A Nuffield Farming report has called attention to prioritising body condition as part of the selection process to build beef herds and sheep flocks “fit for the future”.

Highlands-based beef and sheep farmer Vic Ballantyne has published her report entitled ‘Too fat? The role of body condition in maternal livestock in areas with extreme seasonal variability’.

During her Nuffield scholarship, Ballantyne travelled to Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Iceland and the UK to understand the role of body condition score (BCS) in maternal livestock and explore how to identify and select for genetic body condition.

“For decades we have known that good Body Condition Score (BCS) is essential in cows and ewes at key times in the year. Good BCS is directly linked with better animal health, increased fertility and reduced feed requirements,” she said.

“Significant worldwide research into the genetic component of BCS puts the trait at around 25% heritability. But BCS can be manipulated by environmental nutrition and it is therefore a trait that is easily masked by preferential or excessive feeding.

“It is essential that breeding stock are subjected to some nutritional and environmental pressure if we are to identify those with the genetic ability to put on and hold body condition.”

While visiting commercial and pedigree cattle and sheep producers around the world, Ballantyne noted that those who actively selected for body condition reported several productivity and animal welfare benefits.

She believes that robust and resilient animals will be needed in the future as livestock farming comes under pressure both politically and environmentally.

The producers that Ballantyne visited also reported that higher BCS became most valuable during tough periods.

“As our climate becomes more unpredictable, the ability of an animal to ride out the extremes will become more important,” she said.

“Though even in a normal season the genetic propensity to hold condition still presents plenty of opportunities, including increasing stocking rates.

“There is significant opportunity within the beef and sheep sectors to build herds and flocks fit for the future by prioritising body condition as part of the selection process.”

Body condition

Ballantyne concluded that UK beef and sheep farms should prioritise selecting for body condition.

She found that animals with higher genetic BCS provide opportunities for:

  • Improved fertility;
  • Improved health;
  • Improved productivity and profit.

Robust and resilient animals will be needed in the future as livestock farming comes under pressure both politically and environmentally, Ballantyne’s report reads.

Genetically higher BCS animals are part of the response to that pressure.

Genetic BCS is often masked by over-feeding and breeders need to apply nutritional and environmental pressure to rams and bulls.

Commercial farmers should buy rams and bulls produced under commercial conditions, the report says.

The report was sponsored jointly by The Royal Highland and Agricultural Society and the Worshipful Company of Farmers.