Mastering ewe body condition scoring to maximise returns

By Laura McQuillan-Reese

The original version of this piece was published in Country-Wide magazine in August 2022

Improving uniformity in the ewe flock and aiming for a BCS of 3.0 at lambing has a direct impact on the bottom line of your farm business. So how do you master your ewe body condition scoring to maximise returns?

The relative profitability of sheep breeding enterprises is largely determined by kilograms of lamb sold per hectare. Lambing percentage and average lamb weaning weight are two of the most important factors determining this outcome.

A key driver influencing these two factors is the body condition score of the ewe. More specifically, it’s the percentage of ewes at or above a body condition score of 3.0 at mating and lambing.

Body condition scoring

Body condition scoring is an important method of measuring the muscle and fat reserves of ewes. This gives you an indication of condition regardless of frame size. In preparation for lambing, ewes should have substantial reserves available as they move into the demanding phase of peak lactation.

Throughout mating and early pregnancy, a BCS of 3.0 is ideal, and no greater than 3.5 at lambing.

Mating and scanning

There are key benefits in measuring ewe body condition score at scanning. Lighter ewes bearing multiples can be identified and preferentially fed to minimise the risk of lamb losses.

Once lighter ewes are identified at scanning, there is an opportunity to improve body condition scores up to five weeks before lambing. Within that tight turn-around, the goal is to protect muscle and fat reserves and minimize losses of body condition score.

NOTE: Ewe BCS at scanning should be set up by good management from weaning the year before.

Ewe body condition score at lambing

It is expected that ewes will drop to a BCS of 2.5 by weaning. This change in BCS from lambing to weaning is an indicator of maternal success in the flock.

Don’t cull a ewe at the end of lambing because she is just ‘a bit skinny’. A ewe that drops body condition score in this period is likely to have reared lambs with a higher weaning weight than a ewe that has maintained condition throughout lactation. These lighter ewes will have grown healthy, heavier lambs because they partitioned more of their energy reserves into producing milk for the lambs, rather than storing it themselves.

NOTE: Feeding over winter and early lactation determines if the ewes can be put into a position to be able to do that.

The numbers stack up

We compared the breeding performance of an average flock BCS of 2.0 vs 3.0 at lambing.

Achieving an average BCS of 3.0 at lambing was 16% more profitable than having ewes averaging 2.0. This is because ewes in better condition at lambing wean more lambs as well as higher weaning weights per lamb. For a list of key assumptions and comparative data, check out the full Country-Wide article.

Ewe body condition score drives productivity across all facets of the sheep breeding operation, from fecundity at tupping to the ability to provide sufficient milk throughout lactation. BCS also improves farm management, giving farmers the information needed to manage the lighter ewes in the mob, minimising tail enders.

Post weaning is your window

While feed is in good supply, consider the benefits from improving 50% of the ewe flock’s body condition score by one point and maintaining that throughout the course of the year. Post weaning is the best opportunity to make these gains.

Once weaned, ewes can be separated according to body condition score. Ewes that have put more into their lambs can be given priority feeding to help them recover for the next round of mating. Ewes already possessing an ideal BCS can be ration fed. This approach improves the efficiency of feed utilisation while lifting the overall BCS of the herd.

Increasing BCS during the post weaning period and before mating is the best way to increase number of lambs born, number of lambs weaned, and total lamb weaned weight.

Key points

  • BCS gives you a more accurate assessment of the ewe’s condition, regardless of frame.
  • Measuring at key moments such as mating, scanning, lambing and weaning, gives you the best opportunity to influence flock production.
  • Improving uniformity in the ewe flock and aiming for a BCS of 3.0 at lambing has a direct impact on the bottom line.
  • BCS improves feed-use efficiency and feed budgeting by enabling you to isolate ewes that require priority feeding and ration feed for ewes that are already at an ideal BCS.
  • BCS is easy to learn and requires minimal time and labour investment to achieve good results.

If you want to have a crack at body condition scoring, there are a number of resources to assist your training. Next time you’re in the yards, try running your hands over the ewes in the race and see if you can get a feel for the different body condition scores. Think about cover over the ewe’s hip bones and ribs and try to identify lighter and heavier conditioned ewes.

Contacting your local vet or accessing online tools are good starting points to incorporate body condition scoring into your farm business.



Lee Matheson

Managing Director
Principal Consultant

B.Appl.Sc (Hons), FNZIPIM (Reg)

Lee came to agribusiness consultancy via the unlikely pathway of a suburban Wellington upbringing, an Honours degree in plant science and a six-year career in the financial markets. In his role as the firm’s MD, Lee doesn’t get out on-farm as much as he used to but makes the most of it when he does. While having swapped the paddock for the boardroom, Lee continues to provide advice in the areas of farm business strategy, farm system innovation, corporate governance, investment analysis and economic research.

Outside of Perrin Ag, Lee loves to spend his time coaching rugby, watching his three kids play sport and gardening with his wife Haidee.

“I love the challenge of empowering people in our primary sectors and the excitement of seeing clients achieving their aspirations. If we can encourage farmers to engage with their consumers, take a more active involvement in their supply chains and view their businesses through a wider lens, then I think our industries have a great future.”

