By Mícheál Kelly, Teagasc Adviser, Galway/Clare
This has been a difficult year in terms of farm management.
We have faced many difficulties including the fodder woes of the spring, the intense summer drought, and overall poorer market prices for livestock.
The prices paid for weanlings have always been determined by both the weight-for-age of the animal, as well as the animals’ breed.
Once the cow goes in calf, we can only try to control the diet of our animals.
In any given year, we have ample supply of grass throughout the summer, leading to high milk production in our suckler cows and excellent growth rates in our calves.
This year brought increased difficulty in controlling these factors, as we faced a later turnout, followed by the impact of the drought on grass growth and quality over the summer.
These issues have had a huge impact on the weanling markets this autumn, with many farmers who do not usually rely on meal feeding calves while they are still suckling faced with the reality of weaning calves at lighter weights.
As a consequence of this, many farmers are now considering keeping their weanlings over the winter, or at least until market prices rise.
Where this is the case, farmers need to consider the diet of these animals, going forward.
The minimum target of a weanling diet is to achieve 0.5kg of liveweight per day over the housing period.
If weanlings are gaining any less than this, it will lead to a stunting effect on the animals, mainly due to their minimum requirements for protein, which is essential for growth and development, as well as the weight targets to improve their marketability not being achieved.
The growth rate required over the winter period is heavily dependent on the market being targeted.
Where cattle are being sold from the shed or being targeted for the young bull market, it will pay to have them gaining more weight indoors, even though it will increase the cost of the system in the short term.
However, if animals are being turned out to grass the following spring on your own farm, the additional meal feeding required for rapid additional growth will not be justified.
Research has shown that it does not pay to feed any more than 2kg of good quality silage, where animals are not being sold from the shed, but are turned out to grass the following spring.
Compensatory growth, as well as less reliance on high levels of concentrates, will cause these cattle to flourish in their second grazing season.
They are already adapted to a high forage diet.
We often see that fat weanlings fed a high level of concentrates will tend to lose condition and have a lower growth rate at grass due to the need for the rumen to readjust to breaking down grass and forages once again.
By the end of the second grazing season, the differences in liveweight between animals fed a low concentrate versus a high concentrate diet over the first winter will be insignificant.
Silage quality is the key determinant of the level of meal feeding required.
Where silage quality is good (highly digestible, with a good protein level), 1-2kg of concentrates will be adequate for achieving moderate growth rates of 0.5-0.7kg per day over the winter.
Average quality silage is significantly less digestible, which leads to a high level of compensatory meal feeding to achieve the same dietary targets.
It is extremely important to test your silage.
We cannot change the quality of it once it is in the pit or bales, but we can however plan what we need to feed in addition to it to compensate if the quality is low.
If you find the silage quality is good, there can be significant cost savings, as you can afford to feed less concentrate to achieve the same targets.
This is where silage testing is essential.
If you asked someone for directions on the road, the starting point is where you are right now.
Deciding on the level of meal feeding required is no different. If we do not know the exact quality of our silage, we cannot have an accurate basis for formulating a diet for our animals.
A silage sample test costs about €50, which is cheaper than six bags of a weanling ration at €340 per tonne, which will only feed 10 weanlings for a week. In reality it is an essential investment on farms we should not avoid.