Safety when tagging calves and undertaking other winter tasks
Even the quietest cows can be anxious and aggressive after calving with attacks from freshly calved cows one of the greatest risks on livestock farms.

Calving is one of, if not, the most stressful periods on dairy and suckler farms.

It is also one of the highest risk tasks, with a cow’s behaviour potentially changing from quiet to aggressive without any warning.

This is not surprising given that a cow’s natural instinct is to protect her young and this includes any changes to normal management such as tagging calves.

While the practice itself is relatively straightforward, it has the potential to be far from straightforward if the recommended procedures are not followed.

Restrain the cow

Firstly, a calf should never be tagged until the cow is moved into a separate area or restrained in a head gate, no matter how quiet you think the cow is.

A calf bellowing after tagging can be enough to startle the cow.

A facility should also be available if required to restrain the calf to prevent injury when trying to hold calves.

BVD tag

Tagging calves as soon as possible after birth will also help while it is also advisable to get a quick response from the Bovine Viral Diarrhoea tissue tag.

Tag application

On applying the tag, the advice is similar irrespective of tag type. The tag should be applied in a clean environment. Once the calf is restrained, apply the tag approximately midway in height of the calf’s ear (between the cartilage) and about midway to two-thirds in from the tip of the ear. The female or button part of the tag should always be placed on the inner side of the ear.

Take care to apply tags between the two layers of cartilage present as piercing these areas will cause discomfort.


Calves must be tagged with a tag in each ear within 20 days of birth or before they leave the holding, if this occurs before day 20. Birth registration must take place within seven days of tagging and at the latest before calves reach 27 days of age.

Registration can take place via the identically numbered paper application form, or other approved online software programs or through the ICBF registration booklet. Following this, record births in your herd register or, if you are using an online herdbook, this will suffice.

Expanding numbers

The dairy industry is experiencing rapid expansion, both in existing herds and new entrants.

On many farms, expansion of facilities is focusing first on additional space for cows or upgrading of the parlour and dairy. There has also been a renewed focus in recent years on tightening the calving period to a short window that will capitalise on spring grass growth.

This is satisfying the aim of targeting low-cost production but a downside is increased pressure on labour and facilities during the calving season.

This is particularly the case in herds that have significantly expanded cow numbers but have yet to tailor calving and calf rearing facilities.

Such situations are putting farm workers under additional pressure which in turn can increase the risk of accidents taking place.

Assess and make changes now

It is important to assess existing facilities well in advance of the calving season and question if there are any alterations to existing sheds or changes that can be made to facilitate a smoother calving season.

It is also worth noting that there is greater disease pressure in expanding herds which also tallies for calves. Reviewing your health programme is also time well spent at this time of year as an outbreak of disease is the last thing that any farmer needs in an already busy calving season. Simple tasks such as installing a water heater with greater capacity or having overflow pens on hand can reap big rewards.

Care when castrating

The practice of leaving male calves entire has become much more common in recent years with weanling producers acknowledging that it will attract both prospective bull finishers as well as grass-based steer finishers.

With a lot of business carried out in autumn weanling sales and animals now settled indoors, castration will be on the agenda for farmers operating a steer system.

It is important to note that in Ireland, use of anaesthesia is required by law for surgical/burdizzo castration of cattle over six months of age. Rubber ring castration (or use of other devices restricting the flow of blood to the scrotum) without use of anaesthetic can only be performed in calves less than seven days of age.

Furthermore, where anaesthetic is required for castration, the procedure must be performed by a veterinary practitioner.

For those in a suckler-to-steer beef system, the banding method of castration at a younger age may be beneficial from a management and safety viewpoint.

However, many farmers who sell weanlings or steers tend to avoid this method of castration, as there is a perception that the visual appearance (ie lack of scrotum) may affect buyer demand.


Castration with a burdizzo is the preferred method for young calves or weanlings, with surgical castration more suitable for stronger or aged bulls.

When using the burdizzo method, each cord should be crushed twice for 10 seconds each time, taking care that this takes place one below the other.

Animals should receive clostridial disease vaccination ahead of castration to reduce the risk of tetanus while hygiene post-castration is especially important where surgical castration is being carried out. Where castrating housed weanlings, allowing them access to straw bedding will help in reducing discomfort.

With regards the procedure itself, it is important to ensure facilities are capable of restraining animals sufficiently while good help is particularly important when restraining animals to limit the risk of kicking and injury to the operator.

Beef top tips: Calculating fodder deficits
Taking note of what the farm has in conserved pit silage and what silage is left to be cut are vital points for understanding your position heading into autumn.

Firstly you must determine overall demand for winter. The Irish Farmer’s Journal fodder calculator can help you total silage demand on your farm.

It is important to measure your pit and find out what silage is in already.

To do so, multiply the length (m) by the width (m) by the height (m) and divide this figure by 1.35. This will give you the tonnes in fresh weight in your silage pit.

A normal bale of silage will have 600kg of fresh weight, while a well-packed bale will have 700kg of silage.

Suckler cows will consume 1.4t of silage/month, store cattle will consume 1.2t/month and weanlings will consume 0.7t of silage/month. Feeding more meal will reduce these amounts.


Baled silage is calculated by the number of bales and yield per bale, eg 75t/bale. To calculate the silage surplus or deficit, subtract silage in the pit + silage to be cut + baled silage from the total demand of the herd, which can be found using the IFJ fodder calculator.

If the deficit is very large, then you must consider the following options:

  • Buy extra fodder locally.
  • Buy additional meal.
  • Sell stock.
  • Consider finishing animals on ad lib meals.
  • A link to the fodder calculator can be found here.

    Read more

    Beef management: drought, winter bedding and financial management

    Dealing with drought on Tullamore farm

    Feeding of silage extended to all cattle in Newford Farm
    With grass growth in single and low double-digit figures, silage has been introduced to 2017-born steers and heifers.

    Newford Farm continues to take steps to try to deal with the effects of drought. Grass growth has ground to a minimum on all but a few lower-lying or wetter areas of the farm and even where there is some growth it is struggling to get into double-digit figures.

    Silage supplementation has now been introduced to all cattle on the farm.

    The two groups of 50 cows and calves continue to receive two bales of silage daily and this is supplying in the region of 3kg to 4kg dry matter intake. This is being balanced with a daily allocation of grass, which is being reviewed as days grazing ahead approaches 10, despite efforts to stretch supplies.

    Third-, fourth- and fifth-calvers are in a body condition of 2.4,2.7 and 2.9 respectively, with the average liveweight ranging from 638kg to 656kg.

    Silage has also been introduced to steers and heifers, with three bales being fed among the 106 head on hand. Again, this is being reviewed and concentrate supplementation is likely to be introduced next week to reduce the level of silage being fed and prioritise remaining bales for cows and calves.

    Performance has been relatively good despite tight grass supplies. Calves were weighed on 27 June at an average age of four months. Bull calves weighed 200kg on average, delivering an average daily gain since birth of 1.24kg, while heifer calves weighed 184kg, achieving an average daily gain since birth of 1.15kg per day.

    Cows were also condition-scored and weighed and the results are detailed in Table 1. The average weight of all cows was 603kg with a body condition score of 2.5.

    The average score fails to identify significant differences between different parity cows. First calves recorded a liveweight of 482kg and an average body condition score of 2.00 that will need addressing.

    Last year, this group was separated from the main herd on 10 July and grazed separately. This worked well in helping to improve body condition score and keep these animals on track but this is not an option at present given the lack of grass.

    Other options will be considered, including grouping these animals on their own as there is likely to be an element of bullying when silage is introduced while offering concentrate supplementation will also be assessed if drought conditions persist.