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Friday 21 July 2017

Feeding crucial to animal transition post weaning

Michael Bourke is pictured using a Mixtec diet feeder to feed housed heifers on his farm at Ballyadam, Churchtown, Co. Cork. Photo O'Gorman Photography
Michael Bourke is pictured using a Mixtec diet feeder to feed housed heifers on his farm at Ballyadam, Churchtown, Co. Cork. Photo O'Gorman Photography

Gerry Giggins

We all know how stressful travel can be. Be it an airport, train station or long car journey on busy roads, travel is a tiring experience.

Last week, in Amsterdam airport, having being redirected on what was supposed to be a direct flight home from Barcelona, I received a phone call from a beef farmer who had just arrived in Westmeath with a load of weanling bulls from Kerry.

In the background, I could hear the distinctive sound of recently-weaned animals. The stressful nature of my prolonged journey paled in significance with that of the young bulls who, a short time ago, were happily suckling at pasture.

Thousands of animals undertake similar journeys throughout Ireland at this time of year. The level of stress that they are placed under at this stage can have a significant effect of subsequent health and performance.

The weaning process, mart experience, transport and mixing with other animals, all bear a significant stress load, yet are unavoidable.

Another stress factor placed on this category of livestock is the sudden change in nutrition and surrounding environment. These animals can go from pasture on a diet of grass, milk and limited concentrates, to a shed on a diet of forage and increased levels of concentrates in the space of a few days.

Upon arrival on farm, animals should be kept in their purchased group and afforded a minimum of 24 hours' rest period. Ideally, this rest should take place in a straw-bedded shed away from previously purchased and existing farm animals.

The importance of a plentiful supply of clean, fresh water is huge, along with a palatable forage source. I always recommend that a beef finisher has a supply of good quality hay available for these animals.


Too often, silage pits are only opened at the time of animal arrival, with the forage at the face of a freshly-opened pit being of variable quality.

Getting animals drinking, eating and settled will help to negate a lot of health issues that can occur during the finishing period.

Strong weanling bulls that are targeted for finish under 16 months need to be fast-tracked on to their finishing ration. This introductory and build-up period is the critical stage in ensuring they meet their age target while, at the same time, have sufficient carcass weight and fat covers.

We see Irish finishing rations used for all categories and breeds of stock falling into four main sections:

• Forage-based rations are most commonly seen and centre upon the use of grass, maize or whole-crop silage. These rations are generally safe from a rumen health point of view and the introductory period is likely to run smoothly. I have a 60:40 rule that I normally apply to these rations.

For the first four weeks on feed, 60pc of the ration should be made up of forage and 40pc of concentrate. This ratio should be reversed to 40pc forage and 60pc concentrate during the remainder of the finishing period. This ration is commonly used on store type animals on a relatively short finishing period.

There is little need for rumen buffers on this type of ration, particularly where mixer wagons are used, but the use of an appropriate yeast will pay dividends, particularly during the introductory period;

• Beet-based rations. Depending on the area of the country and availability, the amount of beet fed can vary. Inclusion rates between 5kg/head/day and 25kg/head/day are quite common. Building up to high rates of beet should be done gradually.

When feeding beet, it is important to balance the ration sufficiently for protein, long fibre and minerals. Any digestive upsets that may occur are generally a result of a rapid introduction or soil contamination;

• Ad-lib/high cereal rations have the potential to provide the best animal performance but are often fraught with danger.

A tightrope has to be walked during the introductory phase of these rations. Ideally for the first two weeks, twice and even three times daily feeding will reduce the likelihood of digestive upsets. The use of yeast, rumen buffers or high pH grains are essential in this system.

• Ad-lib nuts are a safer form of ad-lib feeding with a quicker introductory period on to full feed. The correct concentrate nut specification will have minerals, yeast and buffers included.

In cases where a concentrate nut contains high amounts of poor quality ingredients or 'fillers', animal performance will obviously be affected.

Gerry Giggins is an independent animal nutritionist based in Co Louth

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