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October 20, 2021

Hands-on approach keeps ewes in best condition

The old adage; “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” rings true for much of modern life. But in the sheepyards, there’s a tool that comes completely free of charge, and has a host of business benefits.

Body condition scoring isn’t a new idea – it emerged in Australia in the early 1960’s, with focused research on the process coming out of Lifetime Wool and the subsequent Lifetime Ewe research in the late 1990’s through to around 2014.

Condition scoring assesses the nutritional status of a mob, and can be used to identify at-risk units and draft off individual sheep so they can be managed in specific nutritional groups. It’s a useful tool because it more directly reflects the underlying changes in muscle and fat as the animal’s nutritional status changes, as opposed to fat scoring or straight weighing. But neXtgen Agri’s Darren Gordon says there are still “some myths out there” when it comes to BCS.

Debunking the myths

“Firstly - it’s not the same as fat scoring. Fat scoring is measuring fat depth over the long ribs, which is great information for decision making around sending sheep to the abbatoir, but it’s got no correlation with actual condition scoring.”

“It’s also quick and easy – probably 2-5seconds per animal,” he emphasises.

“I think people assume it’s laborious, but it’s really not at all – you can do 50 sheep in the yards any time they’re coming through (for vaccinating, drenching etc) but there are two to three critical times of the year to do it (we’ll get to that shortly).”

The other industry-wide benefit of BCS is that it “takes out the noise” explains Darren.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re condition scoring a 40-kilogram ewe, or a 90-kilogram ewe, it doesn’t matter what stage of pregnancy or lactation she’s in, whether she’s got twins on board or how much wool cover there is. It’s a measurement that can be accurately taken across all those variables.”

A random sample of around 50 sheep from the mob at key points in the annual production cycle will give an average condition score that can then be used to make decisions such as feed budgeting.

“It gives producers key information to make management decisions in order to reach condition score targets for joining and lambing.”

“Furthermore, it gives a picture of the sheep’s store of energy. It is the best method for monitoring pregnant ewes,” he says.

“It also comes back to ‘measuring to manage’ - it is difficult to simply look at your sheep and see whether they are losing, maintaining or gaining weight. Wool, different age groups, breeds and so on can make “eyeballing” the condition of your sheep unreliable and it can’t be accurately measured – or managed,” Darren explains.

A hands-on approach

The key factor in maximising BCS on-farm is “practice and more practice,” explains Darren.

“You need to ‘calibrate’ by doing it often; or at least twice every twelve months. And the more people on-farm doing it, the better – you need all your team talking the same language.”

Condition scoring is feeling the backbone, the eye muscle and the short rib – the area between the hips and long rib. Place your thumb on the backbone just behind the last long rib and run your hand over the eye muscle, finishing against the stubby ends of the short ribs.

Use the scoring system (pictured) to assign a score. Many people use a system of half scores such as 2, 2.5, 3, 3.5...and some go further to quarter or single increments.

“Whatever your scoring method; just make sure it’s the same for all your farm team,” says Darren.

Record scores so that you can calculate the average. A simple method of calculating the median of the mob is to draw up a worksheet (as pictured) or to download the Lifetime Ewe Management app, which has the easiest press-button method of capturing the data and can be recalled and stored on a device.

Recording the scores gives a mid-point and also shows the range of scores and whether there is a significant tail in the mob. It’s ideally done when sheep are in a race or yard (not held in a handler,), relaxed and with all feet on the ground.

“A great reference score is condition score 3; where the eye muscle is flat to the feel between the backbone and short rib.
So any animal that has a slight dip, is under score 3 and an animal that has a curve is going to be above 3,” explains Darren.

When starting a BCS assessment, it’s a good idea to start with “as close to a perfect score 3 as you can find, and then work off that.”

“Our biggest assessment - on that eye muscle - is about 70 percent correlated with EMD and Fat.”

Image; Lifetime Wool

BCS timing

When it comes to when to condition score, Darren highlights three “critical” times of the year in sheep operations.

At weaning: “we are looking for three categories of sheep here; twin bearing ewes, singles and fats (those that have lost a lamb).”

“Skinny twins (below 3) are the most important sheep on-farm and you really want to look at rewarding those sheep as the most profitable performers – they want the next best feed on farm, after your weaners,” says Darren.

Image; Lifetime Wool

“Weaning time also means you’ve got a good opportunity in front of you to get that ewe into optimum condition for joining.”

“Ideally, ewes should maintain a condition score of 2.7 for singles and 3.2 for twins after preg scanning, as feeding to put on weight is only half as efficient as feeding for maintenance,” he adds.

Scanning: condition score at scanning and allocate feed to twin or multiple bearing ewes as a priority.

“Good twins are those at 3.2, so you’re looking to maintain that score for that mob.”

“Skinny twins are those under 3 score, so you’re looking to bring them to 3.2 and you have around 60 days after scanning to do that before lambing.”

And for scanned singles, Darren says it’s a good opportunity to pull some levers and re- prioritise feed – with a target for singles of - 2.7.

“Single-bearing ewes can be too fat at lambing, and their condition score should not exceed 3.
Twin-bearing ewes are rarely at risk of being too fat, thanks to higher nutritional demand.”

Another good time of year to condition score is six weeks out from joining, in order to identify any individuals in need of extra attention and take a check on rams which should be 3.5 at mating.

Keep the fuel tank topped up

“I use the analogy that in Spring time, we often have surplus feed so it’s a good opportunity to top up the fuel tank and drafting sheep by condition scoring is an efficient way to maximise that feed as well as the productivity and profitability of that animal.”

Darren says the modern merino is “well and truly on par” with maternal composites, terminals and first-cross when it comes to BCS profiles, and their ability to put on weight post peak-lactation.

Liz Rymill
Article by:
Liz Rymill

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