As a beef producer, you already know that a shorter breeding season means a shorter calving season. This translates to heavier and more consistent calves at market, ultimately putting more money in your pocket.
While the average breeding season lasts about 60-90 days, cows can only be bred during a brief window of two to three days each month.
According to South Dakota State University, the key to a successful breeding season is achieving specific benchmarks. They recommend having 65% of cows bred within the first 21 days, and 90% to 95% bred by days 42 and 64.
To meet these goals, it’s crucial to start preparing for the breeding season at weaning.
By focusing on maintaining optimal body condition scores and prioritizing reproduction for the next calf, you can ensure a successful breeding season and maximize your profits.
What is the Ideal Body Condition of Cattle at Breeding?
To ensure optimal breeding performance, cows should have a body condition score (BCS) of at least 5 or 6 at the time of calving and maintain a 5 throughout breeding. If cows are borderline 5 or lower, it may be necessary to increase the energy content of their feed. This can be achieved by incorporating corn, distillers dried grains (DDGs), high-quality hay and silage for extra nutrients.
"For cow-calf operations, nothing is more important than maintaining optimal body condition scores," according to Dr. Jeff Hill, a renowned senior ruminant nutritionist at Ralco. Body condition scores play a significant role in the performance of cows and calves, ultimately determining the operation's profitability.
If cows become too thin and reach a body condition score of 3 or less, they will stop cycling. Essentially, after calving, cows prioritize nutrient allocation for themselves, milk production for their calf and reproduction. If the demand for additional nutrients is unmet in each area, the cow’s fat reserves deplete, resulting in a halt in reproduction. In other words, the cow stops cycling.
According to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, cows that calve with a body condition score of 3 or 4 typically experience difficulty starting their first cycle by day 80. This can significantly impact the length of the calving season. Ideally, a healthy cow should resume cycling within 40-60 days after calving.
How to Body Condition Score Cattle
Scoring cattle on body condition focuses on a few key areas such as the back, pins, tailhead, hooks, ribs and brisket. Again, to ensure a successful breeding season, it's important to aim for a body condition score of 5 or 6. The most common body condition scores to recognize are 4-6.
If you’re new to scoring cattle, it may be helpful to group the cows into categories of thin, medium and fat. Thin cows score between 1-3, medium cows score between 4-6 and fat cows score between 7-9. Check out the table and images below for guidance.
Cattle Body Condition Score Chart
Description of Body Condition Scores
Severely emaciated animal. All ribs and bone structures are easily visible. The animal is physcially weak and has difficulty standing or walking. No external fat present by sight or touch.
Emaciated animal. Similar to body condition score of 1, but not weakened.
Very thin. No visible fat on the ribs or brisket. Individual muscles in the hindquarters are easily visible, and spinous processes are very apparent.
Thin. Ribs and pin bones are easily visible, and fat is not apparent by palpation of ribs or pin bones. Individual muscles in the hindquarters are apparent.
Ribs are less apparent than in body condition score of 4, and there is less than 0.2 inches of fat over the ribeye. Last two or three ribs can be felt easily. No fat in the brisket. At least 0.4 inches of fat can be palpated over pin bones. Individual muscles in the hindquarters are not apparent.
Smooth appearance throughout. Some fat deposition in the brisket. Individual ribs are not visible - about 0.4 inches of fat on the pin bones and the last two or three ribs.
Brisket is full. Tailhead and pin bones have protruding fat deposits on them. Back appears square due to fat. Indentation over the spine due to fat on each side. Between 0.4 and 0.8 inches of fat on the last two to three ribs.
Obese. Back is very square. Brisket is distended with fat. Large protruding deposits of fat on tail head and pin bones. Neck is thick. Between 1.2 and 1.8 inches of fat on the last three ribs. Large indentation over the spine.
Very obese. Description similar to body condition score of 8 but to a greater extreme.
Source: Table and images from New Mexico State University
Cattle Body Condition Score of 4
Cattle Body Condition Score of 5
Cow with a Body Condition Score of 6
Best Minerals for Cattle Reproduction
Mineral nutrition is also critical for a productive breeding season. Macro and micro trace minerals, including phosphorus, copper, manganese, zinc and selenium, all play a vital role in cattle reproduction.
It’s recommended that a well-balanced mineral be given year-round to cows. The most important time to focus on a solid mineral program would be 30 days before calving and up to the breeding season. If you wait until the start of the breeding season there isn’t enough time to affect change.
