Body condition scoring suckler cows this winter

Date published: 24 January 2018

Suckler cows have the ability to lay down fat when grazing conditions are good and they can use this condition as an energy source when feed supplies are limited.

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This is particularly useful when fodder supplies are scarce or extremely expensive.  Allowing a fat cow to lose condition over a winter can be equivalent to saving of 200kg of feed barley or 1 tonne of silage. However, it is important to ensure that cows are in the correct body condition in each stage of the reproductive cycle. 

If cows are too thin the birth process can be prolonged as cows are weaker, their colostrum quality is lower and also their calves are less vigorous and have a poorer ability to absorb antibodies. In addition, their milk yield will be reduced and thin cows also take 25 days longer to resume cycling after calving and therefore are less likely to maintain a 365-day calving interval.

If cows are too fat prior to calving, difficulties may ensue due to fat deposits in the birth canal and also increased calf birth weight.  Thus there are welfare issues with cows being either too fat or too thin.

Any changes to body condition score should be gradually and ideally around mid-pregnancy. Significant changes to body condition in the last month prior to lambing or calving should be avoided. Excessive feeding during this time can significantly increase the weight of the unborn calves without improving body condition.

The purpose of condition scoring is to achieve a balance between economic feeding and meeting production targets whilst maintaining high standards of animal welfare.  When managed well it will help to avoid difficulties at lambing or calving in the current year and will maximise fertility in the next.

Condition scoring in the British Isles is usually done on a 5-point scale where a score of 1 means a cow is extremely thin and a score of 5 means a cow is extremely fat.  Cows should be handled at ribs, loin and tail-head areas. The ribs are assessed for their covering of fat, the loin is assessed by feeling the horizontal and vertical processes of the back bone and the tail head area is assessed for its covering of fat and the prominence of the pelvic bones.

Body Condition scores - scale 1 to 5

Score Description
1 Individual transverse processes of the loin are sharp and easily distinguished.  There is no fat around the tail head.
2 Individual transverse processes are rounded but easily distinguished.
3 Individual transverse processes of the loin are sharp and easily distinguished.  There is no fat around the tail head.
4 Individual transverse processes cannot be felt.  There are small mounds of fat soft to the touch around the tail head.
5 Individual transverse processes cannot be felt as they are covered by a thick layer of fat.  Tail head is buried in fatty tissue.

Condition score targets for spring and autumn-calving cows

March/April calvers

Condition score

Weaning / housing (autumn) 3
Calving 2.5
Mating 2-2.5


August/October calvers

Condition score

Calving 3
Mating 2.5
Turnout 2
Weaning over summer 2.5


  • Utilising excess body condition is a useful way to save feed and costs.
  • Carry out condition scoring regularly to ensure cows remain on target.
  • Avoid excesses of condition, both too fat and too thin.
  • Do not make significant changes to body condition in the last trimester of pregnancy.

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