As weather conditions across the country turn more autumnal, the Farm Profit Programme farmers turn their minds to weaning spring-born calves and housing stock. Indeed, Andy Duffus has already seen the first snow fall on the hills surrounding him at Tomintoul.

Maintaining condition

One of the key considerations at this time of year is managing the body condition of spring-calving cows. Ideally, we want cows to calve down in the spring around BCS 2.5, go to grass for the summer and gain condition until this time of year. This gives a reserve of fat on the cow’s back that we can use to reduce the cost of winter feed.

Having an average cow coming in to winter condition score (CS) 3.5 and slimming down to CS 2.5 by calving (the loss of 1 CS) is equivalent to her losing around 70kg of bodyweight.

The contribution of this bodyweight to her nutrition is 2,000 megajoules of energy. This is equivalent to a bale of average silage. Conversely, for a cow gaining that same condition score it requires 2,250 megajoules of energy, 12.5% more than losing it.

As mentioned two weeks ago, the Biffens at Arnage are feeding straw to their cows to supplement their diet in the run-up to housing.

There are a number of ways to maintain body condition through the back end of the year. One option is to wean calves early, taking pressure off the cow, giving her energy to build reserves.

Once calves are weaned and the cow dried off, her daily energy requirement is nearly halved.

Andrew Gammie's calves at Drumforber with QuietWean tags fitted for weaning.

In a dry, open back end, the cow is generally able to eat sufficient quantities of grass each day to meet both her needs and those of her calf. However, if weather conditions are poorer and she is grazing wet late autumn grass, she may struggle to eat enough grass to meet the daily needs of both her and her calf.

In addition, by removing the calf from the cow and housing it, we are looking at a feed to gain ratio of 4:1, meaning for every 4kg of concentrate fed 1kg of liveweight gain will be achieved.

Compare this to a cow that is needing to be built in condition in the runup to calving when the efficiency of converting concentrate to liveweight is much poorer at 7:1.

Winter feed costs

As each condition score point the cow is contributing gives the equivalent of a bale of silage over winter, it also helps to reduce the cost of keeping the cow over winter. Feeding and bedding account for the majority of cost in a suckler system, so any means possible to reduce this will help drive the bottom line.

Weaning stress

Weaning is one of the most stressful periods in an animal’s life. With stress comes a suppressed immune system which opens the door to disease. Anything that can be done to reduce the amount of stress experienced around this period should be considered.

QuietWean nose plates have becoming popular among some of the programme farmers. Andrew Gammie uses nose paddles to reduce stress during weaning through maintaining the bond with the cows while moving the calf on to hard feed completely. After three or four days together, the cows and calves can be brought in to be housed separately.

Another simple method to reduce stress at weaning is to break it into two. Taking half the cows off at a time reduces the stress on the calves and is quicker than using nose plates.


Creep-feeding can also play an important role at weaning time. Arthur Duguid at Cranna creep-feeds his calves at least a month before weaning. This allows the creep feed to bridge the gap when stocking rates are high and grass availability has tailed off at the end of the year.

Creep feeding at The Biffen's farm at Mains of Arnage inear Ellon.

Arthur starts feeding a mixed ration of three-quarters sugar beet nuts with maize pellets to one-quarter barley. Over the course of a month, the proportion of barely increases until it is a 50/50 mix. The nuts and pellets mix is costing around £220/t.

Arthur’s use of creep-feeding is reducing stress at weaning. The breaking the cow-calf bond will cause stress but with creeping-feeding the calf won’t be hungry too.

Another way to reduce weaning stress is creep-grazing calves. This can be done through setting up gates or fences which hold the cows back while allowing the calf through. This breaks the bond with the mother and allows the calf good-quality grass or feed to improve growth.

Creep-feeding should not be used to substitute poor grassland management throughout the grazing season.

Every farm needs to concentrate its efforts on producing and using as much grass as possible.

Every kg DM of grass costs somewhere between 6-8p/kg DM whereas 1kg of concentrate costs anywhere from 24p/kg DM plus.