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Friday 24 November 2017

Preparation is crucial for suckler cow calving

Liam Fitzgerald

Almost 50pc of suckler cows calve in March and April, so a large proportion of beef cows are now in the final two to three months of pregnancy.

There are a few important management tasks to be addressed in preparation for calving. By the way, having 50pc of the spring calving herd calving in March and April is rather late for those selling weanlings in the autumn as it means a very light weaning for sale and one that cannot make full use of summer grass. A better target would be to have 50pc of calvings in February and March but that issue is for another day. Today I will discuss feeding to target condition score, pre-calver minerals, scour vaccines and parasite control.

With lower than normal fodder supplies and severe winter weather, cows are on restricted rations on some farms. Body condition score (BCS) is the best guide to correct feeding of suckler cows. The appropriate condition score in late pregnancy is to maintain body condition between BCS 2.0 and 3.0. Having cows above 3.0 is unnecessary, wasteful and can lead to a greater incidence of calving difficulty. Lower than BCS 2.0 results in weaker cows (downer cows) and much slower re-breeding, resulting in an increase in calving interval. Thin cows may also produce poorer quality beastings and calves that are at greater risk of disease.

The energy requirements of suckler cows in late pregnancy, as set out by Mark McGee of Grange, are in the region of 7.5-8.0kg UFL (energy units) per day, which is equivalent in feed terms to 7.5-8kg of barley where there is no loss or gain in body condition. Cows that are in good body condition at the start of the winter (BCS 3.0) can tolerate a loss of 0.5 of a condition score between housing and turnout, which is equivalent to 1kg of barley over 140 days. Therefore, body reserves can be used to substitute for scarce feed supplies in winter, provided cows go into the winter in good condition.

In relation to silage feeding, 7-8 UFL (or kg barley) would equate to between 45kg and 55kg of moderate-quality silage. A 600kg cow is unlikely to consume above 45kg/day of moderate quality silage.

Therefore, cows in condition score 2.5--3.0 should be fed such silage to its appetite, if an adequate supply is available, while thinner cows will need 1-2kg concentrate before calving.

Where silage is restricted provide 1kg concentrate per 7kg of silage spared.



  • Pre-calver minerals: Feed about 100g (4oz) of pre-calver mineral/cow/day for six weeks before calving. The mineral can be sprinkled on the silage or on concentrates if feed- ing straights or mixtures of straights. Compound rations have minerals included but where only a small amount of ration is fed, cows should still get loose minerals on the silage.
  • Scour vaccines: The administration of anti-scour vaccines before calving provides additional protection via the colostrum against known scour- causing organisms. Vaccination provides added protection to good husbandry practices and is not a guaranteed blanket prevention for calf scours. Vaccines are available to combat E.coli, rotovirus, coronavirus and salmonella. Cryptosporidium has become a common cause of calf scour but there is no vaccine available to combat it. Where cryptosporidium has been identified, disinfection, feed-ing adequate high quality colostrum in the first few hours of life, good hygiene and vaccination against the other scour-causing organisms will help reduce its severity. Follow the manufacturer's instructions on administration of vaccines and consult your vet on an appropriate vaccination routine.
  • Parasites: Fluke and lice are the most troublesome parasite of mature suckler cows. Well fed, healthy cows should have strong immunity to worms. This has been a bad fluke year. All housed cows should have been treated for fluke at this stage with products that are effective against immature and adult flukes. Products containing triclabendozole closantel, nitroxynil and rafoxanide are suitable for cows that have been housed for more than six weeks. Outdoor stock on rough grazing or reserved pasture should have been treated in October/ November and again about now.


When treating for lice, make sure to cover all the stock in the shed at the one time.

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