein does become somewhat of a limiting factor in early lactation, because in that utilization of body tissue there might be enough nitrogen or protein for only 3-4 pounds of milk.”
That means if the cow is too thin, her milk production will be limited to what she can generate from food, and you’ll have lower milk output during that 2-8 week gap between peak milk and peak consumption. Rickard said, “I’d really like to just maintain body condition so that when she freshens, she’s ready to ‘jump over the mountain’ – her production is going to start rising every day after she freshens. If we have a cow in the dry period and we dry her off at a certain body condition score, and she’s still losing a bit of condition – we’re still feeding the cow fairly well, but we’re not holding the condition that she had – then we’ve got her on a downward nutritional plane, and it’s a lot more difficult for that cow when she’s going downhill to bounce back up to the level of production that I want.”
How to raise that cow to a 3.5 score? “In the south, fiber is both a friend and foe,” University of Arkansas professor of animal science Shane Gadberry Gadberry told OFN. “Warm-season forages are quite high in fiber content, and the weather over past several years has impacted when we are harvesting forages. Therefore, testing forages in the diet for nutrient composition and fiber levels is very important.”
By-product feeds are variable in nutrient composition and should be tested instead of just relying on averages. Gadberry also recommended producers consider the number of ingredients in their supplements. “If a feedstuff’s test is outside of its normal range, we would expect its impact to be less if it is included with three other ingredients instead of just one other ingredient,” he said.
Rickard added producers should start putting condition on a cow during the tail end of lactation instead of waiting until the dry period. “If I wanted to put on 100 pounds the last 60 days of lactation, I could probably do it with about 5 pounds/day of additional grain,” he said. “If I wait until she dries off, all of a sudden the hormonal balance has changed since she’s not producing milk; it’s going to take about 8 pounds of grain per day to put that additional gain on during the dry period.” Also keep in mind that supplemental feed during the last trimester will contribute to a bigger calf, “and that’s the last thing we want to do.”