The body condition scoring system for dairy cattle is slightly different than that commonly used for beef cattle. Scores are based on a five-point system, with 1 being emaciated and 5 being fat. To allow for more precise assessment, however, dairy cattle are typically assigned scores in 0.25 increments.
Dairy cattle are scored as follows:
- Emaciated. Overall skin-and-bones appearance. Spinal vertebrae, pelvic bones, and ends of ribs sharp and easily felt. Deep cavities around loin and tailhead. This animal is in poor health.
- Thin. Pelvis and ends of ribs easily felt. Backbone still easily seen, but not the individual vertebrae. Shallow depressions around loin and tailhead, the latter lined with a little bit of flesh. This animal is still healthy, but may have problems with reproduction and lactation.
- Average. Pelvis and ends of ribs can be felt with slight pressure. Backbone can be seen, but has a rounded appearance. Only a slight depression in the loin area. Area around tailhead is hollow, but there is no visible cavity. Skin appears smooth, showing neither protruding bones nor large fat deposits.
- Heavy. Fleshy appearance overall. Pelvis and ends of ribs can only be felt with firm pressure. Back has a solid, fairly flat appearance. No depression in the loin. Tailhead shows obvious fat deposits.
- Fat. Animal visibly obese. Bone structures cannot be felt even with firm pressure. Brisket and flanks heavy. Tailhead buried in fat. Skin distended. This animal is prone to infertility, lameness, and metabolic disorders.
So what is the ideal body condition score for dairy cows? That will simply depend on where they are in the reproductive cycle. Current conventional thinking tends to keep them on the thin side, since a lower BCS indicates that the cow is putting her energy into milk production rather than body maintenance.
The desired BCS for heifers about to be bred for the first time is 2.5 to 3.0. By calving time, the standard goal for both cows and heifers is 3.5. The cow is then expected to lose condition quickly, reaching a BCS around 2.5 during peak milk production. She gradually regains condition as the lactation progress, reaching 3.0 about halfway through and 3.25 to 3.75 when it is time to dry her off.
Body Condition Scoring With Dairy Cattle
Helpful PDF from the University of Arkansas explaining how to evaluate and use body condition scores. Includes color photos.