Farm Ireland

Thursday 26 April 2018

June calving may not be advised, but it can work

John Shirley

Conventional wisdom is that suckler cows should be calved in the spring and the earlier the better. There is also an argument for autumn calving if you have the facilities.

Yet one of the more interesting suckler farms I encountered in the past few years plans the calving for June. June calving may go against Teagasc advice, but it works for this farmer. He didn't wish to be named, but will freely discuss his system, both the theory and the practice.

The theory is that calving in June leads to best use of grass and that cows will need no meals.

In practice, most of the calves are born in June with a few stragglers arriving in July and August. Cows are back in calf before being housed for the winter in November. During the autumn, cows have access to straw and hay and this seems to keep grass tetany at bay.

Once housed, the cows get silage only. Calves are offered about 1.5kg of meals per hd/day, plus they have access to paddocks around the yard. In practice, some of the calves were gone out to grass before the meals arrived and, if anything, these throve the best over the past month.

Now comes the key to the success of this system. Once February comes (conditions allowing), the calves are weaned and put out to the grass paddocks permanently. This includes both bulls and heifers, each with their own rotation of fields or paddocks.

The theory is that when grass quality is at its peak, it should be grazed by the animals that give the best return. In practice, the bulls and heifers put on phenomenal weight gain on spring grass. All calves are by Charolais bulls and last year heifers weighed from 450kg to 550kg as yearlings sold in marts. Bulls, sold ex farm in one lot, at about 13 months average just under 600kg. The attraction of this system is the low outlay on meals. Meals are confined to the 1.5kg/hd per day over the three-month winter plus some meals at grass to the bulls prior to sale.

Meanwhile, the cows are just maintained in shed with no rush to turn them out. The cows are stocked tightly at grass, making sure that grazing area is reduced as the calved cows are removed. At calving, the cows are lean and fit.

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In February 2011 there is little grass around and wet weather is delaying full turnout, but the farmer prefers to see this grass eaten off to ensure that there will be a sward of highly digestible grass for the suckled bulls and heifers on the next rotation.

What are potential downsides of mid-summer calving?

Cows too fat at calving? This is managed by tight grazing.

Summer mastitis in dry cows? Not an issue, but the cows are grazed on the highest fields on the farm.

Calves too small going into the winter? Earlier on, the cows were Simmental cross. Now Charolais heifers with dairy background are used. Either way, the cows are milky and calves grow on. They will lose weight in winter but are safely back in calf at this stage.

The herd, of about 80 cows, plus a sheep flock, is a one-person operation. Bulls are selected for growth and easy calving rather than muscling. Veterinary costs are low. Calves are given Bovipast. Cows are given nothing except an annual selenium treatment. The upshot is few calving problems.

The bottom line from this approach of low costs, efficient labour and high output is that the farm is delivering a significant net margin from the actual suckling activity. The Single Farm Payment is not subsidising the operation.

John Shirley is a drystock farmer and leading beef sector analyst from the Fighting Cocks, Co Carlow

Indo Farming