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).

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.

Checklist

  • 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.”

    Watch: completing an eProfit Monitor
    Ahead of the BETTER farm eProfit Monitor analysis for 2018, Matthew Halpin looks at the steps involves in completing the forms.

    The 2018 e-Profit Monitor results for the Teagasc/Irish Farmers Journal BETTER farm beef challenge participants are in. Inside this Thursday’s Irish Farmers Journal will be the first of a three-part series analysing the financial performance of the programme participants for the last 12 months.

    After an extremely tough 2018, it is pleasing to see that on-farm productivity has increased, though the extra costs stemming from tough weather conditions have impacted the group’s gross margins.

    eProfit Monitor

    Carrying out an eProfit Monitor for 2018 should be a priority for all drystock farmers. After all, a farm is a business and every business is built on financial performance.

    If completing with the assistance of your local B&T advisor, the first step involved is to download and print the Teagasc drystock profit monitor input sheet. This input sheet can be found here.

    Alternatively, if completing the form by yourself, log in to ICBF Herdplus, select applications and then profit monitor.

    It is important that you know exactly what you’re doing if attempting to complete your own profit monitor on Herdplus.

    Direct payments

    Sales and direct payments” is the first income section to be filled in. The value of your basic payments and other premia are required here. All this information can be found here.

    Livestock sales and purchases

    The next section that requires income information is livestock sales and purchases details. The information needed for this can be found in your ICBF Herdplus account under the sales and purchase history section.

    Livestock opening, closing and average details

    This section gives the average number of stock on the farm over the year, as well as looking at the livestock inventory. It is vital to record inventory changes from the year. This information can again be accessed through the profit monitor section of your ICBF Herdplus account under livestock summary. It is then up to you to give a realistic valuation of your current stock using Teagasc's standardised livestock valuations.

    Variable and fixed costs

    Variable and fixed costs is the final section of the input sheet to be filled out. Many farmers may find it difficult to dig out the information required, but there are a number of sources available. My advice here is to contact feed suppliers, merchants and vets that you buy from and ask them to print account summaries for 2018 – they should be happy to do so. After this, look back at the cheque book, dockets and invoices and online banking for further expenditure.

    There is a lot of crossover with fixed costs and although they’re not easy to calculate, they’re vital to understand. Average fixed costs on drystock farms are around €500/ha. Buildings usually depreciate by 5-10% annually, machinery depreciating from 10%-20% depending on the machine.

    Analysing your results

    The most important part of the process is to then sit down and analyse your completed eProfit Monitor. Examine where the strengths and weakness are within your system and use this information as a tool to improve your margin for 2019. Furthermore, look at the 2018 eProfit Monitor results for the BETTER farms in this Thursday’s paper and see how you compare.

    BETTER farm: margins take a beating but production rises
    Matthew Halpin reports on the BETTER farm e-Profit Monitor results for 2018

    Year two financial data, for the Teagasc/Irish Farmers Journal BETTER farm beef challenge participants, is in. It would be fair to say that before pen was even put to paper on completing e-Profit Monitors, the general consensus was that 2018 was an extremely tough year on farm finances.

    Whether it was the difficult spring conditions or the long summer drought, each farm was hit one way or another.

    As has been continually reported on throughout the last 12 months, conditions took their toll on key areas such as animal performance, herd health and grass growth – all of which chipped away at the bottom line.

    Results

    Table 1 provides a breakdown of e-Profit Monitor results by system, as well as the group’s overall performance. Jumping straight to gross margin, it is coming in at an average of €610/ha.

    Unfortunately, this represents a 13% drop from the group average in 2017. As already mentioned, the signs were pointing towards a gross margin reduction after a turbulent 2018. However, it is the sudden halt in progress that will disappoint the programme farmers the most.

    Coming from a base of €570/ha in 2016, 2017 performance showed a year-on-year gross margin increase of 24%.

    With so much time and money invested in stock and infrastructure, farmers would have hoped to gather further momentum.

    Now over halfway through the programme, it is clearly going to be a big challenge to hit the ambitious €1,250/ha target before the programme’s conclusion, but it is still achievable.

    Breakdown

    Taking a closer look at performance by system, 20-month bull beef operations returned the highest gross margin in 2018 at €801/ha. Figure 1 shows this was also the system with the largest year-on-year increase, up from €718/ha in 2017.

