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HomeBeef'You cannot starve calving difficulty out of cows and heifers’
Catherina Cunnane
Catherina Cunnane
Catherina Cunnane hails from a sixth-generation drystock and specialised pedigree suckler enterprise in Co. Mayo. She currently holds the positions of editor and general manager at That's Farming, having joined the firm during its start-up phase in 2015.
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‘You cannot starve calving difficulty out of cows and heifers’

In this article, Catherine Egan, Teagasc beef specialist, discusses the importance of taking advantage of spring grass early and provides advice on feeding suckler cows.

Currently, on every spring suckler farm, there are cows and heifers that are yet to calve, cows that have calved and first-calved heifers.

In some cases, there are the yearling heifers and bull/steer yearlings. So, what do I need to feed them from now until turnout?

In most cases, there are 5-6 groups of stock with different nutritional requirements.

Cows and heifers yet to calve

Cows require a body condition score (BCS) of 2.5 for spring-calving herds. Thin cows or cows with a BCS of below 2.5 should be fed good quality silage of 70 DMD along with 1 to 2 kg of concentrates to help improve condition.

Where cows are above a BCS of 3, they may need to be restricted as these cows will have an increased risk of encountering calving difficulties.

Over-fat cows will have fat deposited around the pelvic area, thus reducing the amount of space for the calf to come out during calving.

There is a temptation in the run-up to calving to try and restrict cows in an effort to reduce calf birth weight and, therefore, reduce calving difficult.

It is important to understand, however, that the factors affecting calving difficulty are multifactorial. Research has shown that ‘you cannot starve calving difficulty out of cows and heifers’.

Mineral supplementation prior to calving is essential to ensure both cow and calf health. It is important that minerals are fed 4 to 6 weeks before calving. There are many different methods available when administering minerals to suckler cows.

Feeding suckler cows that have calved

After calving, the cow’s feed requirements are for maintenance, some growth (particularly young cows) and milk production.

If cows with calves at foot are indoors on a silage-based diet and in good condition, feed moderate to good quality silage, to appetite, for 4-6 weeks after calving before being turned out.

However, if silage quality is poor, feed 1-2 kg of meal. Cows going to grass directly after calving don’t need concentrates if there is a good supply of high-quality grass.

The need for minerals in the suckler cow is significantly lower than that of the dairy cow. In general, molassed mineral buckets are adequate to supply minerals.

Major elements such as calcium, phosphorus and sodium will be adequately supplied in grazed grass and grass silage. Magnesium must be supplied during the tetany risk period.

First-calved heifers

After calving, first-calvers require concentrate supplementation, in all cases, until turnout. This is important to ensure that the heifer does not lose body condition to get her back in calf.

If silage quality is moderate to good, feed 1-2 kg meal and if silage quality is poor, feed 2-3 kg meal. Pay extra attention to first-time calvers, shy feeders, old cows, and thin and lame cows. Feed a high energy (UFL = 0.94+) ration with 16% protein.


Over the winter period, most weanlings have been fed silage and depending on silage quality, some concentrates to gain 0.5-0.6kg/day.

Achieving these targets will allow for compensatory growth when animals go to grass. Once weanlings are thriving and achieving this target, concentrates could be withdrawn for a month before turnout.

Heifers you are keeping as replacements should be the first to be turned out when possible. Typical turnout weights should be 380-400kg for continental-type heifers.

If they get 4-6 weeks at grass, pre-mating should mean these heifers are comfortably 420-440kg at bulling.

Spring grass

With current weather conditions getting out to grass is challenging on most farms at the moment. However, where land is dry and free-draining, there is a great opportunity to start grazing to take advantage of spring grass early.

On heavier soil types, it is important to walk the farm and assess ground conditions weekly and target stock to the drier paddocks once ground conditions allow.

Further reading

Read more tips and advice from Teagasc.

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