Managing house cow body condition

by Elizabeth Beavis
Dairy cows are naturally skinnier than beef cows. They are bred to produce milk, not meat! But it can be tricky to know whether your cow is too skinny, or too fat, as both can cause serious problems.

house cow ebook - cow body condition
Bella a few weeks of calving and Molly inspecting my boot

A useful method for assessing cow condition is the “body condition score”, which is basically a method of ranking how boney a cow looks (more details with lots of photos of different cows here, see a chart for cow, horse, sheep and dog body condition here). Look at your cow and how many ribs and spine bones you can see, and how her tail sits, and give her an average score. A diary cow should be around 2.5-3, ideally you will see the back three ribs, but not the front ones.

Every cow is different though, and a cow’s body condition will change over time, early in her lactation when your cow is giving the most milk she will lose condition (get skinnier). Some cows seem to just give everything they’ve got to make more milk and get skinnier and skinnier until you dry them up (Molly has had to be dried up early both lactations because she was getting too skinny no matter what we fed her). Ideally your cow should have the opportunity to put on condition (get fatter) in the weeks before she has her next calf, and this should happen naturally as her body stops producing milk. But don’t let her get TOO fat either, as that can cause birthing difficulties.

Throughout your cow’s lactation its really important to monitor her condition and adjust her feed and milking routine to keep her in around a 2.5-3. If she does get too skinny or too fat, she won’t cycle and get into calf again. She could also have compromised health. See “Keeping a family cow” for more information on cow digestion and optimal feeding. Your cow is an expensive investment, and in order to get the most from her, you need to look after her and provide her with top quality feed. If pasture is not available, then good quality hay is essential. You may also supplement with grain for extra protein, and you MUST provide additional minerals.

If your cow losses weight suddenly with no corresponding increase in milk production or change in diet (i.e. no obvious reason for it), she is probably unwell. There are a few possible reasons, some more serious than others. If the cow seems alert and otherwise well, you might have a bit of time to eliminate some of the possibilities, but if she is clearly unwell, contact your vet immediately. The first cause that comes to mind is worms. We use copper sulphate and diatomaceous earth to worm our cows, and don’t regularly use a chemical wormer, but if a cow loses weight suddenly, you should try to get a stool sample to a vet for a worm count and the chemical wormer might be your quickest option to get that under control if you have a positive result.

Another important sign of ill health is your cow’s coat. It she is getting all the nutrients she needs, she should have a smooth, sleek coat, it will be longer in winter, but it should never be rough and patchy.

If you're new to cows you might not be familiar with how they should look, so I hope this helps to monitor the health of your house cows from their appearance.  Any questions or suggestions?

Skinny Cow (rating 2) - this is Molly just after we weaned her calf, probably on the skinny side, but the more we fed her, the more milk she made, some cows are just like that.  All we could do was wean her calf, dry her off and feed her as much hay as she could eat.  She eventually gained the weight (put on condition), but we will have to manage this with her next calf (possibly wean the calf early again).

you can see all her ribs, including the back "pin bones"

house cow ebook - cow body condition
hip bones very prominent

house cow ebook - cow body condition
tail sunken

Fat Cow (rating 3.5-4) - Bella had a year off having a calf and milking, so she got a little too fat.  This is what you would want a feeder steer to look like before going to the sale yards!  Not a cow!

house cow ebook - cow body condition
you can hardly see any ribs

hip bones not visible

tail raised

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