BETTER farm: calving 101
Matthew Halpin looks at some final preparations that can be made before calving begins on beef farms this spring

Calving is now fast approaching on spring-calving beef farms throughout the country.

I often think the phrase ‘fail to prepare, prepare to fail’ is particularly applicable when it comes to calving time.

A bit of luck, is always a help of course, however, being set up properly and following the right procedures will certainly have a very significant part to play.

Body condition score (BCS)

The target BCS for a suckler cow is 2.5. Anything above BCS 3 puts the animal at a significantly greater risk of having a hard calving, while cows lower than BCS 2.5 can be weaker at calving, have poorer colostrum and subsequent breeding can be delayed.

At BSC 2.5, the animal’s loin bones and ribs will be felt with light pressure, while the tail head will only have a minor level of fat tissue present.

This late in the day, avoid making any major dietary adjustments.

Over-fat cows can be trimmed slightly, consider feeding straw if stocks allow, while under-condition cows will need an energy boost (see nutrition).


Pre-calving minerals are the first thing that springs to mind with nutrition. Ideally cows should be allocated six weeks prior to calving, roughly 100g/day.

For a fully accurate mineral/vitamin balance, you should consider getting a mineral analysis of your silage.

However, if buying a mineral mix or lick buckets, some of the main ingredients to look out for are magnesium (20-25g/day), phosphorous (4-7g/day), iodine (no more than 60mg/day) and selenium (5-6mg/day). In recent years, supplementing cows with soya bean meal for a month before calving has become more popular.

Soya bean meal is very high in crude protein (48%). Protein can have a number of functions towards the end of pregnancy.

Firstly, protein is essential in digestion, ultimately helping to extract energy from forages.

This is particularly important during late pregnancy when 75% of foetal growth takes place. For those aforementioned thinner cows, I would strongly recommend getting more protein into the diet to maximise energy uptake from feed. Secondly, supplemental protein can also improve the volume, quality and antibody content of the colostrum, helping the new born calf get off to a good start. I would be feeding no more than 0.5kg/head/day, which works out at €0.18/day or €5.40/month at current prices.

Calf management

Where a calf is under pressure immediately after birth, hanging it up or swinging it is not advisable– it will only put greater pressure on the heart and can potentially divert fluid into the lungs. Where a calf is struggling to breathe, place the calf in the sternal recumbency position – sitting on the brisket with legs tucked under – to assist breathing.

Furthermore, tickle the nose with a straw, put cold water on the head and/or rub its chest vigorously to stimulate breathing.

Colostrum soon after calving is essential. This is the calf’s number one immune barrier from disease. Calves should receive colostrum no later than four hours after birth, ideally two. Research has shown that six hours after birth, calves absorbed 66% of the immunoglobulins in colostrum, but at 36 hours they were able to absorb only 7 % of immunoglobulins – that’s going to play a huge role in subsequent calf health. The target quantity for a calf is 8-10% of bodyweight ie 3.5-4l for a 40kg calf.

Calving gate.

Avoid taking in colostrum from dairy farms as it severely compromises your farm’s biosecurity.

For calf environment, keeping newborn calves warm and dry is essential. Warm should not be a stuffy warm, but rather protection from rain/snow, wind or draughts.

Keeping the calf dry is just as important as heat. A calf lying on a wet bed rings alarm bells for infection.

For calves over three or four days old, consider using rubber mats (like in dairy cubicles) and scrape down and dust with sawdust and lime daily.

This is just as healthy, if not healthier than straw bedding, particularly if straw stocks are scarce. Always remember to spray the navels.


  • Calving gate.
  • Calving jack plus two rope sets.
  • Calving gloves.
  • Iodine.
  • Lubricant.
  • Stomach tube and teat bottle.
  • Electrolytes.
  • Calving camera/monitor.
  • Farmer focus

    Martin O’Hare, Co Louth

    Martin has 82 females to calve this spring – 63 suckler cows and 19 maiden heifers.

    Calving is due to commence on 1 February and is set to run until around 10 April.

    Pre-calving management is excellent on the farm.

    The pre-calving diet consists of 72 DMD silage, fed at restricted levels.

    Pre-calver minerals were also introduced before Christmas and are being dusted on the silage daily at feeding time.

    Looking at the cows last week, BCS looked very close to optimum for the majority of the herd.

    Martin felt that maybe one or two second-calvers were losing some condition, so the plan will be to pull these into a separate pen and allocate extra silage until they calve.

