Like all producers in any sector of animal agriculture, we like to see our beef cattle healthy and productive.
In trying to accomplish this goal, we do everything possible to ensure they have what they need to attain their optimal comfort and production.
A dry place to lay and get out of the weather, clean water, minerals and quality feed are all things that we make sure our cattle are provided with.
However, is there a point where we are doing more harm than good?
Upon visiting with a gentleman at Ag Progress Days, it came to my attention that the only section of the country from which a certain manufacturer of handling equipment gets calls that cattle don’t fit through its designs is the Northeast.
This made me question, why: It quickly became apparent that the cows were extremely heavy in their condition.
Although we have a short growing season in the Northeast compared with other parts of the country, we are blessed to have extremely high quality feedstuffs.
That is why our resources match the needs of all the dairies so well in the Northeast. But a beef cow is a different animal to manage. She doesn’t need the same high plane of nutrition as a dairy cow because she doesn’t need to match the same level of milk production.
When assessing the body condition of a cow herd, we often rely on body condition scores on a scale ranging from 1 to 9, with 1 being emaciated and 9 obese.
Ideally, our beef cows would range between 5 and 6 throughout the year. A 5 would be smooth in appearance with the last two ribs and possibly the top of the spine barely visible, while a 6 would be smooth over the ribs with a slight fat deposit on the tail, head and flank, and the spine not visible at all.
There is a vast amount of research documenting the production ramifications for cows with inappropriate body conditions.
The problem with cattle being too thin — less than a 5 in BCS — is that their nutritional requirements are not being meet, resulting in poor production.
Poor production would be indicated by smaller, less thrifty calves at birth, lower milk yields resulting in lighter calves at weaning and, even more devastating, cows not being rebred in a timely manner, resulting in later, lighter calves the following year, or not being bred at all.
The factor that most affects cow/calf producers’ profitability is reproduction, because open cows do not generate revenue while still creating expenses.
On the other side of the fence, cows that are too heavy — greater than a 6 in BCS — may experience similar problems.
Extra internal fat may reduce available pelvic area, leading to a greater incidence of dystocia, or obstructed delivery at birth. If fat is deposited in the mammary, it can inhibit milk production, again resulting in lighter calves at weaning.
Also, cows that are too heavy in relation to their BCS may fail to cycle and therefore be open during fall pregnancy checks.
Adding insult to injury is the fact that not only was the cow less productive or open, but it is also likely that you spent more money feeding the animal than was necessary.
Traditionally in the cow/calf sector, profitability is not attained with higher investments but through reduced expenses, especially from reducing the highest expense, feed.
All of these factors can also be applied to breeding heifers. As a rule of thumb, heifers should be smooth in appearance with the last rib barely visible when entering the breeding season.
Ideally, beef cows should have an average BCS of 6 when calving season begins. This allows for additional body reserves so they are prepared to meet the high nutritional requirements that are associated with calving and rebreeding.
Cows can be expected to lose some condition as they go through the summer and raise their calves, but they should still average a BCS of 5 at weaning.
Weaning is the best time to change the BCS of cows should it be needed, as this is when they have the lowest nutritional requirements.
Changing one BCS will result in a difference of approximately 80 pounds to the cow’s weight, which should be a factor in estimating the feed needed to carry the operation through the year.
All operations have different challenges and resources, so producers should think about when their different feed resources are available and match those feedstuffs to the needs of their cows.
Ben Williamson is an instructor in Penn State’s Department of Animal Science, teaching livestock selection courses and coaching the Penn State Livestock Judging Team.