cow bull eating grass in a field

Is My Cow Too Skinny? Cows Assessment and Scoring

Cows scoring is a method used to evaluate a cow’s body condition. It involves assigning a numerical score to the cow based on its overall appearance and the amount of fat and muscle it has. Learn how to use the cow scoring system to evaluate their overall health and nutrition. Proper cow assessment is key to ensuring they remain healthy and productive.

To score cows, you can look at their overall appearance from the side and from the top. A cow in good body condition should have a rounded appearance without visible bones or a sunken-in appearance. You can also feel the amount of fat and muscle over the cow’s spine, ribs, hips, and tailhead.

So, have you been dreaming of a family milk cow with a healthy cattle body condition for raw milk, cream cheese, butter, and clanging milk pails? Have you been imagining a cool morning sunrise with the sweet smell of hay? Well, that works if you bought a piece of land. And it’s big enough to finally bring your gal home and start living the dream.

But what if your small pasture is lousy? They used to run horses on it. It’s full of weeds. The budget’s tight and you can’t afford to reseed. It’s not raining much this year so the grass isn’t growing. So, you need to improve your pasture.

A cow eating grass

My Experience with Cows Assessment

Does this description fit anyone besides me?

We’ve been dealing with raising a family milk cow on poor-quality pasture for many years now and while we’re finally implementing practices that have shown great improvement over the past year, we’re nowhere near where we’d like to be and it’s our job in the meanwhile to keep a close eye on our gals (for that family milk cow has turned into several) to make sure that their bodies are telling us they are fit and healthy. Also, do you wonder why we need to feed them with grains?

The best way to do that is to evaluate their “body condition.”

Assessing body condition in dairy cattle is NOT the same as doing so in beef cattle. The frame and build of each type of cow are different and should not be compared to evaluate health. That’s like comparing a Greyhound to a Basset Hound because they’re both dogs. You’ll either end up with fat unhealthy Greyhounds or a poor Basset that is starving half to death.

It’s hard not to compare. Trust me, I know. Sometimes it’s us doing the comparing, sometimes it’s well-meaning family, friends, or readers. Dairy cows always look so bony, but that’s ok. Even when they are fat and over-conditioned, they will still show some bones. Put your hands on those bones and you’ll realize they’re padded with fat!

Important Thing to Remember on Cow Assessment

Another thing to note as you observe and record the health of your milk cow by evaluating her body condition is that it will vary depending on where she is in her lactation. She should look her most fat and sassy just before giving birth. After she freshens and heads into peak lactation, her condition will begin to dip. By mid-lactation, if all goes well, she should be bred and will begin to start packing on the LB’s. And then you’ll dry her off a couple of months before calving and she’ll be right back at fat and sassy again. So it fluctuates. What you don’t want to see is the body condition at any point dropping below 2.5.

Frankly, I’ve noticed I start to feel worried around a 3, but then I remember I’m not looking at Maybelle anymore. (She was our old Dexter, a dual-purpose breed that doesn’t have the same bony frame of a Jersey.)

After reviewing several charts and diagrams on the internet, I feel like this one is the most helpful for a beginner. With it, let’s evaluate the gals we’re currently blessed to be milking morning and evening, shall we?

Cattle body condition chart

Cows Scoring

Evaluating the body condition of your cow is important to ensure that it is healthy and in good shape. A cow that is too skinny may not receive enough nutrition, which can lead to health problems and decreased productivity. On the other hand, a cow that is too fat may also have health issues and be unable to breed or produce milk efficiently.

To score your cow, you can evaluate its overall appearance and feel for the amount of fat and muscle it has. Look at the cow from the side and from the top to see if its body is round and full or if it appears hollow and thin. Feel for the amount of fat and muscle over its spine, ribs, hips, and tailhead.

Here is the evaluation of 4 of my cows.

1. Cows Scoring – Holly

Holly Rear View - Cattle body condition
Holly Side View - Cattle body condition

Average: cows score 2.375

First up is Holly. She’s our main family milk cow. A 6-year-old cull cow from an organic dairy farm. We got a sweet deal on her and desperately needed a lactating cow to nurse the calf born last year when the little heifer’s mama, Maybelle, died the day after she was born.

Holly freshened the last week of March, about 6 months ago. Sadly, she is NOT bred though the AI tech has been out to visit a couple of times over the last few months.

While she looks much better than she did last year, she doesn’t look as good as she did a couple of months ago and her condition might be continuing to slip. As we leave green grass season, will it get worse? Could this be why she isn’t getting bred back? The 2nd photo I think, isn’t quite showing her boniness really well. It was taken at dusk and shadowing that side.  Here’s a different angle… Again, not horrible, but not great either.

Cow's back and hips

2. Cows Scoring – Stella

Stella's Rear view - Cows Scoring
Stella's Side View - Cows Scoring

Average: cows score 3.6

Stella is one pretty gal. (And she’s a sweetheart too.) She had her first calf this year, not sure exactly when, but it was probably 6+ months ago. She’s probably about 2 1/2 years old.  It took 2 tries, but her second AI took and she’s going to calve in early June.