    In terms of pre-calving health management, an intensive vaccination programme is in place.

    Cows received vaccinations for Leptospirosis and BVD earlier in the year.

    In the last two weeks, all cows have received a vaccination against scour.

    At the same time, they were dosed for fluke and worms, tails were clipped and a lice pour-on was also administered.

    For a busy calving period, facilities are very good on the farm.

    Ideally, a farm should have one calving pen for every 10 suckler cows. Martin has eight for his 82 spring-calving cows which should be sufficient.

    These calving pens are all under the one roof – four 15ft by 12ft pens, each side of a 10ft central passage.

    One of the dividing gates is a calving gate, meaning it services two pens, leaving life much easier for calving and/or assisting calves to suck.

    Given the large number of cows to calve, a second calving gate would be preferable, something Martin is certainly considering.

    Obviously, post-calving, the objective is to turnout calves as early as possible. While the weather allows this some years, a farm should have the facility to keep calves indoors for longer periods of time if weather conditions are poor.

    Martin explained: “If the weather stays as it is now I’ll be turning them out as quick as I can. But things might change and if they do, I have a creep area to let the calves lie on straw and leave the cows on slats.”

    BETTER farm spring walks: the messages to take home
    Matthew Halpin reflects on the key points of the recent BETTER farm beef challenge spring walks.

    The Teagasc/Irish Farmers Journal BETTER Farm Beef Challenge spring walks have passed, signalling just how quickly the year is moving on. On Thursday 4 April, Maurice Hearne welcomed around 100 people to his mixed suckler, beef, sheep and tillage farm in Dunmore East, Co Waterford. The following Thursday, 11 April, Ricky Milligan hosted a similar crowd on his suckler calf-to-beef and tillage holding near Naas, in Co Kildare. In this article we present some of the key learnings.

    First-cut silage

    Given the time of the year, a strong emphasis was placed on growing silage crops at both walks. The main points of advice were around closing up and fertiliser application. Table 1 details the effect of cutting date on silage quality and yield, and on the subsequent animal intake and liveweight gain.

    Farmers seeking high-quality silage should be targeting a cutting date before 1 June. However, because yield is compromised in a strive for quality, farmers should also consider the type of stock they are carrying over the winter.

    Weanlings and beef animals will need high-quality silage, but dry cows can make do with lower quality, thus allowing a higher yield to be obtained at cutting.

    After picking a target cutting date, target close-up needs to be determined.

    Fifty days is the length of time a silage crop will take to grow in normal growing conditions. Once closed, getting crop nutrition right is paramount. Figure 2 shows the nutrient requirements for first-cut silage, based on the soil index.

    Remember to take note of the N volume applied. A silage crop will utilise around two units/acre of N daily. If 100 units/acre is applied, the crop can’t be cut for 50 days.

    Grassland weeds

    Grassland weeds are evident in a lot of swards subjected to severe drought stress last summer. In Kildare, Shay Phelan, crops specialist with Teagasc, explained: “Weeds are opportunists, the seeds are in the soil all the time. They’re just looking for sunlight and the correct conditions to grow.”

    With grass under severe pressure last summer and with swards grazed bare, weeds got the opportunity to germinate.

    Once established in the sward, weeds can have a significant financial impact on a farm. “Firstly, think of the price of nitrogen, think of the price of P and K. The weeds are using up those nutrients, they are competing with the grass and they are costing you money,” Shay explained. “Weeds are also reducing the performance ability of animals grazing the sward. Output targets are far less achievable.”

    According to Shay, an integrated weed management approach is best: “Gone are the days where the answer is a can of spray. Grazing management, topping, alternating grazing and silage should come first. A herbicide should be the last option.”

    Grazing ground tightly this spring may be enough to choke out the weeds once again. However, where spraying is required, the best time to spray is when the weed is young (definitely before it produces seed heads) and when growth is good (to maximise herbicide uptake). Despite usually being more expensive, longer-acting herbicides were recommended.

    Soil fertility

    Farmers at both farm walks were guided through five steps to building soil fertility:

    Step 1 – soil test

    A soil test should be carried out at least every five years but, in cases where swards are being pushed hard, every three years is ideal. Testing will provide a phosphorous (P), potassium (K) and pH analysis of the soil.

    Step 2 – soil pH

    Optimum soil pH is between 6.3 and 6.5. Where pH is maintained close to the optimum range, an increase in grass DM production of at least 1t/ha/year can be achieved.

