In the past few weeks, I have been alerted to a number of issues related to forage quality, quantity and the negative effect it is having on all types of livestock.
This lack of quality and scarcity of forage is particularly evident on suckler farms that are generally totally reliant on grass silage and it is a feature right across the country.
I have seen silages with a DMD 58 and protein as low as 8pc.
Soil contamination is also a common occurrence after the type of summer we had last year and it is having an effect on palatability and, in extreme cases, is causing feed rejection.
Feeding this type of silage, even if it is in plentiful supply, will impact negatively on a cow's body condition score pre-calving. It will also have implications for the new-born calf and the subsequent breeding season.
On a lot of farms there is an urgent need for these issues to be addressed.
The purchase of additional forage is not an option in many cases this year.
Therefore, supplementing the dry cow ration with concentrate feed to make up for the reduced quality and quantity is the top priority.
Generally, dry cows have a live-weight in the region of 575-700kg. This gives the cow a pre-calving requirement of 75-85MJ/kg DM and a protein content of 9.5pc to 10.5pc.
Meeting this requirement in a cost-effective manner will be difficult as in a lot of cases feeding significant levels of concentrates is the only option.
Selecting a suitable and correct mix of ingredients is the challenge. With poor quality forage (60-64 DMD) and cows eating to appetite, 2-3kg of concentrate will be required.
If the protein content of the forage is as low as 8pc, then the concentrate will have to be a minimum of 18pc protein for the dry cow's requirements to be met. Most mixes on the market that are targeted specifically towards dry cows are inadequate for feeding along with most of this year's silage.
Where forage quantity is a problem, 'filling the gap' with straw is an option that is being widely used. Straw has a great fill effect for cows and is the most effective feed where forage is scarce.
However, the inclusion of straw brings the need for a further increase in the specification of the energy and protein content of the concentrate feed, along with the amounts fed.
If on-farm mixing of these ingredients is taking place then possibly the simplest and most cost-effective way of meeting the energy and protein requirements would be by using straight cereal and soya bean in the correct proportions.
There has been a significant decrease in the spot market and forward price of soya bean, so it is very much back in the feeding equation for the foreseeable future.
Advocating the use of 'cheaper' ingredients such as soya hulls will not always meet the animals' desired requirement this year. Soya hulls in particular have moderate levels of protein and energy and there are commonly issues with palatability.
Corn gluten is probably the most suitable straight feed.
Its profile on protein and energy is good and it meets all the requirements where straw is being solely fed.
Attention is also crucial to ensure a dry cow mineral is fed and at the correct rates.
For the optimum course of calving, it is necessary to provide a quiet and clean environment. Therefore, placing two to three cows in a pre-calving pen is advised.
This ensures the cow is more relaxed up to the point of calving.
The cow should only be moved to the calving pen when she is at the point of calving. This will keep all health and safety issues in correct order.
Sometimes it is necessary to assist the calf at the first suckling or feed it colostrum from a bottle or with an oesophageal tube.
Colostrum is the first feed ingested by the calf. It should receive two to three litres of colostrum within two hours of birth and the same amount within another four hours.
If for any reason the calf is not able to suckle colostrum from its mother, it must be bottle or tube-fed. In addition to basic nutrients, water, vitamins and minerals, colostrum is a source of immunoglobulins, enzymes, hormones and other substances necessary for the development of the immune system. The defence colostrum provides is a basic prerequisite for the good health of newborn calves.
The cow and calf should stay in the calving pen for one to two days until a strong relationship develops. This may not always be the case with heifers and it may take an extra day or two for the bond to develop.
As soon as a relationship between mother and calf is cemented, they can be housed with other cows and calves or, ideally, put to pasture. If cows and calves are being housed it is necessary to provide a dry, well-bedded area for the calves that is inaccessible for the cows.
Here the calves are provided with concentrated feed (calf starter).
Gerry Giggins is an animal nutritionist and can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org