Part 5: Body Conditioning Score Series: Forage System Management
Each individual cow-calf operation is a unique and complex system of various inputs and factors that drive management decisions and animal health and profitability outcomes. If cow-calf producers and their veterinarians think in terms of this complex system, they may begin to understand complex problems affecting the system that are often not solved with simple, one step solutions such as administering an antibiotic or vaccine. The problems encountered by cow-calf producers in their operations are often influenced by numerous factors, some of which we can change (i.e. hired-labor), and others we cannot (i.e. weather). Solutions to these problems require producers and their veterinarians to address those component causes of the problem that offer the most leverage in the system. Cow-calf operations across the U.S. depend on forage production as the basis of nutrition for their production system throughout the year. Regardless of location, most cow-calf producers will at some point throughout the year depend on hay as the primary source of nutrition for their herd. Too often cow-calf producers attempt to save money when feeding hay by either purchasing low quality hay, or if harvesting their own, wait until the forage is mature before harvesting in order to maximize yield. The consequences of inadequate forage quality and quantity ultimately result in poor body condition and decreased cow-productivity. The diagram below is useful in describing the problem that arises as cow BCS decreases on a cow-calf operation:
The diagram in Figure 1 displays a common system in beef cow-calf operations, and the influence of BCS on cow-calf operation profitability. The “S’s” and “O’s” indicate the variables moving in either the “Same” or “Opposite” directions. As average body condition score decreases, cow productivity decreases because more cows end up open, illness and death occur more often, and calf performance falls. As cow productivity decreases, stocking density increases because producers often purchase cattle to make up for those culled prematurely for being open, or because they need more head per acre to make up for poor performance by their herd. As stocking density increases, forage availability decreases as cattle overgraze and the producer cannot allocate acres to hay production, and ultimately fewer acres of hay are harvested at a greater level of maturity in an effort to maximize yield. As forage availability decreases, body condition decreases because cows do not have enough grass to graze in the summer, and the hay they are maintained on in the winter is of poorer quality because the producer was forced to constrict acres of hay production to meet grazing needs. This downward spiral will continue because this is a “reinforcing” loop, meaning it will continue to get worse over time. Leverage points in this example would be investing in supplement that improves BCS, thereby improving body condition score. Managing BCS in cow-calf systems is essential to the overall productivity of the operation. Considering multiple factors influence and are influenced by BCS can help you and your veterinarian better manage the profitability of your cow-calf operation.