Michael Booth

Consultant

Mike brings a wealth of agri-tech and dairy systems expertise to Perrin Ag. After graduating with a Bachelor of AgriCommerce from Massey, he started his career with DairyNZ as a consulting officer where he ran discussion groups and managed farm supervision.

He left DairyNZ to travel the world but within a few months Covid hit, the borders closed, and Mike and his wife Nikita returned home. Back in New Zealand, he took up a role managing DairyNZ’s monitor farms on the Hauraki Plains before joining Halter.

After finishing his OE, he returned home to live in Papamoa and joined the Perrin Ag team in February 2024.

“I’m not someone who likes to sit still and I like to be continually learning. I saw an opportunity with Perrin Ag. As a business their ethos is about continuous improvement and learning. There are always new and better ways of doing things and we need to be at the forefront of that for our clients.”

Abbey Dowd

Consultant

B.Ag.Sc (Hons), MNZIPIM

Abbey joined Perrin Ag in February 2023 as part of the firm’s graduate recruitment programme, Empower.

Abbey grew up surrounded by dairy farms in a close-knit community in South Waikato. She saw first-hand how local farmers supported her community, which is what inspired her to study at Lincoln University.

Growing up in a rural community Abbey has always been impressed by how much local farmers contribute to the community. She wanted to help give back to the industry and play a part in helping our primary sector continue to produce quality food in a sustainable way.

In 2022, Abbey spent the summer as an intern on one of New Zealand’s first commercial deer milking operations. Her Honours project was researching deer milk alongside other more traditional milking operations and assessing the deer milking industry’s future production possibilities.

“Growing up I didn’t live on a farm, but I always knew I wanted to work in the farming sector. I wanted a role where there was a balance between working on and off farm and where I could support farmers to get the best out of their businesses.”

Sam Gray

Consultant

Sam grew up on a dairy farm in the Far North. After graduating from the University of Otago in 2005 with an Honours degree in molecular biotechnology, he spent several years working in medical research in New Zealand and Scotland. Upon returning to New Zealand in 2012, he spent four seasons dairy farming in Northland before purchasing a 56 ha block in Taupо̄, where he was first exposed to farming under a nitrogen cap. Sam joined Perrin Ag in 2023 and brings his strong analytical skills that are grounded by a pragmatic approach to problem solving. Outside of farming and consultancy, you’ll likely find him fly fishing, hunting or snowboarding.

“A lot of farmers feel overwhelmed in the face of a rapidly changing regulatory landscape. I strive to help farmers understand what these environmental regulations mean for their business, and offer practical solutions that allow them to keep doing what they do best, whilst remaining compliant”.

Danni Armstrong

Finance administrator

Danni grew up on a life style block in Atiamuri and spent five seasons as a relief milker in the area. During this time, her full time roles were in various fields including the rental car, health care and marine industries. Danni has had a focus on administrative and accounting duties, but is also proficient in looking after customers especially well, social media and website operation, running a rental car fleet and the associated tasks like training, rosters, H&S and organising repairs! Danni joined Perrin Ag in May 2021, to be part of a business in an industry she is passionate about.

During her spare time Danni can be found reading a book with her cats or out enjoying the walks in Rotorua’s Redwoods.

“What motivates me each day is knowing that I will be challenged with a range of problem solving tasks. I love to see all the figures adding up and knowing that my role makes a difference to the team.”

Duncan Walker

Director
Principal Consultant

B.Appl.Sc, MNZIPIM (Reg)

Coming from a drystock and dairy farming background, Duncan has always been passionate about growing primary sector businesses. Whether it’s pastoral farming, forestry, horticulture or investments outside the farm gate, sustainably optimising business performance is Duncan’s passion. After graduating from Massey University with a Bachelor of Applied Science in Agribusiness, Duncan’s first opportunity to optimise a farm business was by undertaking a dairy conversion. Duncan project managed the conversion and continued to run the dairy farm for a further three years.

Since joining Perrin Ag in 2011 Duncan works with a wide range of clients including those ‘outside the farm gate’. With his strong background in investment analysis, business strategy and project management, Duncan is increasingly working with clients to analyse and integrate horticulture and forestry investments into their farm businesses.

“I enjoy helping clients navigate through the complexities of today’s operational, financial and environmental challenges. Seeing clients achieve their goals is very rewarding”

Lee Matheson

Managing Director
Principal Consultant

B.Appl.Sc (Hons), FNZIPIM (Reg)

Lee came to agribusiness consultancy via the unlikely pathway of a suburban Wellington upbringing, an Honours degree in plant science and a six-year career in the financial markets. In his role as the firm’s MD, Lee doesn’t get out on-farm as much as he used to but makes the most of it when he does. While having swapped the paddock for the boardroom, Lee continues to provide advice in the areas of farm business strategy, farm system innovation, corporate governance, investment analysis and economic research.

Outside of Perrin Ag, Lee loves to spend his time coaching rugby, watching his three kids play sport and gardening with his wife Haidee.

“I love the challenge of empowering people in our primary sectors and the excitement of seeing clients achieving their aspirations.  If we can encourage farmers to engage with their consumers, take a more active involvement in their supply chains and view their businesses through a wider lens, then I think our industries have a great future.”