Condition Scoring Cattle (for Fun and Profit)

Three brown cows in a row, eating hay in early spring.

By Harry Brook

diagramCondition scoring cattle is a hands-on way of measuring the fat thickness over the back, tail head, hook and pin bones, ribs and brisket in a cow. It is a fairly direct way of measuring energy reserves in a cow and is linked to reproductive performance. It directly affects how easily a cow will winter and rebreed in the spring after calving.

This system is used both in Canada and the U.S., although there is a difference in numbers. The Canadian system uses a 1 to 5 system with 1 being extremely thin and 5 being grossly obese. We also use half steps to describe condition score. This corresponds to the U.S. system of 1 to 9. Another way to look at a good condition score is to think of it as an energy bank account the animal can draw on in cold, adverse weather conditions.

The best times for condition scoring are at weaning of the calf, 2 – 3 months before calving and at calving. Ideally, you want your pregnant cows going into the winter in a condition score of 3 to 3.5. This then gives you leeway if winter is severe. It is extremely expensive, in terms of feed, to try to get cows to gain condition under winter conditions. Over the course of the year, a cow can have a condition score ranging from 1.5 (having a calf sucking in early spring) to 3.5 (dry cow on good pasture) with no adverse effects. The problems come with cattle being too thin going into a cold winter or poor feed quality.

Hair coat can hide a lot of nutritional shortages. That is why it is so critical to put your hands on the cow and feel that fat coverage. Thin cows with a condition score below 2 are not only reproductively inefficient, but also more susceptible to health and calving problems. The other end of the spectrum is equally as bad. Over-condition cows over a 4 are most expensive to maintain. Fat is deposited along the birth canal and calving can be difficult. Below is a chart showing comparable pregnancy rates related to U.S. condition scores.

condition scoring graph

Condition scoring is a valuable tool to help improve the profitability of your cow herd. It is just another simple tool to aid you in good management. If you don’t use it now, maybe you should try it out.

Harry Brook is Flagstaff County’s Agricultural Fieldman. He can be reached via email at: or by phone at: 780-384-4138.