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Determining Body Condition Score in Your Sheep

29 October 2015

ANALYSIS - Optimal body condition on the ewe flock and the weaned lamb crop is important to ensure the success of the flock throughout the production cycle, writes Andrew Schafer.

There are two segments of the operation where Body Condition Score (BCS) is of large importance. These segments include monitoring the pregnant and lactating ewes, as well as monitoring the growth of the weaned lambs.

In order to evaluate the sheep, they must be caught and felt. It is extremely difficult to visually evaluate BCS on sheep due to the wool covering. Shearing can often times be very eye opening since the ewe can now be seen in true form. The fat ewe you thought you had could end up being very thin.

It is import for the ewe flock to maintain a consistent BCS of around 3. To better understand when the ewe may require extra inputs to maintain optimal BCS, a firm understanding of the production cycle is needed.

In the autumn, once the ewe’s lambs are weaned, her intake requirement is lower. This time of the year the flock can be on coast, hence they do not need additional nutrient inputs. During the last six weeks of pregnancy the fetal nutrient requirements are growing exponentially.

The ewes nutrient input requirement is at its peak during lambing and the weeks following. Failure to maintain adequate BCS leading up to lambing can lead to ketosis. Ketosis is the most common metabolic disease in sheep and is easily prevented.

One of the best techniques to avoid this issue is sort bred ewes into groups based on BCS so they can be fed accordingly. Thin ewes can receive more feed while ewes in ideal condition can stay on track.

Weaned lambs also need to stay in optimal condition leading up to slaughter. The post weaning stress on a lamb can often lead to a loss in condition. The additional stress of a new environment with feed bunks and water tanks that are extremely unfamiliar to a pasture raised lamb.

If the lambs are to remain on green grass post weaning optimal condition may be hard to reach as the lamb continues to grow in height and maturity. Most lambs, depending on breed, will need to receive a high protein and high energy diet to achieve ideal weight and condition for slaughter.

BCS is important for the slaughter lamb to provide the consumer, be it on farm or off farm, the best dining experience.

The following explanation of the 5 body condition scores originally appeared in a University of Arkansas publication.

How is Body Condition Scored?

There are several ways to determine the BCS of your sheep, but the most commonly used method was developed in Australia in the 1960s.

It involves feeling the muscle and fat along the backbone between the last rib and the front of the hip bones – the lumbar vertebrae of the spine.

The lumbar vertebrae have three projections that look like flattened fingers, called the spinal processes. The loin eye muscle lies in the angle created by the vertical and horizontal spinal processes. The loin eye muscle does not cover the ends of the spinal processes.

BCS 1

The spinal processes are prominent and sharp. Your fingers can pass easily under the ends of the horizontal processes and you can feel between each one. The loin eye areas are shallow with no fat cover.

BCS 2

The spinal processes still feel prominent, but smooth, and individual processes can be felt as ripples beneath some cover. The horizontal processes are smooth and rounded. You can still pass your fingers under the ends with a little pressure.

The loin eye areas are of moderate depth, but have little fat cover. A ewe in BCS 2 will have spinal processes that feel similar to the second joint of your fingers.

BCS 3

The spinal processes can only be felt as smooth and rounded elevations. Individual bones can be felt only with pressure. The horizontal processes are smooth and well covered, and firm pressure is required to feel over the ends. The loin eye areas are full and have a moderate degree of fat cover. A ewe in BCS 3 will have spinal processes that feel similar to your palm just below the fingers.

BCS 4

The spinal processes can just be detected, with pressure, as a hard line between the fat-covered muscle areas. The ends of the horizontal processes cannot be felt. The loin eye areas are full and have a thick covering of fat.

BCS 5

The spinal processes cannot be detected even with firm pressure, and there is a dip between the layers of fat in the position where the spinal processes would normally be felt. The horizontal processes cannot be detected.

The loin eye areas are very full with very thick fat cover. There may be large deposits of fat over the rump and tail. A ewe in BCS 5 will have spinal processes that feel similar to the meaty part of your palm below the thumb.

With this guideline both the ewe flock and weaned lamb crop can be evaluated throughout the year for optimal condition. Having this type of tool in your tool box can be helpful in taking your flock to the next level and effectively utilising your valuable feed resource.

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