Vet on how suckler farmers can maximise gains during the spring calving season


Eamon O'Connell
Eamon O'Connell

Eamon O'Connell

The suckler herd in Ireland is going through a particularly tough time at present. Poor prices combined with rising costs are making it harder to make any profit. So, for those who are producing what is still a very high quality end product, be it at weanling sales or all the way to finished cattle for the factory, the margins are very fine indeed.

Unlike dairy farming, where the calf is often seen as a "bonus", profitability on suckler farms relies as much, if not more on the calf as it does on the cow. So, what steps can we take this spring to minimise losses and maximise monetary gain?

Firstly, we must evaluate the housing facilities. Cleaned and disinfected calving pens and also, calf lie-back areas are important. Calves need a clean, dry and warm bed so try not to be too skimpy with straw, as scarce a commodity as it may be. Seek a professional opinion on air flow in the shed, particularly if outbreaks of pneumonia have been a problem in recent years. A fresh pair of eyes and subsequent small alterations can make all the difference.

Next, we look at the cow. Body condition score is of paramount importance. The high quality of feed available on farms this winter has resulted in many suckler cows being over-conditioned at calving time.

If a cow is too fat at calving, it will result in a much greater incidence of a slow or difficult calving, a prolapsed uterus or even a downer cow. Any fat cow should be identified, separated from the main group. Have a chat with your vet and nutritionist about feeding a restricted diet to over conditioned cows in the latter months of pregnancy aimed at reducing the risk of some of the conditions mentioned already.

Once a cow has calved successfully, the diet should again be addressed with the aim being to produce high quality milk for the calf at foot, without a significant loss of body condition that would ultimately affect both cow health and fertility. Calving is a very stressful time for suckler cows so ensure that your vaccination programmes are up to date, especially when it comes to diseases such as IBR that really come to the fore when a cow comes under pressure.

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Now, we concentrate on the calf. For any chance of a suckler cow being profitable, she must produce and rear a healthy calf. Colostrum is the first and most vital step. A huge proportion of calves that die from conditions such as scour or pneumonia have not received a sufficient quantity of good quality colostrum in the first three hours after birth. I find that suckler calves are over represented in this case.

After calving, the cow should be checked to ensure that all four teats have colostrum and that the teats are clean. I know that this may not be possible with some cows, but it does ensure that, at least when the calf is sucking, its efforts are not in vain, be it due to a non-patent teat or worse, mastitis.

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A calf can be slow to suck after a difficult calving. In this case, it can be worthwhile stomach tubing the calf with colostrum rather than trying to get it to suck. Never underestimate the value of pain-relief after a difficult calving too, both for the cow and the calf.

The calf's navel should be treated with a chlorhexidine based product as soon as possible after birth.

In the first few days after birth, the calf needs to keep feeding regularly. There are any number of conditions which can put a calf off sucking: Scour, pneumonia or joint ill are the most common. Veterinary intervention should be sought immediately in these cases. Soreness or bruising from a difficult birth can also slow a calf's desire to suck.

Pain relief will make a huge difference here. Some calves, despite everything being in their favour, will make very hard work out of sucking the cow. As every suckler farmer knows, these are the most frustrating: after an intense battle to get the cow restrained and the calf into the correct position to suck the cow, often, the calf will seem to do everything but suck. If you are certain the calf isn't suffering from any underlying condition, it may be worth using some dark chocolate (with a high cocoa content). Crumble some up into the calf's mouth or even melt some and cover the cow's teat in it. It may be just the encouragement the calf needs to get him going.


It is well worth having a vaccination protocol in place for your calves. There are a number of pneumonia vaccinations on the market so discuss with your vet which ones will be suitable for your herd. Cows can be vaccinated in the last trimester of pregnancy to prevent the calf getting scour from Rotavirus, Coronavirus and E-coli.