    However, it would be naive not to exercise extreme caution with the 20-month system.

    While demand and price for this type of stock was very good in the first half of 2018, the second half of the year and early stages of 2019 have been extremely difficult with price cuts, tight weight restrictions and long slaughter delays being imposed on overage bulls.

    These are technically out-of-spec cattle and with that comes high risk.

    On the other end of the scale, the figures for weanling producers leave a lot to be desired.

    From what was an already low average gross margin of €311/ha in 2017, it has fallen further to €232/ha in 2018. Furthermore, a total of seven weanling producers has now dwindled to just one.

    The reality is that the majority of these producers have moved into bull beef production, primarily under 16-month bulls, in pursuit of a higher margin.

    But has the conversion worked? The average gross margin for under 16-month bull systems fell €667/ha to €614/ha. The reason for such a drop is largely down to the number of new entrants. In 2017, only five farms operated this system.

    A year later, this has more than doubled to 12. As can only be expected, both the performance and efficiency of any first-timer is going to be less than that of the seasoned campaigners.

    Those that have been running the under 16-month system for a number of years, fared well.

    I think this is best reflected where the range for gross margins among under 16-month bull producers is from as low as €30/ha right up to an impressive €1,563/ha.

    The question that must be asked now: is this just a snapshot of a much larger issue? It has been well documented that under 16-month bull beef has very high potential. However, realising this potential is a completely different thing.

    With factors such as type of stock, weaning performance, feed quality, housing facilities and even processor relations playing pivotal roles, it is a move that farmers really need to spend time thinking about before any action is taken.

    Production

    On a positive note, overall farm production is up. The average stocking rate has climbed from 1.97LU/ha to 2.2LU/ha.

    Furthermore, looking at Figure 2, average output recorded good growth of 126kg/ha to 859kg/ha.

    As a general rule of thumb, top suckler-to-beef farms should be targeting a stocking rate above 2.3LU/ha and output of over 850kg/ha.

    For the year, 20-month bull beef production and store selling posted good jumps in output, steer beef and weanling production held steady while under 16-month bull beef had a significant drop, again linked to the aforementioned influx in operators.

    The fact that production figures are where they need to be is encouraging.

    While neither weather conditions nor beef prices can be controlled by farmers, what’s inside the farm gate most definitely can be.

    Going forward for 2019, if the programme farmers can continue to increase productivity, and external factors can facilitate a reduction in variable costs, then the bottom line should be looking a whole lot stronger this time next year.

    Of course Brexit is probably the single biggest threat facing the entire beef sector.

    Yet despite its threat, there is again very little that farmers can do at this stage only sit, wait and hope for a positive outcome.

    Shedding some light on IBR in beef herds
    The results of the pilot IBR programme, along with AHI advice on tackling IBR, will be detailed in this Thursday’s Irish Farmers Journal.

    In 2018, herds participating in the Teagasc/Irish Farmers Journal BETTER farm beef programme enrolled in the first phase of a pilot IBR programme.

    The programme was developed by Animal Health Ireland’s IBR technical working group (TWG) in collaboration with Teagasc.

    The pilot programme involved sampling and testing a proportion of a herd for IBR, the application of an IBR on-farm veterinary risk assessment and management plan and provision of biosecurity and disease control advice.

    The research was led by Dr Maria Guelbenzu, programme manager for BVD and IBR with Animal Health Ireland.

    Results

    In this week’s Irish Farmers Journal, the initial results of the pilot programme will be profiled.

    Analysis of results shows that on average, positive "snapshot" herds were larger than negative herds and had a higher number of animals introduced directly from other herds (moves from farm) than negative "snapshot" herds.

    Furthermore, positive herds experienced a higher degree of expansion (herds were 180% larger) than negative herds, which were only 25% larger than in 2013/14.

    Advice

    The article will also include a comprehensive summary of advice from Dr Guelbenzu as to how positive IBR and negative IBR herdowners should approach the disease.

  • See this Thursday’s Irish Farmers Journal in print and online for the full article. Also, watch the video above of blood-testing cows on Shane Gleeson farm with local vet Matt Ryan and Teagasc BETTER farm adviser Alan Dillon.