Assessing Body Condition

Assessing Body Condition

by Donna Meyers-Raybon

printed here with kind permission of Donna Meyers-Raybon

   Keeping animals in top condition can sometimes be a challenge. To begin with, how do you know what “top condition” really is? That ideal can vary according to sex and age of the animal. For example, when discussing bucks, being in or out of rut is going to have a lot to do with his condition. And with a doe, stage of gestation and lactation will greatly influence how she appears. Finally, you have to take into account individual differences! Goats are just like people; they come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some can be very long bodied and others can be very wide but shorter coupled. Even with this variety of parameters, there are certain guidelines or “rules of thumb” which can help any breeder evaluate his or her own goats.

Like anything else, learning the system of body scoring takes a bit of practice and honest effort to make it second nature. Nothing can substitute for getting out there and laying your hands on a lot of goats and practicing. Though a bit confusing at first, nothing I have to share about body scoring is really new or original, it is simply revisiting and reviewing a helpful herd management tool that often gets overlooked.

Two things that certainly help me assess an animal’s condition are an accurate weight tape and basic body condition scoring techniques. Both have been around for a long time and have proven themselves again and again in use on the farm.

A weight tape is nothing more than a flexible measuring tape that is marked off in both inches and in pounds to give you a fairly accurate conversion of the animal’s heart girth in inches into pounds of weight. Studies done to develop these scales show that they are accurate to plus/minus five pounds if used properly. These tapes are widely available through livestock supply catalogs.

Three things are vital to ensure accuracy using a tape. First make certain you use the correct style of tape for your breed of goat. For instance if you raise Alpines and use a Pygmy weigh tape, you will not get accurate results! Second, ensure you are measuring at the heart girth, just behind but not including the shoulder blades. By placing your hand at the top of the shoulders (the withers) and tracing the bones backward towards the chine you can determine just where the rear of the shoulder bones are and place your tape correctly. And, finally, be consistent with your technique. By that I mean try to pull the tape just as snug on the first goat you tape as the last goat you tape.

It is a good management practice to tape each goat once a month and record that information to readily see a pattern as it emerges. I fail miserably on my older animals, but I do try to be consistent with my young stock. My doelings are bred at about seven to eight months of age. In order for them to be large enough I want them to be gaining 10 pounds a month throughout that first year of life. I find that taping them once a month is the best way for me to spot trends and to respond by tweaking the ration to ensure that rate of gain.

I have found a weight tape to work great on my animals under a year old. Once they kid and begin production, adding body condition scoring on a monthly basis along with taping presents me with a better picture of what is really going on.

Body condition scoring has been around a long time on commercial dairy cow and beef cow operations. The first reference I found for body condition scoring dairy goats was in Goat Husbandry by David MacKenzie. This is a classic work that every goatkeeper should have in their library. While the weight tape gets used a lot on my young stock, it is the body condition scoring that benefits my older animals.

This technique is very simple, straightforward and easy to use, though it does require some practice to get consistent results. So, every time you are around a goat, open your eyes, reach out and practice! That is all you need to do-reach out and put your hands on the goat and think about what you are feeling.

To begin with, just step back and look at the overall condition of the animal. Can you see any ribs showing? Notice the backbone, hips, and tail head, are they extremely well defined? Note that any doe just prior to and just after kidding will often have a very “boney” appearance about the hips and tail head due to labor and delivery. But, ribs and backbone should not be boney looking.

Also, understand that a big belly doesn’t mean a fat goat! A goat is a ruminant and needs a huge body capacity to house all her digestive system. Goats also tend to not store body fat evenly all over their body. Instead they concentrate body fat in specific areas internally first, where you can’t see it, and then externally later, where you can see it. So, by the time you see signs of fat visible externally, you can have a really, really, really fat goat!

Next you have got to get your hands on that goat. Run your fingers lightly along the ribs and note how that feels. Find the last rib and follow it up to the spine and feel that section of spine just behind that last rib. You will also notice that is over the area where rumen fullness and motion can be detected. I will refer to this region of the spine as the lumbar region. Next, bend over and feel the bottom of the brisket, between the goat’s front legs. I will refer to this region as the sternal region and the covering of the sternum bone as the sternal fat pad.

