Advice for beef farmers: Very few suckler herds indoors

With the recent fantastic spell of weather, very few cattle have been housed yet.

Grass is however beginning to get scarce, and housing will have to be done sooner rather than later.

Very few suckler herdowners have anything indoors yet, which is great if you have autumn calvers.

Management of a suckler herd changes a lot once they go 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.

Sucklers with young calves

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 intake, and reduce the risk of any metabolic disorders which may occur soon after calving.

It also reduces the risk of injury associated with entering a large group soon after birth.

Calf creep areas

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.

Breeding for next autumn

Cows that will calve in the autumn of 2017 will be inseminated over the coming months. It is important that you get everything organised before breeding. Many herdowners will put a pre-breeding vaccination programme into action.

Don’t breed heifers until they have grown sufficiently.

If using AI, select bulls that suit your herd and your production system.

Those in the BDGP scheme must also keep in mind the production of sufficient four and five star replacements to fulfil their requirements for 2020.

Get the stock bull ready

If you are going to run a bull with your cows, it is important that he is in good working order.

Check his hoofs and legs, and treat where required. Make sure the bull has good body condition prior to being put to work.

Include the bull in any dosing or vaccination programme.

Bulls should be fed well for six weeks before being put to work. Feeding concentrates will also supply essential minerals and vitamins associated with improved fertility and sperm quality.

Both the cow and bull will be more comfortable on non-slip surfaces.

Get set for indoor calving

Make sure that your handling facilities are appropriate for sucklers. Suckler cows can get very aggressive around calving, and can be very protective of their newborn.

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 that your calving camera is working correctly, to avoid unnecessary visits to the shed disturbing cows, and particularly heifers, in the process of calving.

Sucklers can get very stressed around calving, if disturbed, as they are not very used to human contact.

Remember that suckler cows, depending on breed, often show little signs of calving, and can go into labour quickly, with no great warning.

Scour vaccination

If your herd has a history of scours indoors, it might be worth discussing a scour vaccination programme with your vet. There is a large window of opportunity for these vaccines; they usually can be given between three and 12 weeks before the expected calving date.

Clean calving boxes

It is a good idea, where possible, to clean out and disinfect calving boxes between calvings. If this is not practical, try to have a good deep layer of new straw 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.

Off to a good start

Getting ample beestings into a calf soon after calving provides much needed antibodies. This will help to boost the calf’s natural immune response, further reducing 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 administer an oral paste including antibodies and minerals/vitamins to calves in the first 12 hours of life, which supports the emerging immune system, growth rates and encourages appetite.


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