Managing Malnourished Beef Cattle for the Coming Winter

— Written By and last updated by Kerri Rayburn
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The vast majority of beef cattle in our counties are very well cared for since this good production equals profit for the producer. However, as we move into winter, it becomes a challenge sometimes for even the best livestock producers to keep fat and muscle on the cow since forage and feed become less available. Cattle need to in good condition going into winter to handle cold and wet weather. Condition of cattle are scored on a system called the “Body Condition Score” (BCI) system which ranks cattle estimated energy reserves in the form of fat and muscle of beef cattle on a scale of 1-9 with 1 being extremely thin and 9 being very obese. The ideal number for cattle are too be around a 5-6 depending on the life stage of the cow, are they breeding or calving.

It is a good idea to inventory the entire herd, if possible. The most important thing to determine and record is the current body condition score of individual animals. How many cattle are body condition score 1, body condition score 2 or body condition score 3 and above? Cattle of body condition 3 and higher likely will not need special care. Cow – calf producers can score the cattle based on looking at the visibility of the back, tail head, pins, hooks, ribs and brisket of the cattle to be determined.

Body condition score 2 cattle are not physically weak but do have some muscle loss. Their spine is visible well above the surrounding area and all ribs are visible. The outline of the bones in the hip area is prominent and external body fat is not visible anywhere. Body condition score 1 cattle are thinner yet than body condition score 2 cattle and are weak. They may have trouble walking or standing up after lying down. Cattle of body condition 3 and higher likely will not need special care, but will need to be monitored because once a cow slips down to a 1-2 it will take extra effort with feed and nutrition to bring them back to a healthy state. If cattle reach an 8-9, then they considered well over weight and obese, which means too much effort and energy is becoming costly and unnecessary and don’t do well at the markets since the buyer can’t determine of they are buying fat or muscle due to too much fat. (Body Condition Chart)

Increasing one body condition score requires 50 to 100 pounds of body weight gain. Increasing body condition score is a long process, sometimes taking months to reach ideal body condition.

Body condition score 1 and 2 cattle should be fed only free choice hay for the first 10 days. After that time, supplemental feed can be fed beginning with 1 pound per head per day and increasing 1 pound every other day until a total of 5 to 7 pounds of supplemental feed is offered per head daily. While eating the hay and supplemental feed mixture, cattle may be gaining 0.50 to 0.75 pounds per day, depending on hay or pasture quality. While body condition score 3 or above cattle can regain lost condition by eating hay and pasture alone, having supplemental feed (grain, protein supplements, nutrition blocks and additional good hay) available will aid in them reaching ideal condition faster. Always make sure fresh unfrozen water is available at all times. Shelter from cold, low wind-chills and wet is needed so that the cattle are not burning fat and muscle reserves. The critical temperature for cows with a dry winter coat is 32 F or below as as a daily average means that cattle need to feed more just to maintain their present BCI, which underscores the need for cows to be in “good” BCI at the start of winter.

For more information, please contact Robert J. Hawk, County Extension Director of Jackson and Swain County at 586-4009 or 488-3848, email  Article information supplied by NC State Extension; NCDA; University of Tennessee Extension and Oklahoma State University Extension.