July 12, 2011

Skinny Cow or Fat Cow

 I seem to get my inspiration of topics for the blog from posting on facebook or other blogs from non-ag people questioning what we do.  I find that it is not their fault for not understanding what we do as farmers and rancher to put safe food on their table and give our livestock the care and respect they deserve.  I feel that it is my job as a farmer/rancher to educate those who have been so far removed from agriculture and help them understand that what is black and white to them may be pink and blue to me and that there is a purpose behind it.  Today I was reading some posts on a Humane Watch post about how Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and several local Animal Shelters have publicly announced that they are against what HSUS (Humane Society of America) is about and their agendas.  There was a video shown on the news cast of some cows and calves in a corral having a good time with all the out of normal attention they were getting with the film crew.  One of the comments stated that they couldn't believe that those cows were so skinny and starved looking.  I looked at the cows again and based on my research oriented mind set and first hand experience raising beef cattle thought that the cattle were to be in really good condition and extremely healthy.  I wrote back and gave my professional opinion as a daily care giver to a herd of cattle, explained the Body Condition Score System and the importance of not OVER or UNDER Feeding cattle.  There is a fine line between a cow that is too thin and a cow that is too fat.  A cow that is either too fat or to thin will have many problems from the begining of the life cycle (having normal estrus cycles to become pregnant) all the way to giving birth to a live healthy calf safely for both the cow and newborn calf.  We expect our cows to give birth to a calve every 12 months.  In order for them to be able to do this they have to give birth, heal up from the birthing process, and become able to conceive another calf approximately 3 months after giving birth.  All the while she is also producing milk for the calf at her side.  This requires a me to provide my cows detailed and good nutrient management plan including the right amount of protein, energy, vitamins, minerals and water at each stage of her production cycle.  Thin cows will have a harder time calving do to the lack of energy, their calves tend to be slow to get up and nurse, the cows colostrum (first milk that provides the calf with his first shot of immunization and quick energy and protein) is of lower quality, and these cows struggle to get themselves back into shape to be able to physiologically conceive another calf 3 months later.  The only way to help these cows is to feed them a lot of protein and energy after they have calved to increase their body weight to a productively stable weight.  If we feed them too much protein and energy before the calve in the 3rd trimester, the cows body will give the extra nutrients to her unborn calf and the calf can become too large for a safe birth.  Cows that are too fat also have the same problems of difficult births due to both fat build up in the pelvic area and calves that tend to be extremely larger than desired, the larger calves are often lethargic and do not thrive well with out extra care.  These cows also have a hard time being able to breed back with in 3 months, may be more do to the hormone imbalances that are created from the extra fat (fat tissue releases hormones that can interfere with reproductive hormones) and the extra fat around the reproductive system doesn't help matters. 
This picture shows the areas of the cow where we look for condition.  Condition is a subjective measurement of how much tissue (fat and muscle) cover the skeletal system.   Along with distinguishing if the cover is fat or muscle.
    Through science and research, scientist have come up with a Body Condition Score System which ranges from 1 to 9 with 1 being a cow that is so thin she is nearly deceased and a 9 being fatter than a steer ready for harvest.  Research has show that the most reproductively efficient cows are in a body score between 5 and 6 at the time that they give birth.  Some ranchers (including myself) prefer their first calf heifers (cows that have not had a calf yet) to be closer to the 6 at birth.  These younger heifers are still growing themselves and they respond better if they have more condition.  Research has shown accurately that maintaining your cow herd at a 5 to 6 body score the cows will have a higher probability of having less difficulty giving birth safely (both for the cow and calf), have better quality colostrum, produce more milk for the nursing calf, and re-breed timely to calve 365 days after the last calf.  Here come the pictures!

Body Score of 2.  Notice the thin nature of the cow, you can see her hip bones, ribs, back bone and front shoulder.  There is very little muscle tone in her hind legs, and along her back.  Her hair is also not clean and shiney looking either.

Body Score 5.  Cows in ideal condition will have a smooth look to them, you can not see individual rib or back bones, she doesn't have a lot of fat under her neck or brisket area.  She also has good muscle tone in her back legs, shoulders and back.
Body Score 6.  She looks smooth like the 5 but there is some fat deposit around her tail, under her neck and in her flank area.  Still an ideal condition.
Body Score 7. Starting to loose the smooth appreance and is starting to have a "bubbly" appearance.  The "bubbly" parts are fat deposits and are noticable around her tail and neck/brisket area.

Body Score 9.  The bubbly appearance gets worse!  You can see she has started to show fat deposits in her belly, shoulder, and hip areas along with the tail and neck areas.  It also takes a lot of $$ in feed to keep cows this heavy and is not economically efficient.
 At our farm/ranch we body condition score our cattle 3 times a year.  We look at each cow and give her a score and them and average them together to get our herd average.  We average the mature cows (3 yrs old and older) as 1 group and the first calf heifers (2 yrs old) as a separate group.  We score them right before they calve (Late February), again at weaning (5-6 months later, Sept), and when check the cows for pregnancy (Late Nov/Dec).  This tells us if we are doing a good job with our nutrition program.  Our goals are to have the mature herd average 5.25-5.5 before calving, 5 at weaning and 5.5 at pregnancy diagnosis.  The heifers we expect to see a 6 before calving, 5.25 at weaning, and back to a 5.5-6 at pregnancy diagnosis.  We want the cows to put some weight back on late fall after the calves have been weaned so that they can successfully make it through our cold snowy winters while minimizing the amount of extra feed needed to keep them looking good!!

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