    This has subsequently been calculated as a €105/ha benefit or a return of €4 for every €1 invested in lime. Lime can be spread at any time of the year but single applications should not exceed 7.5t/ha.

    Step 3 – P and K

    Farmers should aim for grassland P and K indexes of three and four. Soils at index three or four for P and K, compared to index one, can grow an extra 1.5t DM/ha annually. Building P and K levels is a long-term task which will require P and K to be applied at maintenance, plus build-up levels.

    Step 4 – slurry

    The majority of the nutritional value in slurry is in K (69%) and P (19%). For this reason, P and K should be used primarily for low-index soils. Every 1,000 gallons of slurry provide five units/acre P and 30 units/acre K. The timing of spreading has no effect on the availability of P and K. Nitrogen in slurry will range from three to six units/acre per 1,000 gallons depending on weather conditions. In monetary terms, 1,000 gallons of cattle slurry is worth between €20-€25.

    Step 5 – balance

    Soil fertility is only as strong as its weakest link, so the nutrient that is in shortest supply limits grass yield. Compound fertilisers should be used as a balancer to target nutrients which need building.

    Sulphur is one thing to consider. Although there is no test for it, 30% of Irish soils need it. Grazing ground should get about 20kg/ha (16 units/acre) of sulphur annually.

    Listen: getting that spring feeling at Kildare BETTER farm walk
    Silage making, breeding, grassland weeds and calf-to-beef were just some of the topics covered at the second BETTER farm spring walk on Thursday.

    On what was a very pleasant spring day in Kildare, a crowd of close to 100 people attended the second Teagasc/Irish Farmers Journal BETTER farm beef challenge spring event on Thursday.

    The walk, which was hosted by suckler-to-steer and dairy-calf-to-beef farmer Ricky Milligan, covered a broad range of topics focusing on key management factors for this spring.

    Disappearing before my eyes

    The first stand on the day was presented by BETTER farm adviser Tommy Cox, who gave an in-depth breakdown of the farm’s profit targets for the next three years (Table 1). Given the free-draining nature of the soil on the farm, the drought of 2018 resulted in significantly higher-than-normal expenditure on fertiliser, fodder and concentrates.

    Listen to "Ricky Milligan on his farm in Kildare" on Spreaker.

    “I think the most stressful time of 2018 was when I looked out on to the silage ground that had been fertilised and I realised the grass was almost disappearing before my eyes,” Ricky reflected.

    Other stands on the day featured technical advice in the areas of growing silage crops, optimising soil nutrition, managing grassland weeds and preparing for breeding.


    At the stand on dairy calf-to-beef systems, BETTER farm adviser John Greaney went through the key considerations for farmers when it comes to purchasing dairy calves this spring, particularly in relation to price.

    A calf-rearing budget for Ricky Milligan’s farm in 2018 was also presented (Table 2). “The plan is to certainly have calves on the farm but so far this year I’ve held off on buying any because of price,” said Ricky.

    For more, see next Thursday’s Irish Farmers Journal and listen to the podcast above.

    Watch: Kildare spring walk preview
    Kildare’s Ricky Milligan is hosting the second Teagsc/Irish Farmers Journal BETTER farm beef challenge spring 2019 walk.

    Ricky, with the aid of his father Henry and family, operates a suckler to steer-beef and dairy-calf-to-beef system on the outskirts of Robertstown, Co Kildare.

    The farm compromises of 63.9ha in total, 20.2ha of which is tillage, with the remaining 49.2ha in grassland.

    The land itself can be described as being top-quality free-draining soil, which has the potential for an extended grazing season.

    The grassland area is split in two blocks; the main block of over 25ha is situated around the yard, with the remaining 24.2ha outfarm situated approximately 4km away in Newtown Donore.

    Forty spring-calving suckler cows with a genetic base of Hereford crossed with Simmental and Limousin and a 40-calf dairy-calf-to-beef system make up Ricky's beef enterprise.

    All stock on the farm is taken to beef. Males are slaughtered as steers at 20 to 24 months of age. Heifers are slaughtered slightly earlier at 20 to 22 months of age.

    To boost profitability, Ricky is planning to increase the dairy-calf-to-beef operation to 60 to 70 calves and to slightly increase suckler numbers to 45.

    The increase in dairy-calf-to-beef would complement the sucklers already in place on the farm. Ricky already has suitable infrastructure in place on the farm to cater for them.

