Early spring is a good time to inspect the condition of your horses, cattle, and other livestock for that matter, to evaluate how well they came through your winter feeding and care program.

Do you need to work on hay quality for next winter? If animal condition is sub-par, now is the time to develop a strategy to improve forage quality or make it a goal to test hay before purchasing to ensure it meets minimum standards for energy and protein.

All classes of livestock, as well as many pets, can be body condition scored (BCS) to evaluate their nutritional status and possible health issues. The principle is similar across animal species. Animals with the correct body condition are healthier, rebreed more easily and have healthier and more productive offspring.

A body condition score is an estimate of the degree of body fatness of an animal, which gives us an estimate of the amount of body energy reserves available. Scores range from 1 to 9, with 1 meaning an animal is emaciated or extremely thin, while 9 indicates an animal is extremely obese. Generally, a body conditions core of 5-6 is “just right” although some easy keepers tend to stay at a 7 and are healthy at that level and dairy animals are thinner at a healthy level than more muscled breeds. Livestock and horse owners should train themselves to identify animals that are too thin or fat, those that are marginal, and animals that have an optimal body condition. Body condition scoring is a tool to help plan your supplemental feeding program, so you can maintain adequate productivity and health.

A body condition score is determined by looking at the degree of sharpness or thinness in several areas of an animal’s body. The ribs and backbone are two primary regions you need to examine to help establish body condition score. Other important areas are the tailhead, and shoulders of animals as well as the neck on a horse and brisket regions of the cow. In general, animals with more fat appear smoother in these areas to the point that individual bones are difficult to see.

Animals that are too thin, scores of 3 or less, have easily identifiable fore and rear ribs, sharpness across the backbone, sharpness over the hook and pin bones near the tailhead and sharpness across the shoulders. Cows that are a score 3 need to gain approximately 150-200 pounds before calving if you want them to rebreed in a timely fashion. Horses will have accentuated necks, withers, a prominent tailhead and ribs are easily discernable.

A body condition score of 4 is moderately thin. At a BCS of 4 cows have easily identifiable 12th and 13th ribs, but their fore ribs are covered. The backbone and hooks and pins are still prominent but are not sharp in appearance. The shoulders are less defined. These cows need to gain about 75-100 pounds before breeding season.

Cows and horses that are in optimal body condition have scores of 5 or 6 and have a good overall appearance with no visible ribs. The backbone, hooks and pins appear rounded and not easily seen, and the area around the tailhead is filled in but not mounded. These animals simply need to maintain their weight. Animals that are lactating usually will lose a body condition score as they produce milk but then regain condition after weaning. Selecting beef cattle for high milk production can cause higher energy demands than most farmers are able or willing to provide. Moderate genetics for milk production work best for many farms.

Research has shown that cows with scores less than 5 at calving have lower pregnancy rates and take longer to rebreed than cows with scores of 5 or higher. The optimum body condition score for mature cows is a 5 or 6. Heifers that are calving their first calf need to have a score of at least 6 to maximize rebreeding success.

Horses and cattle require, at a minimum, 2% of their bodyweight in dry forage (calculated with the moisture subtracted) per day. Poor quality hay offers fewer nutrients, takes longer to digest and may not provide enough calories to meet energy needs in winter.

If last winter’s hay was of high-nutritive value and your cows and horses maintained their body condition scores, grain may not have been necessary. When animals are not meeting their nutritional needs with hay alone, grain needs to be added to their diet. Grain should only supplement a diet, as a majority of horse and livestock nutrient needs should be met by the forage source.

The University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service published a fact sheet titled, “Condition Scoring Your Horse,” ASC-145, available online or from the extension office to look for ASC-145. Using this system will help you keep feed costs down and your horses’ health and well-being in top shape.

For more information on scoring body condition in your cow herd, contact the Lyon County Cooperative Extension Service. Educational programs of the Cooperative Extension Service serve all people regardless of economic or social status and will not discriminate on the basis of race, color, ethnic origin, national origin, creed, religion, political belief, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expressions, pregnancy, marital status, genetic information, age, veteran status, or physical or mental disability.