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Body condition scores of United States beef cattle fall onto a one to nine scale

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

“Body condition scoring (BCS) is one tool that can help us be proactive, instead of reactive, in our beef cowherd,” states Penny Nester with the North Dakota State University Carrington Research Extension Center.

Although cows in Canada and dairy cows are scored differently, beef cattle in the U.S. are scored on a scale of one to nine.

Condition scores

“A BCS of one is a severely emaciated animal. We are not going to see any fat or muscle, the cow’s bones will be visible and all of the key marker points will be extremely prominent,” Nester explains.

Key marker points include the tail head, hooks, pins, ribs, back along the cow’s vertebrae and the brisket.

“A BCS one cow isn’t usually standing, so this is not where we want any of the animals in our herd to be,” she adds.

BCS two indicates some slight muscle development in the animal but still categorizes a severely emaciated cow.

“We are not going to see any fat, and we will see bones visible in all of the key marker areas,” she continues.

Fore-ribs and most of the vertebrae extensions throughout a cow’s back will be visible at a BCS three. Hooks, pins and tail head are still going to be prominent, and there will be some muscle loss.

“Fore-ribs begin to not be visible at BCS four. The 12th and 13th ribs will still be visible,” notes Nester.

Hooks and pins will still show definition, but there will be muscling on the cow.

“We are going to see a decrease in the muscling of the hindquarters and in the forequarters as well,” she explains.

Ideal condition

The key score for body condition in a mature cow is a five, indicating an animal that is neither fat nor thin.

“We will see flesh cover on all of the bones,” states Nester.

Smoother in appearance, a cow with a BCS of six will have some fat on the back and tail head and no ribs will be visible.

“This is what our goal is for heifers and maybe other young cattle, depending on genetics,” she says.

A score of seven indicates an animal that is starting to look fat along its back and tail head.

“In these cows, we are starting to see over-conditioning. We will start to see fat working into the brisket, and these cows will be really smooth in appearance,” she comments.

A body score of seven may also indicate that an animal has a rippled or cellulite type of appearance.

Upper end

“At a BCS of eight, we will get a smooth, block appearance,” she continues. “We will start to see some dimples in the hindquarters and a lot of fat in the brisket, and they will jiggle when they walk.”

A BCS of nine is a severely over-conditioned animal, with all of its key marker points buried in fat.

“Hopefully we don’t have any of these cattle in our herd. These animals are going to be so over-conditioned that they don’t even jiggle when they walk or, in this case, waddle,” Nester explains.

Scoring cows

When scoring cows, producers should be sure to look at the key marker points as indicators, instead of the animal’s mid-section.

“If a cow is on a high forage diet, she is going to have a full belly,” Nester notes.

She also suggests using a scorecard or guide when scoring cattle, to remain objective when marking condition.

“Also, if we see those cows every single day, we can have a neighbor come over to score them. The neighbor can take an objective view and provide an opinion about what the average BCS is in our herd,” she adds.

Producers can use scores to determine if their herd needs to be on a different feeding program or if they need to be sorted out for different nutrient requirements so that all of the cows’ needs are being met.

“A proper body condition,” according to Nester, “has an affect on services per conception, calving intervals, pregnancy rates and calf survival and performance.”

To view Penny Nester’s review of body condition scoring, visit

Natasha Wheeler is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be contacted at

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