    The farm was making steady progress until last year, when extreme weather events during the spring and summer took their toll on the farm. The extended dry spell over the summer severely reduced grass growth.

    That, coupled with the late spring, meant a lot of extra meal and forage was purchased, resulting in a significant extra cost.

    While 2018 was one to forget, Ricky is enthusiastic about the future. The primary focus will be building fodder stocks next year and continuing the push to maximise the potential of the farm.

    Feeding the soil to produce the feed

    Approximately 90% of the soils sampled in Ireland are sub-optimal in one of the three major nutrients – pH, phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). As part of the Teagac/Irish Farmers Journal BETTER farm beef challenge, we aim to improve soil fertility on participating farms.

    The target for farmers participating in the challenge is to have a pH average of 6.1 on mineral soils and an average pH of 5.7 for peaty soils.

    Along with looking to improve pH levels, farmers are also looking to improve P and K levels, aiming to have at least 70% of the farm in index 3 for both P and K by the end of the programme.

    On each farm at the commencement of the programme, one soil sample was taken on every four hectares to determine the P, K and lime status.

    Using these results, a nutrient management plan was prepared for the farm to try to rectify any nutrient imbalances.

    A soil pH of between 6.3 and 6.5 is ideal to allow for maximum nutrient uptake by grass. Correcting the pH is the first requirement in optimising grass growth.

    Robertstown results

    Figure 1 shows that all of Ricky’s soil samples are pH 6.2 or higher, so Ricky just needs to monitor and maintain these levels.

    Recent studies have shown that grassland soils maintained at pH 6.3 to 6.5 have the potential to release approximately 60kg to 80kg/ha more nitrogen (N) than soils with pH 5.0, thus representing a significant cost-saving opportunity. Looking at Figures 2 and 3, there was major soil fertility issues to be addressed on the farm with regards to P and K. The results show that almost the entire farm is low in phosphorus, with 44% of the soils at index 1 and 49% at index 2. Just 7% of the farm was in the optimum index of 3 or greater.

    Ricky Milligan measuring grass with BETTER farm adviser Tommy Cox.

    Phosphorus is very important for crop establishment and root development; it also plays an important role in the nutrition of livestock. Soils at P index 1 will produce approximately 1.5t/ha less of grass dry matter compared with soils at index 3; therefore, an improvement was essential for extra grass growth.

    Potassium levels are also an issue, with less than 20% of the farm in index 3. Potassium increases stem strength, improves drought resistance, cold tolerance and, most importantly, increases yield.

    Since the programme started, lower-index paddocks have being targeted with slurry, farmyard manure and compound fertiliser containing high levels of P and K, as opposed to spreading straight nitrogen which was often applied in the past.

    Hitting the specs with Hereford beef

    All farmers participating in the challenge must be Bord Bia quality assured and must aspire to finish stock which meet all the required specifications.

    Liveweight must also be measured three times annually to ensure performance targets are being achieved and to ensure cattle stay in-spec.

    In order to get better prices, farmers must finish stock that has good conformation scores and correct fat covers to achieve above and beyond the base price.

    Happy with Herefords in Kildare

    Hereford is the predominant breed on Ricky Milligan’s farm, with a Hereford stock bull used and the majority of dairy-cross calves coming from Hereford sires.

    This early-maturing beef breed has, in recent decades, declined in popularity, with suckler farms turning to continental breeds instead. However, this is not the case in Robertstown as Ricky believes that Herefords are the best breed for his system, as housing is scare and Herefords, being an early-maturing breed, have an edge with their potential to be finished off grass prior to the second winter.

    To add further value to the product, the farm is a member of the Irish Hereford Prime programme where price bonuses of €0.10 to €0.25/kg can be secured based on the time of the year and the specifications of the cattle.

    Generally, carcases must grade minimum O=, not exceed a fat score of 4= and weigh between 220kg and 380kg to receive these bonuses. Only animals less than 30 months of age qualify for the bonus payment.

    All males on Ricky's farm are castrated at six months of age and slaughtered as steers at 20 to 24 months of age, while his female progeny, along with dairy-cross heifers, are also brought to beef at the slightly younger age of 20 months.

    Typically, concentrates are not be introduced to finishing stock until September at the earliest, as cheaper liveweight gain can be obtained from grass.

    The BETTER farm spring walk on Ricky Milligan's farm takes place on Thursday 11 April at 1pm. The farm is located at Robertstown, Naas, Co Kildare, W91 TY32. It is a KT approved event.