There is no avoiding the fact that feeding autumn-calving cows this winter is going to carry an extra financial burden as feed costs soar. However, for those in this system, a high level of both physical and reproductive performance is required to keep the show on the road, so nutrition around breeding time should not be compromised in order to save a few euro in the short-term.

For many, the breeding season starts around 20 October, with the aim of commencing calving from early August. Therefore, the likelihood is that for the majority of autumn-calving herds, the breeding season will take place indoors.

While this can be seen as a negative, in that feed costs are higher, one positive of this system is that the farmer has complete control of the diet and it can therefore be carefully managed and tweaked depending on what is required for each batch of cows.

The likelihood is that for the majority of autumn-calving herds, the breeding season will take place indoors

Where there are good grass supplies on farms at the moment, the temptation may be to hold stock out at grass for an extra few weeks. This should be done with youngstock or spring-calving cows, but autumn cows heading into the breeding season need to be carefully managed.

Changing diet during or just prior to the breeding season will have a detrimental effect on the reproductive performance of cows for a period while they adjust to their new feeding system.

Where this occurs during the breeding season, you will often be able to identify the changeover next year at calving time, as there will be a week to 10 days of a break in between cows calving. This can have a negative effect on the system, with calving periods extended or a higher number of cows empty at the end of breeding.

Having cows housed and settled on their winter diets prior to the onset of breeding is the best approach in this instance.

Where there are no other stock types available to graze this grass, then target it to later-calving cows, as they will be bred later in the season.

Autumn grass

As livestock producers, we are constantly trying to lower the cost of production, so holding cows outdoors for as long as possible would seem the correct thing to do. The problem with this is that during poorer or more mixed spells of weather, grass dry matter can be very low – as much as 40% lower than in dry summer weather. This means that cows need to eat 40% more grass in order to take in the same level of nutrition.

Combined with this, autumn grass that is quite leafy will be low in fibre and so passage rates through the animal will be reduced, meaning the entire feed value of the grass is not being captured by the animal.

Feed costs

With concentrate costs running €140/t to €160/t ahead of this time last year, and as much as €210/t ahead of 2020 levels, farmers will be looking to minimise the level of concentrate input to cows this winter.

However, nutrition is not an area to skimp on if you are trying to achieve good conception rates, a tight calving interval and support a decent level of performance in the calf. In order to minimise the feed cost implications this winter, knowing the feed value of the silage in your yard this year is more important than ever before.

Test your silage quality properly by getting a good representative sample. From there, decide the best approach to meal feeding. Where silage quality is good – i.e above 70% DMD – then meal feeding for a fortnight prior and throughout the breeding season should be sufficient at 1kg to 1.5kg of concentrate.

Ensure all animals have adequate space at the feed barriers so that no cow is bullied away when meal is being fed

Where silage is of medium-quality – 66% DMD to 69% DMD – feed rates should be increased to 2kg to 2.5kg and where silage quality is poor – below 65% DMD – 3kg to 4kg may be needed to support performance. However at this level of feeding, the economics of the system would be questionable.

Cow body condition also plays a role in supplementation rates. By and large, condition is good on autumn cows this year, but in the case of first-calvers or any cow that has gotten thin since calving, they should be penned separately and offered an additional kilo of meal to the above recommendations, depending on silage quality.

Ensure all animals have adequate space at the feed barriers so that no cow is bullied away when meal is being fed.

Once the breeding season is past and where cow body condition is not an issue, feeding rates can be pulled back by 1kg to 1.5kg, as long as there are sufficient fodder reserves in the yard to do so.

Concentrate type

Concentrate type should be specifically for autumn cows – typically this will be 18% crude protein and have a high cereal content that will drive the energy component of the diet. When purchasing ration for autumn cows, speak to your merchant or feed rep about mineral supplementation, as the mineral profile and delivery in the ration will be formulated to a certain feeding level.

Where you are feeding below the recommended level, the cow’s mineral and vitamin requirements may not be met. In this case, either powder minerals, licks or boluses are good options to boost mineral intake, which will aid fertility to a point, but remember that some minerals can also be over-supplemented and cause as big of an issue as under-supplementation.