Farm Ireland

Friday 24 November 2017

Quick fix of inducing cows should not be a substitute for good management

Late calvers need good, dry-cow management, which is neglected on many farms
Late calvers need good, dry-cow management, which is neglected on many farms

Dr Dan Ryan

Calving is now well under way and most farmers will have a high proportion of their first calvers milking at this stage. However, a high proportion of the later lactation cows remain in the maternity ward.

On a recent farm visit to a dairy farmer in Tipperary, I noted that more than 30pc of the cows had slipped from January and February calving to March to July calving because he delayed the breeding date by two weeks. Why does he do this you may ask? His theory is that the elevated levels of protein in a lush grass diet in early May results in too many cases of clinical or sub-clinical acidosis.

Whatever the reason for later breeding and calving dates, many farmers are left wondering how to address the issue of later-calving cows. The quick fix for some has been induced calving. I don't believe in this, even though it has been quite widespread in New Zealand for many years. Injecting cows with a steroid forces them up to 70 days before they are due to calve naturally. This brings them into milk with the rest of the herd during spring. Cows produce around 90pc of previous lactation yields with higher milk solids. However, this practice is now being phased out through legislation on animal welfare grounds.

There is an alternative way to address this issue but it does take more effort.

What I call a preventative management health programme is required. This focuses on preventing the environmental stressors that depress the immune system of the cow and her reproductive performance. In essence, good management practices and stockmanship skills are needed at all stages of the production cycle.


Sadly, with increasing herd sizes, a cow becomes a number and, even with the best will in the world, the stockman simply does not have the time to look after each cow individually. This whole issue has become clouded by the fact that terms such as animal welfare are associated with the 'green' movement. However, maximising animal welfare should be the goal for every livestock farmer. After all, when you are kind to the cow, she will be kind to you.

The first step in this process is to maintain a healthy immune system in the cow. Unfortunately, the reproductive system is the first line of attack when you place undue stress on the cow. I witness this firsthand scanning thousands of cows every year. Even seemingly unrelated issues, such as poor dry cow nutrition, milk fever, lameness and infectious diseases, show up on the scan.

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So what steps can we take to reduce the number of late calvers?

  • Late calvers need good, dry-cow management. This area is neglected on many farms. The cows are either fed silage rejected by the milking cows or poor-quality silage contaminated with mould. Mycotoxins are extremely detrimental to reproductive performance.
  • Ensure dry-cow mineral supplementation meets the requirements of your cows. A mineral analysis of your milk will enable a dry and milking cow mineral specification for your herd. Another analysis of the mineral levels in your silage and feed should also be done to ensure cows do not lose body condition in the dry cow period.
  • Prevent calving difficulty by avoiding over-conditioned dry cows. They will have a higher incidence of metabolic disease and calving difficulty. The temptation to use beef sires, which deliver a valuable calf but increase calving difficulty, should be avoided.
  • Vaccination programmes should be put in place. The late-calving cow is frequently forgotten in this programme. Ensure needles are changed frequently between cows and that booster vaccinations are given at the correct time.
  • Ensure there are adequate dry matter intakes at grass in the freshly calved cow. For the first 40 days, the cow should not lose more than 0.5kg in body weight per day, or half a condition score. Quality concentrates from a reputable merchant are a must for the freshly calved cows. Disciples of low input, grass-based milk production may not concur, but lifetime production of the cow is key to animal welfare and profitability.
  • Along with a thorough micro and macro-nutrient analysis, test for the presence of disease challenges at four intervals throughout the year. An integral part of this programme should incorporate scanning in the window of 14-50 days after calving. Scanning is not just a tool to identify if the cow is pregnant or not. Scanning cows from 14 days post-calving will identify if the health of your dairy herd is meeting the requirements to maximise subsequent reproductive performance. All may seem well on the surface, but the health of the reproductive system is key to long-term herd profitability.

Dr Dan Ryan is breeding management consultant at

Indo Farming

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