According to the National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS), nearly 30% of cow-calf producers don’t keep any records at all. That figure astounds John Jaeger, beef scientist at the Kansas State University Ag Research Center in Hays. “How can you manage?” he asks. “How can you deal with a drought of this magnitude?”

Jaeger subscribes to the oft-quoted theory that you can’t manage what you don’t measure. He says performance records, especially in a drought, are management tools to make informed decisions and plan ahead, “rather than getting to a point where we are in a panic situation and reacting rather than managing.”

However, looking again at NAHMS data, Jaeger is fully aware that three-fourths of cow-calf operations, representing 85% of the cows in the country, only work cattle through a chute once or twice a year. “So it makes it a little difficult to get a lot of production measures to use as management tools during a drought,” he says. “But there are ways around that.”

Among the best ways around that, he says, is to body condition score (BCS) your cows at least twice a year, and four times if possible. “All measures of production are affected to some extent by the nutritional status of the cow, which BCS indicates.”

Cattlemen should shoot for a BCS 4 or 5, he says. Anything beyond a BCS 5 usually isn’t economically feasible to maintain. Meanwhile, a BCS 5 indicates a healthy cow on an adequate plane of nutrition for both her and her calf. Anything less than a BCS 4 is indicative of a problem.

So what can condition-scoring your cows tell you? A lot of things, he says. Take, for instance, a cow’s ability to rebreed after calving. Going from a BCS 3 to a 4, he says, gains about 20 days. “We get about 10 more from a 4 to a 5,” he says. In other words, a BCS 5 cow will start cycling about a month earlier than a BCS 3 cow.

If you’re trying to maintain a 365-day calving interval, cows at a BCS 4.5 to 5 will get you there. Anything less than that and you could start backing up.

Then there’s calf health. In a drought, the chance for weak-calf syndrome or dummy calves increases. “Inadequate protein and/or energy intake by the dam is the primary cause,” he says. “Remember that 50% of the (fetal) growth occurs the last 60 days. Make sure they have adequate protein, because protein has been proven to be the primary predisposing factor for weak-calf syndrome,” he says.

Which means your cows need to be either maintaining or gaining in BCS the last 60 days of pregnancy. If they’re going backward, so are you.

Jaeger says the key times to BCS your cows are pre-breeding; preg checking or weaning; pre-calving; and post-calving at turnout. “With that being said, if you measure BCS pre-breeding and again at preg-checking or weaning, and you see a half BCS decrease, and you  haven’t had adequate rain (during your peak growing season), you can’t go by BCS,” he says. “You have to go by environment and what forage availability looks like.”

Keeping tally of your BCS is easy and low-tech, he says. Get a tablet, write BCS 3, 4 and 5 across the top, and draw lines down the paper to make columns. Then make hash marks in each column corresponding to how you BCS the cow.

Add up your tally marks, multiply by the BCS number at the top, and divide by the total number of cows. That gives you the number of cows in each BCS and the average BCS of your herd.

If you have any hash marks in the BCS 3 column, you have some management decisions to make. “You know these girls are in trouble and you want to move them up to at least a 4,” Jaeger says. “Depending on what time of year it is, it may be difficult. But you definitely want to move the 4s into 5s. So early weaning, sorting and implementing some culling strategies” may be called for.

“Those are things you know,” he says. “But act quickly. Act before you’re in a panic.”

 

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