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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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‘If the calving jack is required, it is important not to use it over aggressively’

Six steps to a successful calving season on a suckler farm

“A bit of luck is always important when it comes to calving time, but being well prepared and organised prior to calving is fundamental to a successful calving season.”

Those are the words of Tommy Cox, Education Officer, Teagasc Ballinrobe, who believes there are six key areas that suckler farmers can focus on to lead to a successful calving season.

These include:

  • Condition;
  • Nutrition;
  • Scour vaccine;
  • Facilities and equipment;
  • Calving and calf management;
  • Colostrum.
Cow condition

Firstly, moderate quality silage of (65-67DMD) is generally adequate for suckler cow’s pre-calving, provided cows are in correct condition.

“Cows need to be ‘fit and not fat’ before calving. The target BCS for a suckler cow at calving is 2.5.”

“Anything above or below this could create potential issues. Diets of cows close to calving should be kept stable to prevent any upsets. Cows calving later in spring could possibly have changes made if farmers find cows are in excess or under condition.”


Mineral levels in Irish silage are very variable, and as a result, it is advisable to supplement cows pre-calving, Cox noted.

Mineral deficiency can lead to weaker calves with reduced immunity and more susceptible to illness, as well as cows retaining cleanings which can delay the onset of cycling.

Cows should be allocated minerals six weeks before calving. Pre-calver minerals can be fed by dusting on top of the silage, through water, in boluses, in molassed mineral buckets and in a carrier ration.

The main ingredients to look out for are:

  • Magnesium (20-25g/day);
  • Phosphorous (4-7g/day);
  • Iodine (no more than 60mg/day);
  • Selenium (5-6mg/day).

“Supplementing cows with 0.5kg -1kg of soya bean meal for a month pre-calving has become more popular with suckler farmers. Soya bean meal is very high in crude protein (48%).”

“Many farmers find extra protein can also improve the volume and quality of the antibody content in the colostrum, helping the newborn calf get off to a good start,” Cox added.

Vaccination programme

Vaccines against E.coli, rotavirus, coronavirus and salmonella will give passive immunity to calves through the colostrum.

They are found to be effective in combination with good nutrition and hygiene to combat infections.

These vaccines, generally, must be given from three weeks to three months before calving. “If cryptosporidium scour has been a problem on farm in the past, it is important to speak to your vet to develop a plan before a potential outbreak occurs.”

Facilities and equipment

According to the Teagasc advisor, the phrase ‘fail to prepare, prepare to fail’ is particularly applicable when it comes to having facilities and equipment in tip-top condition before calving.

“Clean well-disinfected calving pens with plenty of straw provide the perfect warm environment for the new-born calf while also minimizing the risk of the calf picking up bacterial infections such as scour and joint-ill.”

He advised farmers to ensure they have basic calving equipment easily accessible when required.

These items include:

  • Calving gate;
  • Non-slip calving jack;
  • Nylon ropes;
  • Lubricant;
  • Navel spray;
  • Disinfectant;
  • Stomach tube;
  • Feeding bottle and teat;
  • Electrolytes;
  • Thermometer;
  • Infra-red lamp;
  • Gloves.
Calving and calf management

Ideally, cows should be moved to the calving pen a day or two before they are due to calve to allow them to adjust to their new setting, Cox added.

“Once calving signs start, supervise and ensure adequate time is given. Cows can be left up to two hours after the water bag, or the calf’s hooves appear.”

“After this, intervention will be required. If you are unsure of been able to get the calf out, veterinary assistance may be required. Also, if the calving jack is required, it is important not to use it over aggressively to prevent injury to either the cow or calf.”

“If the calf is under pressure immediately after birth, hanging it up or swinging it is not advisable as it will only put greater pressure on the heart.”

“Instead, place the calf on its brisket with its legs tucked under to assist breathing. Navel spray (iodine or chlorhexidine solution) should be applied to the calf’s navel directly after birth to prevent potential infection.”


Lastly, antibodies do not pass from the cow to the calf during pregnancy. Therefore, calves are born without any immunity. Colostrum soon after calving is essential.

This is the calf’s number one immune barrier from disease. Farmers should adhere to the simple 1, 2, 3 rule when feeding colostrum to the new-born calves.

The calf should get its first feed of up to three litres within two hours of birth.

Further reading 

For more farming tips, click here.

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