In this article, That’s Farming speaks to Catherine Egan, a cattle specialist with Teagasc, about preparing for autumn calving.
TF: What would be the recommended BCS before calving?
CE: Body Condition Score estimates the cover of flesh on the ‘frame’ of the animal. A recommended BCS for an autumn calving cow is 3. By assessing the fat cover along the ribs which can only be felt with firm pressure and areas either side of tail head have fat cover that is felt easily. The cow should be fit and not fat.
How can farmers maintain the cow’s BCS at this figure in the lead up to calving?
Typically, cows are outdoors grazing paddocks. In situations where cow BCS is high herbage allowance, or quality can be restricted. Farmers can achieve this by increasing stocking rate or grazing the cows as followers in a leader-follower grazing system.
Dry cows can graze on rougher, older pastures or graze after higher priority cattle to clean out paddocks.
Control grazing intakes to stop cows from gaining excessive body condition in the run-up to calving.
TF: What if a cow is above the recommended BCS? What issues can this influence?
Many factors influence the incidence of calving difficulty but calf birth weight and internal pelvic area of the cow account for most of the variation in calving difficulty (dystocia).
As cow BCS increases above a moderate level, calving difficulty can increase. Over-fat cows have increased calving difficulty because fat is deposited in the pelvic area, thereby reducing the size of the pelvic canal.
Low levels of feeding during the last one-third of pregnancy will not result in predictable effects on calf birth weight or calving difficulty.
What if a cow is below the recommended BCS? What problems may arise?
Very thin cows also have increased calving problems (and increased calf mortality) due to insufficient strength to withstand the birth process and giving birth to weak, non-vigorous calves.
What vaccination/ doses do you recommend pre-calving?
Major benefits of using vaccinations include:
- Preventing disease;
- Fewer antibiotics;
- Less labour.
Vaccines against E. coli, Rotavirus, Coronavirus and Salmonella, will give passive immunity to calves through the Colostrum.
Vaccines are found to be effective in combination with good nutrition and hygiene to combat infections.
These vaccines generally have to be given from three weeks to three months before calving.
What are the most important minerals for calving?
There are four important elements that need to be supplemented pre-calving which include magnesium (mg), phosphorus (P), selenium (Se) and iodine (I). Pre-calver minerals should be fed for 4-6 weeks pre-calving.
Minerals can be fed through water, trace elements can be supplied in boluses (but this will not cover for major elements), molasses mineral buckets and in a carrier ration. Ensure feeding rate is correct – weigh it out.
Grazed grass and grass silage will adequately supply major elements such as calcium, phosphorus and sodium. Farmers should supply Magnesium during the tetany risk period.
What is the recommended amount (in grams/kgs)?
The level of supplementation varies depending on soil type. Supplementation with a pre-calving mineral will cut down issues such as a retained placenta and calves that are slow to stand and feed.
Cows need a supplement of 30 g of magnesium (or 60 g of calcined magnesite) during the high-risk period.
|Per kg in the bag
100 g feed rate
Depending on silage P
|100g feeding rate|
|Per kg in the bag||Total fed mg per cow per day|
|Vit D (D3)||120,000||12000||NB for milk fever|
What measures can farmers have in place to minimise mastitis post-calving?
Summer mastitis is normally associated with dry cows and heifers during the summer months (late June-mid September).
There is no doubt that it has a higher prevalence in some years and under certain conditions.
Also, try to keep dry cows and replacement heifers away from susceptible fields. Fields that are open, dry and kept well topped will reduce the habitat where flies can thrive and so reduce the risk.
Most farmers will use a pour-on to deter flies. Application of Stockholm tar around the teats and udder at least once a week will help to deter flies, but it must be frequently applied to be effective.
Use Fly repellents in conjunction with some of the other preventative methods. Products such as garlic licks and fly tags reduce fly activity on cows also. Grazing dry cows near wooded areas or dormant water, as these are a haven for flies.
What measures can farmers have in place to minimise milk fever post-calving?
Milk fever is a disease characterized by reduced blood Calcium (Ca) levels. It is most common in the first few days of lactation when the demand for Ca for milk production exceeds the body’s ability to mobilize calcium reserves.
BCS management is critical for the prevention of milk fever. Reduce calcium intake before calving and avoid any added oral calcium. This will allow the cow to mobilise her own calcium from bone or blood immediately after giving birth.
Feed a good quality dry cow mineral high in magnesium that has no added calcium or low added levels.
Feed forages that are low in potassium and have not received potassium fertiliser or slurry.
Avoid lush pasture for autumn calving cows as this grass is low in magnesium.
What equipment should farmers have on hand to ease calving?
Check the basic calving equipment on the farm to ensure you have what you need for when you need it.
- A good calving gate securely fitted;
- A calving jack in good working order;
- Two sets of clean, soft nylon ropes;
- Two stomach tubes (one for sick calves and one for colostrum management);
- Feeding bottle;
- A thermometer;
- A warming box;
- Calf jacket or infra-red lamp;
- A box of arm length gloves;
- Standard rubber gloves ;
- Access to warm water.
Ensure to order enough calf tags. Also, check in advance if calving cameras and calving sensors are working. See a full pre-calving checklist.
Should calving take place indoors or outdoors?
There are benefits to calving indoors or outdoors, depending on each farm’s individual situation.
If cows are calving outside, paddocks need to be sheltered with good access to a shed for when they have to come in if assistance is required.
Autumn cows suit calving outside in the next two months as they usually require less intervention as they are fit.
If weather conditions are favourable and paddocks are available beside the yard, allow cows to calve outside where possible in early autumn.
This reduces labour feeding silage daily/ bedding pens and straw usage.
If heifers are calving or if cows are calving to a new stock bull or an AI sire with low reliability indoors may provide greater comfort in case animals need assistance.
During poor weather, indoor calving is more practical.
Cows could go out to grass by day and house overnight as a compromise to allow the use of calving cameras at night to reduce labour.
What safety measures should farmers keep in mind when calving cows this autumn?
With calving occurring, we should always take account of safety. A quarter of Irish farm accidents and one-fifth of farm deaths are livestock-related. Attacks by recently calved cows are a common cause of such accidents.
Calving is a very stressful time on the farm; indeed, it is stressful for both humans and animals. A cow that is normally quiet out in the field can become very aggressive at calving.
So, keep contact between the cow and farmer to a minimum. You can achieve this through the existence of good facilities.
You can watch this YouTube video: Safety at Calving Time by Teagasc.
Post calving, what would be the recommended diet for cows before breeding?
After calving, the cow and calf can be turned out and monitored for a few days to make sure the calf is suckling properly before re-joining the main herd.
For cows with high milking potential, graze on bare covers for at least one week before moving to better grazing.
Putting these cows on lush grass within a few days of calving will result in a flush of milk that the calf will struggle to utilise. This makes cows more prone to mastitis.
Where possible, keep the regrowth on silage fields or paddocks that had surplus grass baled for freshly calved autumn cows.
The regrowth will be high-quality grass, which will drive dry matter-energy intakes post-calving, boosting milk and fertility.
Calving the cow and caring for the newborn calf are important tasks on every autumn calving suckler herd in the coming weeks.
It is important to manage calving’s to reduce problems as much as possible.
Last spring, vet Tommy Heffernan, discussed these important topics in detail on the Beef Edge podcast in a two-part series.