All change as herds head indoors

There is still a lot of grass on many farms, after the ideal growing conditions of the summer and autumn.

Conditions were excellent up until last weekend, with grass utilisation very good also on most land types.

Paddocks had been grazed out really well, which will help with grass quality next spring.

However the rain that has fallen over the last few days has made grazing conditions much more difficult. My phone is now hopping with farmers wanting diets for newly housed or soon-to-be- housed stock.

At this time of the year, you must appreciate even if grazing conditions are OK, the grass is low in dry matter, low in energy, and high in protein. This means that it is of low feed value, which must be taken into account when deciding what animals should remain out to graze it.

Suckler Management

Many suckler farms still have only some of their stock indoors. However, housing is not far away once all of the grass has gone, or weather conditions deteriorate further.

Management of a suckler herd changes a lot indoors. Most sucklers seem to calve without assistance when outdoors. Once indoors, however, with less exercise and a typically lower plane of nutrition, cows are often slower to calve, and sometimes require assistance.

Cows with calves at foot must be fed accordingly. Try to supply sufficient energy for milk production, remembering that she is also growing her next calf.

If cows are in good condition at housing, their diet should aim to maintain that condition up to drying off, and once dry, many will need to strip off some condition before calving. For both purposes, a silage test will allow you to devise the nutritional requirements more accurately.

Scour Vaccination

If your herd has a history of scours indoors, it might be worth discussing a scour vaccination programme with your vet. Remember, there is an ideal timeframe pre-calving in which you should vaccinate, for maximum protection against scour in your new-borns. You must also get sufficient colostrum into the calf, in time for the antibodies to be transferred to the calf.

Indoor calving

Make sure your handling facilities are appropriate for sucklers. Cows can get very aggressive around calving and can be very protective of their offspring. Most farms now have a purpose-built calving gate which restrains the cow at calving if necessary. These gates are also ideal for getting a calf started suckling safely. Check that your calving jack is in full working order and that the ropes are close at hand. A source of cold water in the calving box is also handy to help resuscitate a calf after a difficult calving.

Ensure your calving camera is working correctly, to avoid unnecessary visits to the shed, disturbing cows (and heifers, particularly) in the process of calving. Sucklers can get stressed around calving if disturbed; they are not very used to human contact.

Clean Calving Boxes

It is a good idea where possible to clean out and disinfect calving boxes between calvings. Hygiene around calving is critical for subsequent calf health. A spray of iodine on the navel soon after calving will also help to reduce exposure to environmental infections. Many whitewash calving box walls, to make it easier to see what is happening when viewing with a camera; it brightens up the whole pen.

Off to a good start

Getting ample colostrum into a calf soon after calving provides much needed antibodies. This will help to boost the calves’ natural immune response, further reducing the incidence of disease. Where possible, get the calf up and drinking asap, and monitor their suckling activity in the first few hours. A common practice on many farms over the last few years has been to give calves an oral paste such as Calf-Aid in the first 12 hours of life, which supports the emerging immune system, helps growth rates, and encourages appetite.

Once calved indoors, it is ideal if facilities allow you to leave the cow and calf in a single box for as long as possible. This will allow first calvers in particular to bond with their offspring and get used to the calf suckling. It also allows you to monitor the cow’s intakes, and to reduce the risk of any metabolic disorders which may occur soon after calving.

Calf Creep

When the cow and calf return to the main herd it is important that the pens are not overcrowded. Most suckler cows are housed on slats or cubicles, and with either, it is best practice from an animal performance point of view that calves have access to a separate creep area. A calf creep area doesn’t need to be to elaborate, but should provide the basics of a warm, dry, clean bed with access to feed and water.


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