Suckler cow feeding for fertility

Back in April, I attended a beef technical seminar and tour in Co Laois run by the Agricultural Science Association.

This week I will cover the key aspects of Dr Alan Kelly of UCD’s presentation on suckler cow feeding.

Dr Kelly’s messages were very clear and can be broken down as follows.

The three most important stages are mating/breeding, calving and weaning.

Aim to build up body reserves when grass is plentiful. These reserves can then be utilised in the winter, when feed costs are higher.

Base cow feed requirements on body reserves.

Manipulation of the cow’s body condition is an important strategy in controlling feed costs.

“Feed to achieve appropriate condition score in relation to the production stage.”

The biological efficiency of producing beef from the suckler herd is relatively low.

Providing feed — particularly during the indoor winter period — is the largest variable cost in beef production, and has been shown to be 65% of the variable costs in the Grange suckler calf-to-beef system.

The cow herd accounts for about 85% of the annual feed costs for calf to weanling systems, and 50% or greater for a calf to beef system.

A key objective is to maximise the proportion of grazed grass in the annual feed budget of suckler beef systems — the competitive advantage that Irish livestock farmers must exploit! Grazed grass constitutes 49% of the total feed budget on Irish suckler beef farms. Teagasc in Grange have shown that this can be increased to 62%, with better management.

Body Condition

Body Condition Score (BCS) provides a measure of the level of body reserves which is independent of liveweight alone.

The condition scoring technique is easily learned, requires no equipment and, although it is subjective, it has been shown to give reliable results when related to subcutaneous fat cover.

Body condition is a very sensitive barometer of nutritional status.

A series of target scores can be proposed which are used to manage feeding levels throughout the year.

Attention should be given to the attainment of these scores (see the accompanying table) — for spring calvers, about 3.0 at mid-pregnancy (weaning); about 2.5 at calving; and at least 2.0 at mating. Autumn calving targets are about 2.0 at mid-pregnancy (turnout); about 3.0 at calving; and at least 2.5 at mating.

Remember that heifers and younger cows have additional requirements for growth so targets should be a little higher.

At weaning or housing, group animals according to condition score and feed accordingly (spring calvers could be either fit (BCS above 3.0); target group (BSC 2.25 to 3.0; or a thin group (BSC 2.0 or less).

First calf heifers should be housed either separately or with the thin group.

Having cows in a fit condition at housing can save between €35 and €40 per cow over the winter season, because you can afford to let them drop as much as 0.7 of a condition score, by feeding about 1.5 tonnes (300 kg of dry matter) less silage to each cow.


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