Beware nutrition challenges over winter

It is vital that there are no big changes in body condition in the six week period before calving

Liam (right) and Nicholas Phelan, Clogh, Castlecomer, Co. Kilkenny with Roxy feeding whole crop silage with rolled barley and soya bean to store cattle. Photo: Alf Harvey/
Liam (right) and Nicholas Phelan, Clogh, Castlecomer, Co. Kilkenny with Roxy feeding whole crop silage with rolled barley and soya bean to store cattle. Photo: Alf Harvey/

Gerry Giggins

In most parts, the extra month of grazing, due to the fine weather, will hopefully mean a month less of feeding during the housing period, provided we get a normal spring.

It also brought a welcome delay in the housing of livestock, particularly suckler cows.

Most cows have had their calves weaned, are now dry and are in excellent body condition.

But beware - over-conditioned cows can have many issues at calving if they are not managed correctly during the winter dry period.

A lot of spring calving cows that I am seeing have a body condition score of over three and are still four to five months away from calving.

As the ideal body condition score for most cows at calving is 2.5-3, this means that many cows are now over-conditioned.

The nutrition management of these cows will be important over the coming months.

The average 600kg suckler cow that is one body condition score above 2.5 is carrying an extra 70kg in bodyweight.

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The same cow can mobilise 0.5kg per day from its body reserves, meaning that 45kg in body weight can be lost over a three month period.

It is vital that there are no dramatic changes in body condition in the six week period before calving, so changes in body condition should be managed during the early dry period.

The best way to reduce body condition score is to feed low energy feeds, while at the same time satisfying the appetite of the animal.

When I compare the feeding of Irish beef cows during their dry period to those in the big suckler cow regions of the US, South Africa, and Australia I feel that we often overfeed or spoil our cows.

In general, our cows don't suffer the challenges of poor quality forage or grazing, or weather stress from extremes of temperatures.

Feeding straw along with the appropriate amount of silage will ensure that the cow's appetite is satisfied, while at the same time lowering her overall energy intake.

The amount of straw fed will be dictated by the quality of silage used.

The better the silage quality, the more straw should be fed. Wheaten straw is always my preference due to its greater fibre content, which offers a better fill capacity in the rumen. The trading of straw this autumn has been significantly lower than previous years so there is an abundant supply if it needs to be sourced.

Budgeting for the amount of straw will be dependent on cow body condition.

If 0.5 of a body condition score needs to be lost, then 5-6kg per head per day is required.

Over a three month period this equates to 450kg of straw per cow.

This amount of straw will replace approximately two round bales of silage.

Once body conditions scores are corrected it is vital to maintain them for a 50 day period pre-calving.

'Fit for calving' is a term commonly used.

This means that the cow's muscle tone will be at its optimum and her stamina for calving will be at the required level.

The quality of the cow's colostrum will also be influenced by the dry period feeding and body condition, which will pass through to the calf and improve its vitality. The cow's post-calving appetite will also be improved, ensuring she can meet the demands of early lactation.

The final link in the chain of correct dry-cow management is mineral and vitamin supplementation.

The essential minerals and vitamins that the dry cow requires cannot be obtained solely from silage.

The animal's specific requirements will depend on the type of diet being fed.

Attention should be paid to the levels of magnesium, selenium, vitamin E, and iodine to ensure that the health of both cow and calf is optimised. 

My week ahead

* I am looking forward to visiting beef finishing units in Denmark this week that are specialising in feeding black and white bulls. With lower milk prices, some Danish dairy farmers have retained their male calves for finishing with a view to supplementing their incomes.

Indo Farming

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