Irrespective of the breed and lactation number, on a scale of 1-5, cow body condition should be 3 at drying off and calving. The recommended body condition score is an average for the herd - and the lower the variation in body condition between cows in the herd, the better.
Adjustment to body condition is done by changing feeding in the last months of lactation, as it is generally difficult to change body condition by more than 0.2 points during the dry period itself. It can be crucial for body condition at calving to avoid cows with long calving intervals and consequently low milk yield during late lactation. One frequent consequence is that the cows become too fat by calving.
Cows with a higher body condition (≥3.5) mobilise more fat and lose more in weight after calving than thin cows, increasing the risk of ketosis and fatty liver. The higher weight loss is due to fat cows eating less. At the same time, they typically have a slightly higher milk yield as well as a lower feed intake, which further increases weight loss.
The recommended average body condition of 3 is a compromise between the body condition that provides the highest milk yield (>3.5) and the body condition that causes the fewest disease problems after calving (<3.0). A body condition of 3 also provides a basis for a high feed intake at the beginning of lactation and good reproduction results. A body condition above 3.5 primarily provides higher milk yield in terms of components due to higher mobilisation of adipose tissue and a higher fat percentage in milk.
The table below summarises the optimal body condition for different parameters.
Parameter Optimal body condition score
Milk production 3.5-4.0
Health and welfare <3.0
Lifetime performance 2.5-3.0
Economic optimum 3.0
Source: Garnsworthy (2010)
Accordingly, herds with maximum milk yield targets can benefit from planning for a body condition of 3.5 and in high management herds, good results can be achieved with this body condition score, however this will require a greater focus on maintaining health and reproduction.
Source: SEGES, Denmark