For many suckler farmers running an autumn-calving setup, the calving period gets underway during August/September.
Although spring-calving dominates on Irish farms, autumn-calving offers many advantages to herd owners.
For example, cows can be calved outdoors over the next month and resume grazing. As breeding occurs during the housing period, autumn-calving is ideally suited to using AI.
However, it also has drawbacks. Housing facilities need to be more specialised to provide creep areas. Also, cows in milk normally require concentrate feeding during the winter period.
As the costs associated with autumn-calving tend to be higher, it is even more crucial to get as many live calves as possible on the ground.
Herd management is directly correlated to the number of live calves born. Cows under good management tend to have fewer losses, thereby increasing the numbers of calves to wean and sell next year. Outlined are 10 tips for managing autumn-calving cows over the coming months.
1: Graze cows close to the farmyard
Autumn cows grazing on out-farms should be moved back to the main yard around two weeks prior to calving for closer supervision – giving cows time to settle again. Some farmers have cows coming into a shed at night, so they can be monitored with a calving camera.
2: Pre-calving nutrition
As August and September-calving cows will be grazing in the run up to calving, they should get adequate energy and protein from grass.
Grass will also provide trace minerals, but intake levels will vary from field to field. Therefore, it is still a good idea to supplement cows with pre-calving minerals in the run up to calving.
Minerals can be offered via lick buckets, a bolus or in powder form, although this can be more time-consuming as it requires daily allocation.
However, many farmers will opt for the powdered mineral fed in a trough, as cows can be easily checked on every day.
3: Body condition
Where autumn-calving cows have been grazing since spring, they will be much fitter at calving compared to spring cows calving down after a five-month housing period. So don’t panic if cows are carrying a bit of extra condition in the run up to calving. Ideally, autumn cows should be calving down in a body condition score (BCS) of 3.0.
However, mature cows carrying an extra 0.5 BCS, but in fit condition, should be able to calve without major difficulty, especially when calving to a tried-and-tested stock bull or AI sire. That said, keep a close eye on body condition over the coming weeks. Restrict intakes by strip-grazing and keeping cows on low grass covers.
4: Wash and disinfect calving pens and equipment
Calving pens should be power-washed and disinfected before they are required, cutting down on the transmission of disease. Also, carry out any essential repairs to calving gates, so that facilities are ready for use when required. Have all calving aids in place in advance of the first calf being born. More often than not, there will be a cow that calves earlier than expected. Locating calving aids now and storing within easy reach will save precious time once calving starts. Go through the calving kit. Replace ropes that have become frayed, hard or soiled. Stomach tubes should also be clean and sterile, with no rough edges on the tube itself.
5: Outdoor or indoor calving
This is a personal choice and will vary from farm to farm. For mature cows calving to the same stock bull as previous years, there is plenty of merit in leaving cows to calve outdoors.
If cows calve outdoors, be careful when checking on the calf, as cow temperament will be different as she looks to protect her offspring.
Where cows or replacements are calving to a new stock bull, you may feel more comfortable with housing animals, making it easier to intervene when necessary.
Housing cows can facilitate closer observation and makes use of cameras, which is extremely important for farmers working off-farm during the calving period.
Calving indoors means a family member can safely intervene should you be working off-farm when cows enter labour.
6: Get the calf off to the best start
Make sure the newborn calf gets plenty of colostrum in the first two hours of life. Where cows are grazing prior to calving, the high levels of protein in grass should ensure that colostrum quality is good.
As a rule of thumb, assume that a calf sucking for a consistent 20-minute period will receive around two litres of colostrum.
Tag calves and treat navels as early as possible. This is a bigger issue when calves are born outdoors, so make sure you can safely handle the calf, away from the cow, when carrying out such tasks.
7: Post-calving management
Weather-permitting, calves born in September can be returned to grass once the calf is sucking freely, cutting down disease risks.
Calves born outdoors should also be kept in paddocks beside the yard for a few days, to monitor closely for feeding and potential problems.
After a few days, cows and calves can rejoin the main herd. Ideally, autumn cows will go on to good-quality grass to drive milk production. Before grazing such swards, make sure the calf is able to handle the increase in milk yield. Otherwise there is a risk of calves taking milk scour. If cows remain housed after calving, it’s important that they are offered the best quality silage on the farm to drive milk production and avoid body condition loss.
If cows go back outdoors and move on to lush grazing swards in early autumn, there is an increased risk of grass tetany.
The risk is further increased once weather conditions become more variable and nights get colder.
Therefore, make sure cows are covered for magnesium. When using lick buckets, work to the rule of thumb of one bucket per 10 cows.
Leave buckets at different points in the field and move to a different location if cows are not using them.
Offering some hay, or straw, will increase fibre intake and, combined with magnesium supplementation, helps to reduce the risk of tetany.
Leave at least three weeks before grazing silage aftermaths that received slurry with freshly calved cows.
As grass quality and dry matter declines towards the end of the grazing season, autumn-calving cows will need supplementing with concentrates.
Feeding 2kg/cow of a 16% protein ration will increase energy and protein intake. There is also the option of feeding a high-magnesium ration, as an alternative to reducing the risk of grass tetany.