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Keys to a Productive Beef Cattle Breeding Season

As a beef producer, you know the shorter the breeding season the shorter the calving season. Meaning, heavier more uniform calves at market and more money in your pocket.

The average breeding season is about 60-90 days, but the window cows can be bred is only two to three days a month.

According to South Dakota State University, the benchmark goals for a successful breeding season is to achieve 65% bred cows in the first 21 days of the season with 90% and 95% bred by days 42 and 64.

To achieve these goals, a successful breeding season needs to start at weaning by keeping nutrients focused on body condition scores and reproduction for the next calf.

4 Keys to a Productive Breeding Season

The keys to a productive breeding season focus on body condition scores, nutrition and energy and good management practices. If these requirements are met, breeding season and every season after take care of themselves.

Keys to a Productive Beef Cattle Breeding Season

1. Managing Body Condition Scores

“The single most important thing on a cow-calf operation is body condition scores,” said Dr. Jeff Hill, senior ruminant nutritionist at Ralco.

Body condition scores impact both cow and calf performance, and ultimately, the overall profitability of an operation.

Cows need to be at least a 5 or 6 body condition score at calving. If cows are borderline 5, you might need to increase the energy content of feedstuffs. This can be done by incorporating corn, distillers dried grains (DDGs), better quality hay and silage, or feed ingredients that help get more nutrients out of your forage.

If cows get too thin and reach a body condition of 3 or less, they will stop cycling. Think of it like this: after calving, cows are diverting nutrients to themselves, milk for their calf and then reproduction. If the extra demand for nutrients is not met to cover each area, body reserves of fat are depleted and reproduction stops. Meaning, cows stop cycling.

According to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, on average cows that calve in a body condition of 3 or 4 have difficulty exhibiting their first heat or cycle by day 80. This can significantly impact the length of the calving season. A healthy cow should be cycling within 40-60 days post-calving.

Related: 3 Tips for Getting Cows Cycling with Lower Body Condition Scores

Tips for How to Body Condition Score Cattle

The key areas for scoring cattle on body condition are the back, pins, tailhead, hooks, ribs and brisket. The table and images below can help guide you when scoring your cows.

Remember, a body condition of 5 is the ideal score you want for a successful breeding season. Body condition scores 4-6 are the most common conditions you will need to recognize.

If this is your first time body condition scoring cows, try separating cows into groups of thin, medium and fat. This will help you determine the scale. Thin cows get a score of 1-3, medium are a 4-6 and fat are 7-9.

How to Evaluate Body Condition Scores of Cattle


Description of Body Condition Scores


Severely emaciated animal. All ribs and bone structure easily visible. Physically weak; animal 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 on 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

Cow with a Body Condition Score of 4

Cow with a Body Condition Score of 4

Cow with a Body Condition Score of 5

 Cow with a Body Condition Score of 5

Cow with a Body Condition Score of 6

Cow with a Body Condition Score of 6

2. Implementing Mineral Programs for 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 reproduction.

According to Oklahoma State University, the following minerals should be monitored and supplemented for 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 both 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.

It is 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 prior to calving and up to the breeding season. If you wait until the start of the breeding season there is not enough time to affect change.

Implementing a Beef Mineral Programs for Reproduction

“Beef producers need to know that not all mineral is created equal,” said Dr. Hill.

Most minerals miss the mark with improper levels and ratios because they don’t account for forage mineral levels or factor in the bioavailability of the mineral in the animal. This impacts absorption and added minerals are then wasted. Always consult with a nutritionist before implementing a mineral program on your ranch.

Related: How Mineral Nutrition Impacts Beef Cattle Reproduction

3. Managing Bulls for Breeding Season

Don’t forget the bulls. Bulls are often overlooked going into breeding season, but they must also be evaluated and prepared.

For starters, bulls must be in a body condition of at least 6 heading into breeding season. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln states that bulls with a body condition of 6 will have better semen quality than those in a 4 or 7. Furthermore, bulls may lose 100-200 pounds during the breeding season, so the extra body condition score of 6 is needed to sustain those losses.

These extra body condition gains need to be acquired in the winter or at least 90 days before breeding. It is recommended to do this by increasing the energy content of your forages or getting more nutrients out of your existing feedstuffs by increasing forage digestibility.

Managing Bulls for Breeding Season

Bull with a body condition score of 6.

It is also important to have annual breeding soundness exams done on bulls before breeding season. This fertility exam should be done well in advance of the breeding season to determine semen quality and the likelihood of your bull impregnating healthy, cycling cows.

4. Preparing for Heat Stress & Flies

Lastly, it is important to be prepared for the enemies of breeding season – heat stress and flies. For example, while these stressors might not be present on May 1 when you turn out bulls, they will be 60-90 days later in July when you take bulls off pasture.

Heat stress can impact bull 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.

During heat stress, the testes can become so hot that all the sperm will become inactive and die. 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. First, a cow’s natural reaction to heat stress is to shunt blood flow from the core to the extremities to disperse the heat. This results in decreased blood flow to the uterus, causing early embryonic loss or reduced fertility as cows stop cycling.

Preparing for Heat Stress & Flies in Cattle

Heat stressed steer showing symptoms of heat stress with panting and drooling.

Flies will also begin 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 heat stress even further.

It is recommended to use fly control methods like garlic can help reduce crowding in the summer months and provide plenty of shade and fresh water. It is not advised to work cattle during the day or stress them. Lastly, new research shows that feed ingredients in mineral supplements can help keep cattle cooler in the summer months.

Related: Cattle Mineral with Garlic: A Beef Producer’s Experience

Having a Productive Breeding Season with Ralco

Breeding season is high-stakes and high pressure on every ranch, but it does not have to be.

For the last 50 years, Ralco has been helping beef producers prepare for breeding season by keeping their cows and calves focused on converting nutrients to growth, resulting in higher body condition scores, heavier calves and better reproduction performance.

Vital nutrients are often lost and underutilized, especially during times of challenge or stress, silently eroding the health and performance of your livestock and operation. We work with you to keep your nutrients focused on production, reproduction and your bottom line.

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.

To learn more, reach out to Ralco’s ruminant specialist Dr. Jeff Hill by calling 507-337-6916 or emailing

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