Too many times, especially in bucks, a long hair coat can hide a very skinny animal’s condition until too late and health is impacted seriously. I heard an extension agent one time describe a management technique of “manage by walking around and touching.” You have got to lay your hands on your animals on a regular basis to ensure they are not a rack of bones under all that hair.

Grade 1: This animal is truly emaciated and close to death. The ribs, backbone, and tailhead are very sharp and very visible. You can easily feel the spinal processes along the side of the backbone as being very sharp. You can literally put your fingers almost all the way around the lumbar region. The flanks will be quite hollow. When you put your hand between the goat’s front legs to feel the sternal region, the end of the sternum will feel like a sharp pencil point with almost no fat covering the bone. Running your hand further back along side the sternum, you can very easily feel the ribs coming off the sternum at each joint. Up along the animal’s side the ribs can be seen with very clear definition between them due to being sunken in between each rib.

Grade 2: The backbone is still going to be quite well defined, but won’t have quite as sharp a feel to it due to having some fat covering. You can still put your fingers around the lumbar region but your fingers won’t be as near to meeting under spine. When you put your hand between the goat’s front legs to feel the sternal region, the underside of the sternum will have an actual fat pad attached, but easily moved when you grasp it. The point of the sternum will feel more like the eraser end of the pencil rather than the pointed end. Down at sides of the sternum you can’t quite feel each rib joint as it comes off the sternum. Up on the animal’s side, the ribs will still show, but you won’t have the sunken-in appearance between each rib.

Grade 3: The backbone is no longer prominent. When you touch the backbone it is well covered with fat and you won’t feel any sharpness at all of spinal processes. Grasping the lumbar region will be difficult, as your fingers won’t be anywhere meeting underneath the spine. When you reach down between the goat’s front legs to feel the sternal region, the sternum is well covered with a fat pad that is not going to move much at all. You can’t feel the ribs coming off the sides of the sternum without really pressing hard and searching for them. Up on the goat’s side, the ribs are only barely visible, but can still be felt with a light touch.

Grade 4: Backbone is no longer visible as separate joints and is very well covered with fat. You can’t feel any of the spinal process at all, no sharp boney projections. You can’t get your fingers under the lumbar region at all. When you reach down between the goat’s front legs check the sternal region the fat pad covering the sternum it is very thick and nearly unmovable when you try to shake it. Along side the sternum, you can’t feel any rib bone at all. The ribs where they come off the sternum are much too thickly covered to be felt. Up on the goat’s side, you have to really search for the ribs with your fingers and you can’t see them at all.

Grade 5: There are dimples in the rump and a channel along top of the backbone as the fat covering it is so thick! You can’t even begin to get your fingers around the lumbar region. Up on the goat’s side, even with heavy pressure you can’t find a rib. When you reach between the goat’s front legs to feel the sternal region, fat pad is huge and massive and you can’t move it. Where the ribs leave the sternum will be fat pads covering them. Animal may look like it has “saddlebags” hanging at sides near the elbow where sternal fat pad is so large.

Here are some suggested general benchmarks to use to guide you. Animals who grade less than 2.0 are in need of immediate medical intervention as they are at great risk of chilling and dying quickly. And likewise, animals that are a 5.0 risk all sorts of metabolic problems due to being so obese. A doe should be in the 2.25 to a 3.5 range at dry off. She should be about a 2.75 to a 3.5 at kidding. And, she needs to be at least a 2.0 or more at 45 days into lactation. This is the bare minimum and really she needs to be closer to 3.0 in order to maintain proper condition through a 305 day lactation. A buck should be at least a 3.0 at the beginning of rut in order to carry any condition at all throughout the breeding season. Be especially vigilant about laying your hands upon your bucks on a regular basis. A buck tends to have a thicker, coarser hair coat that can really hide extreme weight loss until too late and they end up sick or dead.

Now, get out there and start practicing on every goat you can lay your hands upon. You will, in short order, find yourself a much better manager and getting better results for the amount of feed you put into your animals. And, it is always nice to be able to tell those non-farming types who pass through the barns during fair season that dairy goats are NOT too skinny, they are supposed to look that way, and here is how to judge an animal’s body condition!

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