Welfare decisions for sheep and cattle

Page last updated: Tuesday, 20 August 2019 - 3:45pm

Please note: This content may be out of date and is currently under review.

Welfare decisions for cattle

At times such as during drought, reduced feed intake causes beef cows to lose body condition. As this happens, their milk dries up and their commercial beef value declines.

If they lose condition further, their body reserves can become insufficient for them to withstand mustering, yarding, transport or sale. If they become very weak, they are at risk of death during wet weather or if placed under any form of stress. It is not acceptable to allow stock to reach this condition or to transport such weakened animals.

Livestock managers, advisers, transport operators and welfare officials need to make decisions about feeding, suitability for transport or sale of cattle, and in extreme cases, their humane destruction on the property. These decisions are difficult and are often made by people under heavy emotional stress.

Assessing animals

The diagram below shows the key sites for assessing an animal’s condition. Use the table below it to decide which category the animal fits into and what action to take.

The diagram below shows the key sites such as back bone, rib cage and pin bones for assessing an animal’s condition

Table 2 Welfare decisions for beef cows
Cow Body Condition Score (BCS)

At risk

BCS 1.5

Substantial risk


Extreme risk


NULL decorative decorative
Brief description Lean but strong and healthy with some significant muscle wastage. Reduced reproductive performance likely. At risk with significant muscle wastage an no fat reserves. Able to recover to condition score 2 if adequately fed within two months. Unlikely to conceive. Weak, with very low body reserves. At risk of death from cold, wet weather or other stress. Recovery dependent on high quality feed and care. Recovery to condition score 2 will take more than two months. 
Transport, sale Suitable for transport and sale but with minimum time off feed. Unsuitable for sale through saleyards or transport over long distances. Not fit to travel.
Behaviour and mobility Bright, alert and normal mobile gait. Alert, but less energetic. Gait is normal but grooming behaviour is affected. Mobile, able to lie down/rise. Dull appearance/no grooming behaviour and reduced cud chewing. Slow unsteady gait, and may drag hind feet or plait hind legs. Difficulty lying down/standing up. Has difficulty maitaining balance.
Backbone Easily seen. Spines of backbone individually identifiable.

Spines of backbone individually identifiable.

Short ribs Visible. Sharp to touch. Prominent and very sharp to touch. Very prominent and easy to see individually.
Inside pin bones Slightly sunken. Sunken. Deeply sunken to the bone.
Muscle wastage Rump muscle concave (between hooks and pins).

Rump muscle concave. Muscle wastage in loin and leg muscle evident.

Muscle wastage obvious over whole leg body. Rump and leg muscles deeply concave.
Stifle joint

Stifle joint not identifiable.

Stifle joint identifiable.

Tail bones Individual bones not identifiable.

Individual bones just able to be felt.

Individual bones easily felt.

Skin Pliable. Less pliable. Tight.
Ability to calve Some assistance required. Moderate assistance required. High level of assistance required.
Actions required
  • Must be fed adequately to prevent further weight loss.
  • Suitable for transport to agistment, abattoir, saleyard.
  • Suitable for sale but with minimum time off feed.
  • Supervise and be ready to assist during calving.
  • Must be fed adequately to prevent further weight loss.
  • Able to be transported directly to abattoir or agistment only, and requires feeding for energy 48 hours prior to transport.
  • Not suitable for travel over long distances.
  • Unsuitable for sale through saleyards.
  • Supervise closely and be ready to assist during calving.
  • Do not transport.
  • Must be given high quality feed, water or care or destroy on farm.
  • Supervise closely and be ready to assist during calving.

Criteria for destruction on property

Some cattle may require humane destruction on property. Humanely destroy cattle if they are in poor or very poor condition as described in the table on the previous page and meet any of the following conditions:

  • fall down or are knocked over easily
  • cannot stand without assistance
  • very unsteady gait, staggering, plaiting of hind legs
  • adequate good quality feed cannot be provided
  • adequate good quality water cannot be provided
  • unable to transport, sell or feed.

This information is derived from:

Blackwood, I, Garden, B, Littler, B, Paul, A and Prowse, K, 2007,  Primefact 619, Welfare decisions for beef cows, Industry and Investment NSW.   

Blackwood, I, Exton, S, Littler, B and Siddell, J 2013, A national guide to describing and managing beef cattle in low body condition, Meat and Livestock Australia Limited. 

Thompson, A, Kelly, J, and Paul, A, 2013, Welfare Scoring nutritionally deprived beef cattle, dairy cattle and their crosses, sheep and horses, NSW Department of Primary Industries.

Contact information

Animal Welfare General Enquiries