Farm Ireland

Tuesday 20 February 2018

Ensure cows are conditioned to help make pregnancies easy


Dr Dan Ryan

The implications of a superlevy on excess milk production above quota available have been highlighted in the past month. In contrast, a superlevy will not pertain in Northern Ireland.

This is now the main market for autumn-calving stock. While autumn calving is getting going in the North this aspect of dairying is in demise in the Republic. The costs of milk production and quota management are the primary reasons for this.

Many farmers will have their milk quota full by the end of this month, with no quota available for spring-calving in February/ March. Empty cows are being identified by scanning. These are the first cows to be removed from the system.

Cull cow prices are excellent for good feeder cows. However, there is poor demand for the small Jersey-cross cows. My recommendation here has been to recycle them as replacements next year if they have been scanned as reproductively sound. The empty Holstein Friesian cows are being dried off early this year. They will be sold as feeder cows.

Previously, these cows were milked through the winter and recycled for breeding. With excess breeding stock on most farms and quota management a major issue, this practice will not continue.

The superlevy scenario is being exacerbated by current milk prices. High milk solids for late lactation milk command a price up of to 44c/l. Some farmers are being advised to continue milking cows at this price and still make a profit with a penalty of 28c/l. Once-a-day milking with zero concentrates on a grass-based diet is being practised by these farmers.

However, this runs the risk of sacrificing body condition score (BCS) now which will have a detrimental effect on reproductive performance after calving next year. Cows need to achieve a BCS of 3.0 at drying off and to maintain the same level until they calve.

First lactation cows and those carrying twins are most vulnerable to poor BCS. It is advisable to dry these cows for 12 weeks if BCS is poor. Supplemental feeding of concentrates to cows to improve BCS will not increase calf size and associated calving difficulty until cows are greater than seven months pregnant. Now is the time to ensure your cows achieve the correct BCS.

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Many farmers are being advised to go to once-a-day milking when faced with a superlevy situation. Care has to be taken that the welfare of the cow does not suffer. The cow has to be fed to meet her requirements for maintenance, BCS, milk production and pregnancy. However, many farmers report that introducing cows to once-a-day milking is stressful when cows are producing more than 25 litres on twice-a-day milking.

Farmers who continue with once-a-day milking, zero concentrates and a grass-based diet for freshly calved cows next spring will impair the welfare of the cow. This production system requires a cow with a low genetic potential for milk production. Management practices which cause excessive BCS loss should not be tolerated on the basis of animal welfare and the quality of milk supplied to the food chain.

Many dairy herds will be dried off in the next month. Now is an ideal opportunity to prepare for dry cow management. Silage analysis for feed value and minerals is a critical element of a preventative health management programme (PHMP).

Ensure your cows get a specific mineral supplement to meet their requirements. Specific blends may be more expensive but will be more beneficial in a PHMP. Other options of mineral supplementation in the dry cow period include mineral licks and boluses. In my opinion, the dusting of a specific mineral supplement on the silage fed to the cow on a daily basis is the best approach in a PHMP.

A common practice observed now is the vaccination against salmonella while the pregnancy scanning is under way. As cows reach the final trimester of pregnancy, they are vulnerable to abortion from diseases such as leptospirosis, salmonella and neospora. Liverfluke and stomach fluke will depress the immune system of your cows to these diseases.

A fit cow will generally fight off any of these diseases if her immune system is functioning correctly. Indeed, it should be recognised that the response to vaccination programmes is poor if this is not the case.

The incidence of neospora cases will increase as cows are housed. Dogs and foxes are the intermediate host. Contamination of feed by these animals can result in abortion storms plus mummification of pregnancies.

We encountered one case recently where 30 autumn calvers aborted and scanning revealed a further 10 with mummified foetii in a herd of 80 autumn-calving cows. Ensure dogs are not allowed to access feed faces for dry cows.

In summary, ensure your cows achieve and maintain a BCS of 3.0 by eight weeks pre-calving. Avoid BCS loss of more than 0.5 in the first 40 days post-calving.

Dr Dan Ryan is a reproductive physiologist. Contact him at

Indo Farming