At the start of April, spring calving on the majority of suckler farms will be at peak levels of activity, with cows calving thick and fast.
However, the weather has not been on the farmer’s side with plenty of rain over the past fortnight. As such, ground conditions are generally not suited to carrying freshly calved cows.
With turnout being delayed on most farms, housing facilities are coming under pressure as stocking densities in sheds increases. As newborn calves mix with mature cows in a confined space, the risk of a disease outbreak is much higher.
Keeping on top of shed hygiene is crucial to minimising this risk. Indoor feeding is also important to keep cows from losing excessive condition prior to breeding and to support milk production.
Outlined are 10 tips for managing spring-calving cows and their calves until such time as they can go to grass.
Spring-born calves should have access to straw-bedded creep pens that provide a dry, clean lying area. This will greatly improve calf health.
Where cows and calves share the same straw-bedded area, the bedding is harder to keep clean as cows produce higher volumes of dung and urine.
As calves lie on wet bedding, their core body temperature is lowered, meaning calves need to burn more energy to keep warm.
If calves struggle to regulate body temperature, they are more prone to respiratory problems and scours.
With a purpose-built creep area, it is much easier to keep bedding clean. Within the creep pen, provide calves with forage and concentrates to avoid competing with cows at a shared feed barrier.
With shed space at a premium, temporary creep pens may need to be set up. Make use of gates to set up a temporary creep area on a feed passage.
When the feed passage is partly used for a creep area, this will reduce feed space for some pens. If access at the feed barrier is restricted, make sure silage is always available to avoid bullying of smaller cows.
If cows and calves are housed in a roofed silo, again look at the options for temporary creep pens using gates.
Alternatively, is it possible to set up a temporary electric wire tethered to a gate, side wall or an ad-lib creep feeder to hold back cows and provide a dry corner for calves to lie on?
As far as possible, keep older spring-born calves together as one group. As more calves are born, these animals should be penned as a separate group.
By mixing older and younger calves, there is a greater risk of scour problems being transmitted within a group.
While this option is not practical for everyone, it can be a good practice to let calves creep outside to a sheltered, or covered handling pen during the day, as an alternative to setting up temporary pens.
Again, provide calves with forage and a small amount of concentrate. Fresh air is nature’s antibiotic and when given the choice, it is surprising how much time calves will spend outside.
On some farms with sheltered paddocks adjacent to the cow sheds, there is merit in letting calves creep out to grass for a few hours every day, weather permitting.
Restricting calves to just sucking the cow for one hour in the morning, and again in the evening, will help cows to maintain body condition in early lactation.
It will also improve cow fertility. When carried out over a short-term period, there is no negative effect on milk yield or calf performance.
Allow calves to suck in the morning as you complete your normal routine of feeding and checking on stock.
Lock calves off the cow during the day, then give them access to suck the cows in the evening. Calves should then be locked off the cow overnight.
For freshly calved suckler cows, it is important to provide good quality silage.
But as April gets under way, silage reserves will be low and fodder quality may be far from ideal, so concentrates will be required.
Offering fresh silage every day will improve intakes with rejected fodder removed and given to lower priority stock.
For silage of 68% to 72% DMD, feeding 2kg/day will suffice and help stretch dwindling supplies of fodder.
For silage at 66% to 68%, increase concentrates to 3kg/day.
When offering concentrates, it is important that all cows can access feed at the same time. If not, a mobile trough will need to be set up in the pen.
Freshly calved cows should also have a clean lying area to cut down on potential problems with mastitis arising in the days after calving.
Once calves are bigger and better able to handle milk supply, this is less of an issue as they can keep quarters clean.
For slatted pens, using a hand scraper at least once per day will keep pens clean. Spreading hydrated lime on a regular basis can also help to improve hygiene in cow sheds.
There are plenty of farms that house cows in sheds with a slatted floor and a straw lie-back area.
To stretch straw reserves in these sheds, lock cows on to the slats in the morning with access to the lie back-only permitted overnight.
Clipping the tails on cows will help cut down soiling around the udder. This will improve calf health as soiled hair can harbour bacteria.
First-calved heifers should be penned separately from mature cows, as should thinner cows or those that are shy feeders. By penning these animals as a separate group, there is less bullying and higher-priority animals, such as heifers, have improved access to feed.