3. Cows Scoring – Candy

Candy's Rear View - Cows Scoring
Candy's Side View - Cows Scoring

Average: cows score 3.8

I think it’s a little harder to see how Candy is doing because of her stunningly beautiful coat. Candy is about the same age as Stella and had a calf around the same time, but her calf died. She’s smaller framed than the rest of our cows.  She is NOT bred, but that’s our fault. After a very demonstrative first heat cycle after coming to our farm, we didn’t observe any other symptoms of her going into heat after that. The blood tests don’t lie and so it turns out we were wrong and were missing the signs the last few months. We caught them this week (barely) and she had another visit from the AI tech earlier this week. Anyway, all things considered, we’re happy with the way Candy looks.

 4. Cows Scoring – Big Bertha

Big Bertha on the rear perspective
Big Bertha on the side view

Average: cows score 4.5

You haven’t met “Big Bertha” before. In fact, that’s not even her real name. We’re cow-sitting for a friend for a while and she has given me permission to discuss “Big Bertha’s” body condition for this post. By her assumed nickname, you may have gathered that “Big Bertha” is a big girl. She makes Holly look so short and Candy looks like a yearling!

“Big Bertha” is about 3 years old and calved for the first time this month as opposed to the rest of our gals who are in the middle of their lactation. “Big Bertha”, like all new moms, is… well there’s no way to say this delicately… carrying some extra weight.

As we go into the winter, she’ll lose some of it because of the change in diet that comes when the green grass dies and because she’s giving of herself to the milk bucket. Hopefully, she will, like all good milk cows except mine do, get pregnant and at that time she should start packing on the pounds again.

Anyway, you can see even without a chart, that “Big Bertha” has a solid covering of flesh over her hook bones and short ribs. Because of what point she is in her lactation, we don’t want Holly to be this fatty. After all, she isn’t a beef cow and shouldn’t look like one.

Final Thoughts on Cows’ Scoring

Regular monitoring of a cow’s body condition score is also important, as it can help identify any changes that may indicate a problem with the cow’s diet or health. If a cow’s body condition score drops below 4, for example, it may indicate that it is not receiving enough nutrition and adjustments should be made to its diet.

In addition to proper nutrition, providing cows with adequate exercise and access to clean water and shelter is also important for their overall health and well-being. Regular veterinary check-ups and vaccinations can also help prevent the spread of diseases and ensure that cows remain healthy and productive.

Overall, maintaining proper body condition in cows requires a combination of good nutrition, regular monitoring, and proper care and management.

Cattle body condition is an important matter to address. Through this, we can be aware of what is happening on our cow’s end, and also it helps us analyze the profit that we can earn.

All things considered, it looks like Holly is needing some TLC. We’re quite happy with the way Stella and Candy look and hope to keep it that way.  Holly’s condition will need to be improved until she looks more like her pasture mates. I’ll address the issue of our game plan in my next post.

Suggested Read: Easy Trick to Tell if Your Cow is Getting Enough To Eat

Learning How To Evaluate Cattle Body Condition

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  1. Hello Quin!
    We own a small hobby farm, and we had a couple questions about our Dexter milk cow.
    Jade, is an 8 year old cow and is new to us. She looks pretty similar to your cow Holly. She seems to stay really skinny even when she is pregnant, and she is pretty slow and does not have very much energy. She has a constant flow of food, and we give her grain occasionally.
    We were just wondering if we should be concerned for her, and if so, how we should get her healthy and up to speed.
    Thank you so much for your information, we found it extremely helpful!!

  2. Cow condition is all very interesting. I know I’ve worried about Bessy at times. She’s in gorgeous condition at the moment, but then this is the time when we have optimal feed in the paddocks & we’ve been working diligently over the years to try & have good pastures. I do, however, need to get her bred. I was going to try AI, but haven’t got around to it. One reason is because we live so far away from the only vet around who does it it’s going to cost over $200 in travel alone each time she comes out. I can justify it if we get Bessy & Chocco done at the same time, but I hate to think of spending the money & then it not working. If I continue to procrastinate we need to dry her off for Christmas so I’ll send her to the bull then ( although I would love to get a pure jersey out of her & train it up as a future milk cow).
    It is interesting how very different dairy cattle’s condition is to beef cattle. We actually sent Chocco (half beef/ half jersey) to the local school fete because we were worried that the people in town who don’t know about cattle condition would think Bess was too skinny ~ even though she was fine. Chocco has that extra padding her cross breeding gives ( while still being a good milker! YAY!).
    I’d better go. I need to tell you that Ellie thinks your Candy is the prettiest cow she’s ever seen!!
    Have a lovely day

    1. Well after our experience with AI this year, I don’t blame you one bit Renata for being apprehensive about paying so much to get a tech out there! That’s crazy?! What does she fuel her car with, melted gold? If you do decide to go for it, look into using a hormone that would sync their cycles (it’s called lutalyse here). You’d have to dump the milk for several days, but at least then you’d know for sure they were in heat and at the same time. Praying that you find an easier solution to the problem than even that though!

      I agree with Ellie wholeheartedly! I’m a sucker for that hide. Plus she’s such a sweet girl. We actually were assessing the herd this morning and as we contemplated Candy’s future here, I told Bill I’d sell him first 😉

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