Dan Ryan: Empty cows need to be offloaded now to cut winter fodder costs

Cattle eating silage on Hook Head during the drought in summer 2018
Cattle eating silage on Hook Head during the drought in summer 2018
Tom Phelan of IFA said the price decisions taken by Glanbia, Lakelands and Kerry Group had "disappointed farmers". Stock image
Dan Ryan

Dan Ryan

The fodder shortage has raised many questions about systems of milk production for spring calving.

Now, there is no discussion of expansion on any farm visits.

However, farmers are still optimistic that a mild autumn will enable a third cut of silage and enable cows to be kept outdoors later in the autumn.

The challenges at farm level vary tremendously depending on the part of the country. For example, recent rainfall has had little impact in counties Tipperary, Waterford and Wexford.

It is hard to believe that some herds are being fed up to 9kg of dairy ration on a daily basis.

In other parts of the country where rainfall was sufficient on heavier soil types, grass supply has enabled resumption of grazing rotation and opportunity to harvest second and third cuts.

This will ease pressure on these farms to provide sufficient forage for the dry cow/ fresh cow transition periods.

Cull cow prices have dropped significantly. Farmers are reluctant to sell their empty cows at these prices. Milk prices justify keeping the empty cows on farms where fodder supplies for the rest of the grazing season are not at risk.

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However, there are many farms where the impact of the drought still pertains. It is difficult to support the logic of feeding between 6 and 9kg of dairy ration to empty cows where grass supply going forward is restricted.

The financial gain is questionable and you are putting your pregnant cows at risk of a compromised dry cow/ fresh cow transition period.

Some farmers are planning to dry off their empty cows in September.

These cows will return very little financially because cull cow prices have collapsed in both the marts and factories.

But if you do not have sufficient supplies of fodder for your herd for the winter months, empty cows need to leave the herd now.

Alternatively, some farmers will dry off the empty cows and feed them for six to eight weeks on a high concentrate diet. You need to evaluate the return on costs and your time before considering this option.

A combination of both late spring turnout and summer drought has resulted in many herds with maiden in-calf heifers below target stature and body condition score. Get your heifers weighed now.

It is essential that you address the required concentrate supplementation to offset both grass supply and quality.

In-calf heifers failing to achieve target weights prior to seven months of pregnancy will have poorer survival rates at the end of first lactation and total milk solids will be reduced.

In-calf heifers have been badly neglected on many farms this year. There is an urgent need to address this issue.

Money spent on supplemental fodder and concentrates will leave an excellent financial return when fit first calvers enter the herd.

Scanning cows to identify empty cows, pregnancy ageing and multiple pregnancies at this time of year also reveals cows which have either aborted or have a 'mummy' foetus. Many of these cows will not show signs of heat.

Disease risks

The primary causes of abortion or mummification are Salmonella, Leptospirosis, Neospora and Schmallemberg. Vaccination is essential if blood or milk analysis reveal a risk in your herd. Studies reveal that Neospora is the primary cause of abortion in herds in the UK.

Dogs and foxes are intermediate hosts in the transmission of Neospora. There is an increased risk of disease transmission where in-calf cows and heifers are forced to graze pasture too tight because of fodder shortage.

Finally, on a positive note, we scanned a 200 cow herd in Limerick last week where the empty rate was 13pc for a 12-week breeding period.

This herd is currently producing in excess of 8000 litres in a spring calving system.

Concentrate supplementation on a fodder yield basis had to reach up to 10kg daily for the eight-week period encompassing the drought and grass recovery period.

Dr Dan Ryan is a bovine reproductive physiologist and can be contacted at www.reprodoc.ie

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