Body Condition Scoring Your Animals
In some ways, it should be easy to evaluate your animal’s body condition: Too fat? Too thin? Looks about right? But if they are all fluffy, how can you tell? Lots of times owners wait until shearing day to take a good, close look at their animals’ weight; it is the best time to really see what is going on. However, there are charts that can help you objectively determine your animal’s condition, and I encourage you to print them out to have as a handy reference and to use them in checking your animals between shearings.
Touch your animals!
I often hear owners say that it’s so hard to tell if their animal is underweight (it’s easier to see if they are overweight!) when they are in full fiber. To this I say, touch them! Stretch your thumb and forefinger across their back around the shoulders (withers area). Look at the angle this produces. Touch their hips – are the bones protruding? Run your fingers along their ribs – can you feel the ribs clearly, or is there a nice padding? If you have concerns, especially about underweight animals, please consult with your veterinarian about developing a nutrition program.
My tips here are not meant to be a substitute for scientific and medical guidance. They are mostly meant to get owners thinking in different ways and to break through “the fiber barrier”.
Quality and quantity of hay
Sometimes the cause of a thin animal is pretty darned simple: he’s just not getting enough good food to eat. Does your animal have continuous access to good quality hay? How is the pasture in the spring and summer? Supplementing with high quality timothy or orchard grass hay can really help your animal maintain condition, even with pasture. Feeding grain as a supplement may be fine, but there is no substitute for high quality hay. Consult your vet or extension agent to discuss what type and quantity of grain you ought to be feeding your flock.
A bully in the flock?
Sometimes you may see one or two fat animals and the rest are skinny. If there are numerous competitors for food, is the hay in a variety of locations? Low-ranking animals will prefer to eat farther away from the herd and if the food is only in one spot, the ‘bullies’ will hoard it all.
Moms need more to eat!
Nursing mothers tend to give all they have to produce milk for their babies; you need to increase their food rations!
There may be other issues going on, though, as well. A mechanical issue can be teeth. Does your animal HAVE teeth? As they age, animals can lose some of their molars, making chewing and grinding hay nearly impossible. They can also develop spurs or points, making chewing somewhat painful and thus creating an aversion to eating. The lower incisors can be a factor – long incisors in alpacas can prevent them from efficiently grabbing grass, and the total lack of incisors means the animal must force the food into his mouth using his gums. Many times, elderly animals need to be fed a soft mash (soak their pellets in hot water for a good 15-20 minutes so it is very palatable and can be gummed rather than chewed).
Depending on how often you rotate pastures and how you feed (e.g. is hay on the ground or in feeders), your animals can be re-ingesting worms on a regular basis. You can have a fecal test done quite inexpensively at your vet’s office or your local animal laboratory; the results will tell you what kind of dewormer you need to use.
You should also become familiar with the FAMACHA method; take a look at your animal’s eyelids regularly. A pale pink or white eyelid probably indicates anemia and thus a worm problem.
Additional resources on FAMACHA:
Angora and Pygora goats seem to be quite prone to getting lice; unless they are regularly treated, chances are you will see these at shearing time. However, if one of your animals is looking note quite up to par and you can’t figure out why, check for lice – these little buggers can suck the blood out of your animals and cause anemia, poor looking hair or fleece, and weight loss.
Older animals tend to lose muscle mass and can also lose general body condition, depending on the competition in their flock, the quality of their hay and grass, and their teeth, as well as their genetics. Often you will find their topline drops off – it seems that they are thin, if you run your hands along their back. But make sure you also feel along their ribs and their belly. They may be carrying their weight low in their belly. I feed my older animals separately, and have had great luck in bringing back some very thin oldsters to a robust weight. I also provide soaked feed (mash consistency) to my older animals who have worn down molars.
It’s not uncommon to see pet sheep who have access to great grass getting pretty hefty. This happens partly because they aren’t being bred, but also because they are pampered and don’t have much competition for food. An overweight animal is not healthy, though – they can have joint problems, and even heart problems. Before changing your animal’s diet, please consult with your veterinarian. They may suggest that you not feed grain (or very limited grain), and switch to first cutting timothy hay – it’s more stemmy and takes more energy to digest. Sometimes a fall shearing can also help in the case of sheep, because they will have to work harder to grow their fleece back and not spend all their time packing on the winter pounds.
My refrain: TOUCH YOUR ANIMALS!
There’s just no substitute for hands-on care of your animals. Check them at least once a month and perform a body condition score. Here are some excellent resources on how to score your animals:
- Body Condition Scoring of Sheep
- Chart: Body Condition Scoring of Sheep
- Body Condition Scoring of Alpacas and Llamas
- Video: Body condition scoring of Alpacas
- Chart: Condition scoring of alpacas
Nothing in this article is meant to represent any form of veterinary advice. You should always consult your veterinarian for issues concerning your specific animals.
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