Farm Ireland

Monday 22 October 2018

10 key factors that impact weanling thrive over the winter

Gordon Peppard analyses 10 factors that can impact on potential weight gain before the Spring turnout to grass

Silage quality is extremely variable
Silage quality is extremely variable

Farmers are often disappointed with how their animals perform over the winter period, with average daily gains of as low as 0-0.3kgs per day commonly reported when stock are turned out to grass for the spring. To maximise performance over the animal's lifetime, it is essential that weanlings achieve a minimum growth rate of 0.6kgs per day over the winter housing period.

If stock are growing at 0.25kgs per day or less, they can become stunted. This will have serious consequences on the lifetime gain and finishing performance of these animals.

So how can you ensure that your animals meet this target?

There are a number of key factors to understand.

1 Growth Potential

Growth potential depends on a combination of gender and breed. Bulls will have a higher growth potential than steers and steers higher than heifers. Continental animals will have a higher growth rate than dairy bred stock.

2 Duration of Finishing Period

It is important to have a defined finishing period. When animals reach the end of this period they are slaughtered as the laying down of fat consumes more energy than lean tissue deposition, slowing the rate of gain in the late finishing period.

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Heifers generally require 70-90 days finishing, steers 90-120 days and bulls 100-150 days.

3 Low dry matter intake

Low dry matter intake is one of the primary causes of poor thrive in beef cattle.

Dry matter intake is largely influenced by the dry matter (DM), dry matter digestibility (DMD) and preservation of the silage.

Dry matter intake can be estimated by weighing blocks of silage/silage bales and using a silage analysis to determine the dry matter of the silage.

Weanlings should achieve dry matter intakes of at least 2pc of body weight on grass silage based diets. For example, a 300kgs weanling will require 6kgs dry matter per day. Higher intakes can be expected on concentrates or where high DM forages such as maize and whole crop are used.

4 Inadequate supplementation

Meal feeding rates are determined by silage quality. Farmers routinely feed the same level of concentrates year in year out with no knowledge of silage quality. Silage testing is essential.

Without a silage analysis, you are completely in the dark on the amount and level of protein that is required in the concentrates you are feeding.

Table 1 presents the supplementation rates required for weanlings and finishing steers / heifers offered grass silage.

It is recommended to front load meal feeding in the first half of the winter, reducing meals towards the turnout date.

5 Parasites

Parasites can have a detrimental effect on performance over the winter period.

The main stomach worm of concern over the winter is Type 2 Ostertagia. The Levamizole (clear drenches) based products are not effective against this type of stomach worm. Ensure that the stomach worm treatment used will also kill lungworms.

When dosing for fluke ensure that the flukicide used kills the stage of liver fluke that you have.

It's a good idea to rotate flukecide from year to year.

The main external parasites are biting and sucking lice and in some cases ticks. The key to controlling external parasites is to treat all animals in the house at the same time. Otherwise the lice will spread from the untreated animals back onto the treated animals.

6 Environment

One of the biggest factors affecting animal performance is space allowance, Space allowances are presented below in Table 2.

Remember that as the stock grows they will need more space if this hasn't been taken into account at housing. Poorly designed barriers can restrict intake.

Rub marks on the neck of stock can be evidence of a low barrier or stock having to stretch for fodder.

Adequate ventilation, air movement and freedom from draughts are also important.

7 Water supply

Reduced water intake will depress feed intake and consequently performance.

Beef animals require approximately 6 litres of water per kg DM intake. For example a 300kg weanling eating 2pc of body weight - 6kgs of dry matter per day -will require 36 litres of water.

This will fluctuate depending on dietary specification, environmental temperature and rate of gain.

Water troughs should be inspected regularly and cleaned at least two three times a week or sooner if water is fouled. Water intake will be higher on high concentrate feeding systems.

8 Mineral deficiency

Weanlings and finishing cattle need routine supplements in winter but while mineral deficiencies are often cited as the main cause of poor thrive, this is not usually the case where a good mineral supplement is fed.

It is important to check that minerals are included at the correct rate for high concentrate feeding systems to avoid toxicity problems.

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9 Nutritional diseases

Nutritional diseases like acidosis, diarrhoea, lameness and liver abscesses can be inter-linked and need to be controlled.

Acidosis can occur in beef cattle on a high concentrate diets. Causes can include lack of fibre in the diet, rapid introduction of starchy and sugar based feedstuffs, sudden changes in concentrate type and irregular feeding. Affected animals show signs of kicking at the belly, grinding of teeth, go off their feed and develop signs of colic. Associated problems include diarrhoea and laminitis.

Access to a good fibre source, straw or haylage, is critical to reduce the risk of this costly condition.

Reduce starch/ sugar content of the diet. Supplements such as buffers and yeasts may have a role to play but are no substitute for accurate diet formulation and good feeding management.

At any sign of excessive scouring or digestive upset, decrease the concentrate level to the previous step for a few days.

The laminitis problem can be accentuated if animals are on concrete slats for extended periods of time.

Acidosis can often be sub-clinical and not manifest itself in the ways mentioned above but it can still cause sub-optimal performance. Monitoring of finished animals at the factory from time to time may be useful to detect a sub-clinical acidosis problem with no outward clinical signs such as liver abscesses and other rumen disorders.

10 Respiratory Problems

Viral pneumonia is the biggest cause of ill-health and death in Irish weanlings every year. Prevention is definitely better than trying to cure. Proper management of weanlings to avoid stress is important but vaccination is also worth considering.

Monitoring performance

The winter period on farms in Ireland can last between 90 and 165 days depending on weather and the part of the country you are located in.

This can represent between 25pc-45pc of the yearly production cycle on your farm.

Achieving good average daily gains during this period is essential in order to keep your farm's output high and reduce the days to slaughter.

Poor performance over the winter means extending the animals' lifetime on the farm which will ultimately reduce performance and profitability.

The best way to monitor performance on farm is by regular weighing of your animals.

Scales can be purchased and retained on farm for years of use.

Alternatively, the ICBF have a number of weight recorders around the country that will weigh your cattle and leave you with a weight report on each individual animal.

At a minimum animals should be weighed one to two weeks after housing, two to three months later and again at turn out if going back to grass, this will give a good indication as to how your animals are performing.

Regular weighing during the summer months is also very important.

Gordon Peppard is programme advisor for the Teagasc Calf to Beef Programme

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