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Preparing for calving with John Pringle, FutureBeef farmer

Preparing for calving with John Pringle, FutureBeef farmer

John Pringle is a full-time suckler and sheep farmer in Kilacloran, Aughrim Co. Wicklow. He farms with his wife Linda, daughter Lucy and sons William and Scott.

In Aughrim, January is all about setting up for the calving season due to start mid-February. The preparation falls into four headings:

  • Body condition and nutrition including minerals;
  • Health – vaccination for scour and IBR;
  • Shed preparation;
  • Equipment check.


John has reassessed the Body Condition Score (BCS) of all the cows and heifers. He likes all his heifers to be a BCS of at least 2.75 when calving, they are a younger animal and still growing so they need the extra condition. The mature cows can be a little lower at a BCS of 2.5 but no less. In John's experience if you have thin cows they can be slower to calve down, lack energy to calve and they are much slower to come back in heat after calving. While cows that are too fat can lay down fat in the birth canal and have a difficult calving.

The heifers are on a 73DMD silage and were gaining too much condition. From the beginning of January, John has been diluting the silage with 15-20% straw or hay. The cows came in in very good condition, as the silage is so good John has been restricting the cows since December. This was with 20% straw or hay. As the protein level can be a little on the low side when diluting with hay or straw, John feeds 250g of soya to both cows and heifers for two weeks pre calving.


Every year what mineral should I use is a question we all ask. John researched his mineral and has used the same mineral powder for a few years now and knows it works on his farm. He has lively calves that get up and suck. The cows calve down with no issues, there are no retained cleanings, the cows have plenty of milk, they don't suffer from milk fever and most importantly, the cows go back in calf. Looking at the macro minerals which are fed in grams you can see why you cannot feed them in a bolus- unlike trace elements.

John's mineral has:

  1. 25% magnesium,
  2. No calcium,
  3. 4% phosphorous and
  4. 13% sodium.

If you look at Table 1 you can see when John is feeding 100g of mineral powder a day he is feeding 25g of magnesium, 4g of phosphorous and 13g of sodium, well within the parameters of what’s required per day.

Table 1: showing suckler cow requirement for macro minerals pre calving (higher-spec dairy mineral feed to suckler cow at 100g/day)

Major elementsRequired g/dayWhat you see on the labelFeeding 100g/dayFeeding 120g/dayNote 
*Magnesium 17-20g 17% 17g 20g if potassium levels are high in silage, may need to increase to 30g
Calcium 0 0-2% 0 0  
**Phosphorous 4.5g 4% 4g 4.8g >3% if feeding straw
Sodium 15g 13% 13g 16g  

As we move down the table we have our trace elements, which are fed in milligrams, 1gram is equal to 1000mg, so the quantities are much smaller.

Table 2: showing suckler cow requirement for trace elements pre calving (higher-spec dairy mineral feed to suckler cow at 100g/day)

Trace elementsRequired mg/dayWhat you see on the labelFeeding 100g/dayFeeding 120g/dayNote
Copper*** 200-400 2,700mg/kg 270mg/day 324mg/day 1/3 protected if high Mo, