July 31, 2020

Preparing for autumn calving

As we approach August, many suckler farms will be turning their attention to autumn calving.  Being well prepared before calving starts will help to ensure a successful season.

Noel McNeill, Beef and Sheep adviser at the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) said, “The first thing to look at before the calving commences is the body condition score (BCS) of the cows. BCS is an important measure indicating how fit a cow is at calving in order to minimise calving difficulties, whilst optimising health, welfare and subsequent fertility. Managing BCS effectively will also have a positive impact on reducing production costs.”

For autumn calving cows, the target is a BCS of 3 (on a scale of 1 = too thin to 5 = too fat) at calving.  With calving imminent, no extreme changes should be made at this stage to the cow’s diet to change BCS as this can lead to further issues at calving to both the cow and calf.  Noel added, “Restrict feeding a fatter cow in the final weeks leading up to calving can result in the cow losing condition rapidly, but there will be little impact on the calf size resulting in calving difficulties.  After calving the calf may also be weaker and the cow’s colostrum/milk quality and production will be poorer.  In terms of thinner cows, increasing the rate of feeding in the final weeks will not improve the cow BCS, but instead lead to calf size increasing and again leading to issues at calving and after birth.”

Cows will be grazing before calving and should be able to meet their protein and energy requirements from grass, though with ever changeable weather conditions these levels can fluctuate.  It is therefore practical to give cows’ access to supplementary pre-calving minerals either in powder form or in a lick bucket.  Noel continued, “It is important to ensure the right type and level of pre-calving mineral is used and these should be introduced at least four to six in advance of calving.  Good levels of minerals will help reduce chances of calving difficulties, improve calf vigour at birth and promote good colostrum quality.” It is important that you blood test cows at various times throughout the year so that the correct minerals are used and that unnecessary expense is not incurred.

Freshly calved cow and calf

Cows that have been grazing all summer should be in a fit condition, even after the drought experienced in late spring/early summer as there has been good grass growth since.  With cows hopefully being in the correct condition they should be able to calve unassisted, however it’s important not to be complacent.  Noel said, “Cows should ideally be kept in paddocks which are close to easily accessible and safe handling facilities which should ideally include a calving gate with a headlock.”  It is important not to disturb unnecessarily or rush animals at calving. They should be given adequate time as long as the calf is coming in the correct presentation with two feet and nose first. Intervention is normally recommended for cows two hours after the water bag has appeared or one hour for heifers, and only if the cow or heifer has not made any significant progress. The farmer’s own judgement should play a major role in any decision to intervene and help, and veterinary assistance should be sought as early as possible if a malpresentation is suspected. Safety of both the cow, the stockperson and any helpers should always be at the fore front of everyone’s mind.  Cows can be aggressive and unpredictable at this time.  Only examine or help to calve the cow when it is properly and safely restrained. Make sure you have all the items needed to hand before starting such as aprons, gloves, lubricating gel, disinfectant, soft calving ropes, calving jack (cleaned and oiled) and iodine for navel.

When the calf is born, it is important to ensure it gets the best start to its life. The two most important aspects of this are treating the navel and colostrum.

  • The calf’s navel should be treated as soon as possible, ideally dipped with strong (10%) iodine solution, to reduce the possibility of pathogens being picked up from external sources.
  • The calf should receive an adequate amount of colostrum and the following rules should be observed.
    • Rule 1 is using colostrum from the first milk for the first feed.
    • Rule 2 is the calf should receive this feed within two hours from its birth; and finally
    • Rule 3 is it should be given at least three litres during this feed. If a calf is able to suck itself it would need to suck for 30 minutes to receive three litres of colostrum. If the calf is unable to suck for itself it should then be bottle fed or stomach tubed.

It is important to ear tag and register calves as soon as possible after birth to allow for calves Persistently Infected (PI) with Bovine Viral Diarrhoea (BVD) to be identified and removed as soon as possible.  Again the importance of excellent health and safety protocols cannot be overemphasised during this process. Cows can be unpredictable and very aggressive protecting their new born calf. If possible these tasks should be completed with the cow securely restrained or in a separate, secure pen.

When the cow and calf have bonded effectively and are ready to re-enter the grazing block, these cows with young calves should be treated as a priority feeding group.  This group should be given access to good quality grass swards, high in both energy and protein, to support milk production and help bring the cows back into heat. It should be remember these lush swards carry an enhanced risk of grass tetany (staggers) due to their low fibre content.  You can mitigate against this risk in a number of ways including use of high magnesium lick buckets, providing a high fibre buffer feed, keeping cows away from paddocks which have received either slurry or fertilisers containing high potash (K) levels and if necessary the provision of concentrates which will help with both increasing milk production and decreasing tetany risk.

In summary

  • Early preparation and flexibility is important for a successful calving.
  • Do not be tempted to increase or decrease cows BCS leading up to calving.
  • Ensure calves receive the correct amount of colostrum.
  • Treat cows with new born calves as a priority feeding group when on the grazing platform.
  • Always be aware of risk and ensure safety of yourself, anyone helping and the cow and calf during and after calving.
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