At this time of year on dairy calf to beef farms, finishing cattle often take priority as we try to maximise performance in the final few weeks prior to slaughter. However, keeping this year’s calves thriving and on track around housing is just as, if not more important.

The transition period when going from grass to indoors can be stressful for calves as they get used to their new environment, new pen mates and changed diet all at the same time. Having calves as prepared as possible can alleviate a lot of problems not only in the first few weeks indoors but the entire winter period.

Many of the Thrive dairy calf to beef programme farmers are operating a 19- to 20-month production system that sees animals slaughtered off grass prior to the second winter period. In this system, there is no time for under- or non-production days. Cattle need to be gaining weight every day of their lives in order to be able to achieve an adequate carcase weight at a relatively young slaughter age.

On the Irish Farmers Journal Thrive demonstration farm in Cashel, Co Tipperary, preparation for winter started two months ago for the 140 spring 2020-born calves.

The calves were then given two weeks to recover from this procedure

In early September, they received their IBR booster vaccination having initially been vaccinated on arrival to the farm in spring. A fortnight later, on 16 September, the male calves were castrated at grass.

The calves were then given two weeks to recover from this procedure before being given their first dose of a two-shot programme for Pi3, RSV and Mannheimia haemolytica on 30 September. A booster shot was administered to the group four weeks later on 28 October.

Currently the plan is to house the calves early next week

The aim of this was to have the second shot given at least 10 days prior to housing in order to maximise the level of immunity prior to the risk period around housing. Currently the plan is to house the calves early next week.

With poor weather conditions over the past week to 10 days, the plan almost had to change as grass was beginning to get scarce. However, drier weather from Wednesday on will allow calves to remain at grass at least until the weekend.

Maintain winter performance

This is the second year we will have used this protocol on the farm and farmer John Hally was happy with how it worked for last year’s calves. They settled into the winter routine very well and John reported very little, if any, sickness in the batch. They were fed top-quality silage (75 DMD) throughout winter and received 2kg of a 16% ration up to a few weeks prior to turnout when meal feeding was ceased.

The performance achieved over the winter was excellent, with heifers gaining 1kg/day while the bullocks averaged 1.20kg/day over the winter period.

While we can attribute a lot of this performance to good nutrition, it is also clear that there were no health issues in the shed as performance like this would not be achieved otherwise.


The cost of this vaccination protocol comes in at just over €13/head. In a system that operates on tight margins, this may seem a big expense. However, if we can maintain performance throughout winter without any check in growth, then it can work out to be money well spent.

Valued even at €2/kg, this is nearly two and a half times the cost of the vaccination programme

Sometimes, the greatest cost of pneumonia goes unnoticed where animals only have a slight challenge to their system. This will not be enough to put them off feed or display clinical signs of sickness but can severely decrease thrive.

If we were to lose 0.1kg/day performance over a 150-day winter this equates to 15kg less liveweight at turnout. Valued even at €2/kg, this is nearly two and a half times the cost of the vaccination programme.

Vaccination post housing

Where cattle were not vaccinated prior to housing and have been housed at this stage, it may still be worthwhile vaccinating if you had problems in the shed over the past few years. Speak to your vet for the best approach for your own farm needs. There are other simple things you can get right in the shed this year to maximise animal performance.

  • Floor space: for dairy calf to beef animals in the first winter they will require between 1.5m²/head and 1.8m²/head.
  • Feed space: Ensure you have enough feed space for every animal in the pen to feed at one time, especially when feeding meal – 400mm-500mm/head is required. This can be reduced to 250mm-300mm/head where a total mixed ration (TMR) is being fed.
  • Water: Ensure cattle have constant access to fresh clean water at all times. Check water troughs daily to ensure they are clean.
  • Nutrition: Feed the best quality silage on the farm to weanlings. Make sure you have silage analysed and supplement with concentrates accordingly.