In this article, Nigel Gould, beef and sheep adviser, Enniskillen with the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) outlines what can still be done to help ensure a successful calving season on suckler farms.
Suckler cow nutrition in the final six weeks pre-calving is essential in ensuring the cow is fit for calving, calves a calf with good vigour and produces an adequate amount of good quality colostrum for her new-born calf.
These factors, combined with good post-calving management, will minimise calf mortality this spring. Ideally, body condition score for spring calving suckler cows should be in the region of 2.5-3 at calving.
Restrictions to diet with an emphasis on reducing body condition score are not recommended in the final six weeks of pregnancy.
Minerals and silage ahead of calving season
Silage is generally deficient in essential trace minerals such as copper, selenium, and iodine. A good pre-calving mineral mix is recommended for the final six weeks of pregnancy. The most popular methods of supplementing pre-calving minerals is via lick buckets or silage dusting of bagged minerals.
The bagged mineral mixes are the less expensive option with fewer variable intakes compared to lick buckets. Generally, 100-120g/cow/day is recommended.
It is best to use specific pre-calving mineral mixes instead of fertility mineral mixes for example, as the excess calcium combined with the low magnesium in the diet of suckler cows pre-calving can sometimes trigger milk fever immediately after calving.
Calving season essentials
Have all the necessary items to hand when the busy period arrives. Important items include calving aids/ropes, iodine solution for navels, arm-length gloves, calving lubricant, disinfectant, artificial/frozen colostrum, stomach tube and/or feeding bottle.
Use plenty of straw in the calving pens and disinfect between calvings. Generally, one calving pen per ten cows is recommended; however, more will be required where a very compact calving is anticipated.
Preparation now will reduce stress on both farmer and the animal during a time where labour availability is often low.
Adequate intakes of good quality colostrum within the first 24 hours by the newborn calf is essential in ensuring the transfer of adequate levels of passive immunity from colostrum to the calf. The ability of the calf to absorb antibodies from colostrum declines rapidly after birth.
For this reason, ensure an adequate quantity of colostrum is consumed by the calf as soon as possible after birth (10% of calf body weight within 6 hours).
For a calf weighing 45kg, this will equate to 4.5 litres of colostrum. Be mindful that there are many calves, particularly continental bred calves born on-farm which will weigh in excess of this and will require a greater quantity.
When thawing frozen colostrum, do so in good time. Freezing in bags or containers with larger surface areas will reduce thawing time. Overheating will destroy antibodies. Never use a microwave to defrost colostrum.
Although it is often useful, be mindful of the risk of bringing disease into your herd via colostrum from another herd, particularly Johnes. Colostrum from your own herd will contain antibodies specific to the diseases encountered on your own farm.
Colostrum from other herds may not provide passive immunity against all diseases specific to your own farm. Also, be aware that suckler cow colostrum generally has a higher concentration of antibodies per litre compared to dairy colostrum.
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