Farm Ireland

Thursday 22 March 2018

Beef: Post-calving cows will need supplements this spring

Farmers cast their eyes over the the livestock on sale at the Cahir Mart, Co Tipperary. Photo: Frank Mc Grath.
Farmers cast their eyes over the the livestock on sale at the Cahir Mart, Co Tipperary. Photo: Frank Mc Grath.

Gerry Giggins

The difficulties posed by variable grass growth and poor grazing conditions has been the topic of conversation among most beef and dairy producers.

Many strategies involving early grazing and grassland utilisation have been developed over the years as the cornerstone to any spring calving system.

However, a year like this demonstrates that we are at the mercy of the weather. Thankfully, there were sufficient supplies of forage available throughout the country owing to excellent growing conditions in 2015.

Beef cows that have early calved and have been put to pasture, have been struggling to meet their dietary requirements from grass alone.

During the month of March I noticed a lot of cows that have dropped significantly in body condition, post calving and are now at a critical stage.

To maintain their body condition, support their calf and prepare for breeding it is in the six week period post calving that the suckler cow requires her highest plane of nutrition.

In normal circumstances spring and early summer grass meets all the calved cow's requirement. This spring has demonstrated the need to have a 'plan B' in place for supplementing the diet of the cow.

The dairy farmer has the 'luxury' of being able to supplement the cow at milking time, during periods of tight grass supply, so as to maintain her body condition. This spring has seen a greater levels of supplementation to dairy cows than farmers may have originally planned. However, this is required to ensure that the fertility status of the herd is maintained.

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Body condition score is one of the drivers for fertility. Cows that are in negative energy during early lactation/ post calving will have their fertility affected.

Research has shown that even thin cows on a good plane of nutrition after calving can start to show oestrus 50 days earlier than similarly conditioned thin cows on a poor diet.

Meanwhile, 65pc of the well fed, thin cows conceived to first service, in comparison to only 4pc of those on the poorer quality diet. The average freshly calved suckler cow requires approximately 130-150 MJ/kg dry matter.

Having the cow on a high plane of nutrition at this stage will also ensure that sufficient milk is provided to the calf to meet their individual requirements. Given current grass covers, achieving these energy intakes is extremely challenging.

Disease burden

It is somewhat ironic that on farms with cows still housed, post calving body condition is easier to manage, providing sufficient forage is available and the disease burden on the farm isn't a factor. Freshly calved cows that are grazing on insufficient grass covers need supplementation, with the easiest option being feeding good quality, round bale silage.

Depending on farm circumstances, this can be done by feeding in the field or allowing access back to housing. If bale or pit silage are unavailable (worryingly this is becoming an issue in certain areas) then clean cereal straw is an option for 'buffering' the cows diet.

Obviously, straw will not significantly provide towards the cow's energy requirements but will help to keep her full. The shortfall in energy should be met through concentrate feeding.

Currently, the simplest and cheapest option is to feed rolled barley, rolled oats or a combination of both. Depending on grass or forage supply, 2-3kg of concentrate will meet the cows demand. Any concentrate supplementation should be introduced gradually.

Where cows haven't had the opportunity to graze or have been rehoused, in a number of cases farmers are using fodder beet or brewers grain to extent forage supplies. It is important to remember that when fodder beet is fed for the first time, care should be taken during its introduction into the cow's diet.

Mineral supplementation to include a higher than normal rate of phosphorus is crucial when feeding beet.

Hopefully there will soon be an improvement in weather and growing conditions and a lot of what I have just written about and advised will not need to be implemented.

This week I am travelling to Italy to visit a number of feedlots where there is still a demand for Irish suckler bred cattle, which is good to see. I hope to arrange for a group of interested Irish farmers to visit these feedlots later this year.

Gerry Giggins is an animal nutritionist based in Co Louth

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