Is my cow in proper condition?
Many Dexter breeders are new to cattle. This means we must offer a lot of technical support to our buyer, and we need to be careful how we promote the breed. Breeders: please, please, please do not advertise Dexters as “able to thrive on poor pasture.” This sentence is way too open to interpretation and we have rescued more starving cattle from novice breeders than we can count; simply because they didn’t know better. We have actually seen Dexters starved to death. Every year, there are starving animals actually in the show ring at the National Show and Sale; people whisper but nobody turns the animals away from the show because they figure it is better they sell and find a new home. This does not happen with any other breed. We have to stop advertising Dexters this way, and must start educating people about proper body condition.
One problem is that many people think a big belly means the cow is fat. This is not true, a big belly can be a sign of poor nutrition, chondrodysplasia (dwarfism), parasites, old age, pregnancy, or eating dirt. An animal can be underweight and have a big belly. You really have to look at the boney structure of the animal to determine its body condition.
Many of us are having problems with poor pasture, high hay prices, etc, which has led to changes in feed. Over the years, I have encountered the two extremes of the feed problem, in two different herds.
“Breeder A” had cows on rough grazing and was told that, being Dexters, the animals would “make due.” The cows had grazed the grass down to the nubs. This was certainly “poor pasture,” but hese animals were not thriving. When I saw them, most of their ribs were visible and they had coarse, shaggy coats. The animals had a very angular appearance and reminded me of large black Halloween cats. About half the cows had failed to produce calves, even though they had been with the bull. The yearling calves were the size of four month old calves. The animals were expected to fend for themselves, and the breeder did not know about supplements such as protein tubs that can be placed in the pasture once a month; allowing supplementation without daily maintenance. These animals would have looked a lot different and produced better with proper supplementation. As it turned out, of the two cows that were pregnant, even after the cows were properly fed at the end of their gestation and gained weight, the calves that were starved in utero did not grow at the same rate as calves who were carried by cows receiving normal nutrition. They also had crooked legs.
“Breeder B” was dismayed that two out of three of his new animals had calving problems. This surprised me, as my own herd has had only a couple calving problems in 20 years. But then, I went to look at his cows. Due to lack of pasture, the animals had been penned in 24 foot pipe corrals and were free-fed alfalfa. The cows were morbidly obese and lacked any sort of muscle tone. Obese cattle in any breed are notorious for calving difficulties, as are confined cattle that receive little exercise. There is even something known as Fat Cow Syndrome that can include a range of health problems such as calving difficulty, retained placenta, inflammation of the uterus, fatty liver, displaced stomach, mastitis, ketosis and milk fever.
We all have a certain amount of “Barn Blindness,” (everything in our barn is beautiful). The following table is a useful tool to help us judge the condition of our cattle. Most of animals in Breeder A’s herd would have scored a 2 (Poor Condition). The cows in Breeder B’s herd would have scored 8 or 9 (Fat or Extremely Fat).
Feed problems are something we all have to deal with, and breeders should be not be embarrassed to ask other breeders to score their cattle’s weight, or to give pointers on how they provided for their animals during drought, mud, hay price increases, and other changing factors. Local knowledge is often especially helpful, as the challenges may be similar, and similar solutions may be available in the way of supplements. You may also be able to contact the local Agriculture Extension office.
Table 1. System of Body Condition Scoring (BCS) for Beef Cattle
- EMACIATED – Cow is extremely emaciated with no palpable fat detectable over spinous processes, transverse processes, hip bone or ribs. Tail-head and ribs project quite prominently.
- POOR – Cow still appears somewhat emaciated but tail-head and ribs less prominent. Individual spinous processes are still rather sharp to the touch but some tissue cover exists along the spine.
- THIN – Ribs are still individually identifiable but not quite as sharp to the touch. There is obvious palpable fat along spine and over tail-head with some tissue cover over dorsal portion of ribs.
- BORDERLINE – Individual ribs are no longer visually obvious. The spinous processes can be identified individually on palpation but feel rounded rather than sharp. Some fat cover over ribs, transverse processes and hip bones.
- MODERATE – Cow has generally good overall appearance. Upon palpation, fat cover over ribs feels spongy and areas on either side of tail-head now have palpable fat cover.
- HIGH MODERATE – Firm pressure now needs to be applied to feel spinous processes. A high degree of fat is palpable over ribs and around tail-head.
- GOOD – Cow appears fleshy and obviously carries considerable fat. Very spongy fat cover over ribs and around tail-head. In fact, “rounds” or “pones” beginning to be obvious. (Pones are protruding fat deposits.) Some fat around vulva and in crotch.
- FAT – Cow very fleshy and over-conditioned. Spinous processes almost impossible to palpate. Cow has large fat deposits over ribs, around tail-head and below vulva. “Rounds” or “pones” are obvious.
- EXTREMELY FAT – Cow obviously extremely wasty and patchy and looks blocky. Tail-head and hips buried in fatty tissue and “rounds’ or “pones” of fat are protruding. Bone structure no longer visible and barely palpable. Animal’s mobility may even be impaired by large fatty deposits.
(BCS scoring was originally published by Richards, M.W., J.C. Spitzer and M.B. Warner. 1986. J. Anim. Sci. 62:300.)
There is a great resource published by the Virginia Tech Cooperative Extension (with photos) here.