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Have you started planning for next year’s calves?

Conditions for calving suckler cows this spring has been almost ideal due to the dry weather and in spite of the difficult times we are in, writes Colin McEvoy, beef and sheep development adviser, CAFRE.

Some farmers have already finished calving and may be beginning to plan for next year’s crop of calves. 

Your aim should be to produce one calf per cow per year and therefore have the ideal 365-day calving index. The average calf gestation is 287 days, which means there are only 78 days or 2 ½ months to get the cow back into calf.

In order to meet this target, you should consider:

The cows

Think about the future and the development of your suckler cow herd and ask yourself the following questions.

What does the market want? Can you produce calves to meet that demand and make a profit? Is your current system suitable or do you need to change? What type and how many cows do you need to keep? 

  • Decide when you want your cows to calve next year and plan the service period accordingly. Consider adopting the “bull in and bull out” approach which will tighten up your calving period;
  • If using Artificial Insemination (AI), have a start and end date for inseminations;
  • As cows begin to come into season, observe them closely for heats and record dates of cycling. This will help identify problem cows;
  • Mix late and earlier calving cows as this has the potential to instigate and encourage the later calving ones to start cycling earlier;
  • Identify cows for culling. First up should be the problem cows. Usually the older, aggressive, lame, thin, poor performing or those that had calving problems. Perhaps the late calving cows should go first as they have had problems.

Identify replacement heifers and the number you may need.

  • If purchasing these; are you able to source them?
  • If breeding your own; are they of the optimum age?
  • If you are calving these down at 24 months of age then they must be 15 months at service.
  • Will these heifers be on target to reach their ideal bulling/service weight which should be 60-65% of what their mature weight will be as a first calving cow/heifer?
  • For a 650 kg mature cow/heifer the service weight should be 390-420 kg.

Ideally, calve the replacement heifers just before the main herd or when you would like your main calving period to be as they usually need extra time and preferential treatment to get them back in calf again. Next year these heifers could replace the late calving cows.

  • If vaccinating the herd for BVD, is your vaccination programme up to date? Make sure and vaccinate them on time well before the breeding season starts.
  • Is the breeding herd now on a good and rising plane of nutrition, with cows coming into the optimum body condition score for service of 2-2.5?
  • Are your cows deficient in any minerals? Discuss this with your Private Veterinary Practitioner.

The sire

  • Do you currently have enough bull power to serve all your cows in the required period of time particularly if you are trying to tighten up your calving period? One bull can cover 40 cows if given enough time to do so.
  • Is your bull in a good fit condition for service and is he still working and fertile?
  • Do you need to purchase a new bull and if so are you currently able to source one? Perhaps you could use AI as a temporary option?

Think about your target market:

  • Are you producing calves for the weanling/store markets in which case your preferred choice may be a continental terminal sire?
  • If you are taking cattle through to finish, the terminal sire could be a traditional breed where a price premium may be obtained?
  • Or is your main aim to breed and sell potential replacements? If so, well-proven maternal genetics, potentially sexed semen, though AI may be the better option.
  • If considering the purchase of a new bull choose one with good Estimated Breeding Values (EBV), selecting one with those traits best suited to your system.
  • Check that the bull is from a herd with a known and high, herd health status.

Taking time to think and assess your situation may seem time-consuming, but as with any task, good planning can ensure the right outcome.

Review the foundation stock within your suckler herd, before service begins. It is a useful exercise to critically assess the cows and the sire being used to see if they are producing the right quality of calf for the market and producing one calf per cow per year. If not you need to make changes.

With good planning, you may be able to command a premium for your product by breeding better quality animals which meet market demand and save money by decreasing your calving index.

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