Stock image. Picture: Alf Harvey/
Stock image. Picture: Alf Harvey/

All calves should be vaccinated against diseases caused by clostridial bacteria, particularly blackleg. One shot of any clostridial vaccine is not enough. A booster, usually six weeks later is necessary to provide full immunity. Coccidiosis is another disease that can be prevented by intervention, particularly before a time of stress such as dehorning. As there are a number of products on the market, seek veterinary advice regarding the timing and product to use.

Most importantly of all this spring though, is you, the farmer. Safety should be the primary concern. Increasingly, suckler cows in particular are getting more unpredictable, especially around calving. I have heard countless stories of near misses when it comes to calving cows and attending newborn calves.

Some stories have not had happy endings. Make sure all your facilities especially calving pens and head gates are fit for purpose.

Suckler farming may be in a dark place at present, but it will see better days and you need to be fit and well when those days arrive.


A suckler cow needs produce a healthy calf every 365 days in order to be profitable. After a normal calving, a cow needs 40 days for her uterus to return to normal and for bulling to resume. If we consider that some suckler pregnancies can last almost up to 300 days, then we can quickly run out of days to get the cow back in calf. Every effort must be made therefore to maximise the small window of opportunity that is available.

Vaccination: Vaccination programmes for BVD and Lepto should be completed at least three weeks before the start of breeding. IBR vaccination should be up to date also.

Nutrition: With a healthy calf at foot, the suckler cow has an energy requirement that needs to be met in order to produce enough milk for her calf and conceive to service. Seek advice on supplementation of the diet, particularly in the weeks leading up to and during the breeding season.

Minerals: Lack of minerals such as copper and Iodine can have a negative effect on fertility. Mineral deficiencies can be addressed by using boluses or adding via drinking water.

The regular sucking by the calf can have a negative effect on the cow's ability to come into heat, particularly if the calf is thriving well. It can be tricky to manage restricted suckling. The aim is to minimise stress, but yet to maximise fertility by removing the constant suckling of the calf. Definitely seek veterinary advice before attempting this.

Heat detection: Suckler cows can be very difficult to observe in heat, so, if using AI, tail paint regularly and strongly consider the use of a vasectomised bull.

If using a breeding bull, now is the time to get Bull Breeding Soundness Exam carried out. A vet will evaluate a semen sample as well as carry out a top to toe examination of the bull to ensure he is fit for purpose.

Colostrum: liquid gold for calves

IN an ideal world, when a suckler calf is born, they will stand in around 20 minutes and suck its mother. The reality however, is often very different. After a hard pull, a caesarean or even in the case of a well muscled calf, the ability to stand and suck can be very much delayed. In cases like this, colostrum will need to be fed to the calf manually, often via stomach tube. Most suckler cows will not respond well to being milked by hand so often, colostrum has to be sourced elsewhere. A number of things should be considered when doing this:

  • It must be the first milking from a freshly calved cow.
  • Quality is very important, so it helps if the colostrum is tested with a refractometer to ensure it makes the grade.
  • At least three litres is recommended and it must be fed in the first two hours after birth. Dairy cow colostrum is more dilute than suckler cow colostrum so this is why a higher quantity is required.
  • Source colostrum from a cow that is vaccinated against Rotavirus, Coronavirus and Ecoli. When going to the trouble of sourcing colostrum, you may as well get the best possible.
  • It may not be possible, but colostrum from a Johnes free cow is ideal. Johnes is a chronic wasting disease that can affect some dairy herds. It can be passed on through colostrum so it is to be avoided if possible.
  • When defrosting colostrum, never ever use a microwave. Microwaving renders it absolutely useless. Defrost it in a water bath. The water temperature needs to be 50 degrees Celsius so a thermometer is very useful.
  • After the calf is tubed, he won't be as vigorous to suck on the next feed so extra time and patience will be required.

Eamon O'Connell is a vet with the Summerhill Veterinary Clinic, Nenagh, Co Tipperary

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