According to Oklahoma State University, the following minerals should be supplemented for optimal cattle reproduction.
Phosphorus is a macromineral and a major component of bone structure. It also plays an important role in cell growth, energy utilization and cell membrane structure. Phosphorus deficiencies in cattle look like weak and brittle bones, infertility, reduced feed intake and feed efficiency and reduced milk production.
Manganese is a trace mineral that is needed for bone growth and fertility in cows. Signs of deficiencies include skeletal abnormalities in young cattle, such as stiffness, twisted legs and reduced bone strength. Another indicator is low reproductive performance, with abortions, stillbirths and low birth weights.
Copper is an important trace mineral and cofactor in many enzyme systems, including iron absorption, connective tissue metabolism and immune function. Signs of copper deficiency in cattle include anemia, reduced growth rate, dulling of the hair and rough coat, diarrhea, reduced fertility, increased abomasum ulcers in newborn calves and increased bacterial infections.
Zinc and selenium are required for specific enzyme processes in the cow and can play a significant role in reproduction. Zinc deficiencies include reduced testicular growth, swollen and cracked hooves, skin lesions, slowed wound healing and reduced fertility in cows and bulls. Selenium deficiencies include white muscle disease, reproductive failure, increased incidence of retained placentas, increased calf mortality and reduced calf weaning weights.
Many breeder minerals overlook the importance of forage mineral levels and fail to consider the bioavailability of minerals to the animal. This leads to poor absorption and wasted nutrients. It's essential to consult with a nutritionist before starting a mineral program on your ranch.
Managing Bulls for Breeding Season
Bulls are often overlooked going into breeding season, but they also must be evaluated and prepared.
To get your bulls in prime shape for breeding season, their body condition should be at least a 6. Studies show that bulls with a body condition of 6 have superior semen quality compared to those with a 4 or 7.
Plus, during the breeding season, bulls can lose a significant amount of weight, ranging from 100-200 pounds. To counteract this, it’s essential to have an extra body condition score of 6 to sustain those losses.
To achieve extra body condition, it’s recommended to increase the energy content of feed in the winter or at least 90 days before breeding. Try boosting the energy of their forages or improving the nutrients in your existing feedstuffs by increasing forage digestibility.
Bull with a body condition score of 6.
It’s also important to have annual breeding soundness exams done on bulls before breeding season. This fertility exam should be done well before breeding season to determine semen quality and the likelihood of your bull impregnating healthy, cycling cows.
Preparing for Heat Stress & Flies
Lastly, it’s important to prepare for the enemies of breeding season – heat stress and flies. While these stressors might not be present on May 1 when bulls are turned out, they will be 60-90 days later in July when you take bulls off pasture.
Heat stress can impact fertility. Beyond the obvious impact of heat stress, such as reduced feed intake and increased physical activity during the breeding season, heat stress can impact semen quality.
With high temperatures, the testes can become so hot that the sperm becomes inactive and dies. This complicates breeding season because it takes about 48 days for new sperm to be produced and mature, which can cause 60 days of sterility.
The impact of heat stress on the cow is also detrimental. A cow’s natural reaction to heat stress is to shunt blood flow from the core to the extremities to disperse the heat. This decreases blood flow to the uterus, causing early embryonic loss or reduced fertility as cows stop cycling.
Heat-stressed steer showing symptoms of heat stress with panting and drooling.
Flies start agitating cattle with warmer temperatures. According to Michigan State University, cattle that are stressed from heat and flies will often huddle together. However, this defense mechanism increases the temperature in that environment and makes it even harder for cattle to dissipate heat, escalating the problem further.
It’s recommended to use fly control methods to help reduce crowding and provide plenty of shade and fresh water. It’s not advised to work cattle during the day or stress them. Lastly, new research shows that feed ingredients like garlic in mineral supplements can help also ward off flies and keep cattle cooler in the summer months.
Get a Better Breeding Season with Ralco
Breeding season is high-stakes and high pressure on every ranch, but it doesn’t have to be. For over 50 years, Ralco has been helping beef producers prepare for breeding season by keeping their cows and calves healthy and focused on growth, resulting in higher body condition scores, heavier calves and better reproductive performance.
From high-quality mineral to feed additives that improve reproduction rates, minimize heat stress and mitigate flies, we have solutions to help keep your cattle efficient and healthy this breeding season.