Condition Scoring Cows - Check List

“Condition Scoring” (CS) cows was developed many years ago to help farmers specify how skinny or fat their cows were, and as a result, how they should be fed to either gain or lose weight to get back to an optimum condition.

Dairy farmers hate fat cows - they say they’re not working for their keep. They say that if the cow is putting on fat, she’s not putting milk in the vat. So with dairy cows, it’s mainly a case of making sure they are either maintaining or building up in condition. With beef cows, it’s mainly a case of making sure they don’t get too fat.

What is “condition”?

It’s mainly fat under the skin (subcutaneous) but it is also internal fat that we cannot see. When cows get really skinny it’s also a muscle, and you can see this in an “emaciated” dairy cow which is like a walking toast rack with an udder. There are a lot of them about on the North Island at certain times of the year.

How is it measured?

We use a visual score from 1 (severely emaciated) to 10 (grossly obese). The scores are assessed by looking (and feeling) at various parts of the animal to assess fat cover and muscle loss.

What are good scores?

Dairy cows go up and down in condition very rapidly - we’ve bred them to do that in New Zealand where we don’t feed lots of high-energy feed during lactation. When cows are pouring out more energy in the milk that they can eat, we expect them to “milk off their backs” and lose condition.

So dairy cows should be around CS 4.5-5 for most of the year. Consultants say that dairy cows should be dried off at a CS that they should calve at - which is at least a CS of 5. Most dairy farmers are more likely to dry off around CS 4, assuming that they can build condition back to 5 by good feeding during the dry period.

It takes about 180kg of Dry Matter (above what’s needed for maintenance) to put on 1 CS. For a big Holstein-Friesian, it would be more like 200 kg of DM, and for a light Jersey about 150kg DM. One CS is equal to about 30kg in liveweight.

A major problem exists because the majority of dairy farmers are about half a score too generous in their assessment of CS - so their cows are permanently on the skinny side with resulting in sub-optimal performance.

Beef cows will normally be more around CS 6-8 and do not vary much during the year.

What happens if cows get too skinny?

  • When they calve they’ll probably get milk fever, grass staggers, and ketosis.
  • They may retain their afterbirths.
  • They will carry on milking and get skinnier still!
  • Their production will be reduced.
  • They are slow to come on heat after calving.
  • They will need veterinary treatment to encourage them to cycle.
  • They may have one heat, are mated, and then go into a non-cycling (anoestrus) mode again. You’ll think they’re pregnant, as you don’t see them cycle again.
  • They will calve late next season and may need “inducing” to get them to calve on time.

What happens if cows get too fat?

  • They could have calving problems.
  • During pregnancy, they will be prone to metabolic diseases, especially grass staggers and ketosis if there’s a check in feed supply or a cold snap.
  • They won’t milk well as their udders will be full of fatty tissue.
  • They’ll be fat and lazy and not want to move around the hills.
  • When you send them to the meat works, they’ll be severely downgraded.

How to do it?

  • Study the chart and check list article
  • Concentrate on learning to score from 5 back down to 2. If a cow is above CS 5, then she will not cause any problems.
  • Start off with the diagram and learn to find points 1 to 7 on the cow.
  • Then by feeling/looking at each point, use the chart to decide what score to give the cow.
  • Remember to start at CS 5 and go back down till you find the score to stop at.
  • Always be honest with yourself. It’s a good idea to go and score some cows you have just scored to make sure your assessments are highly repeatable.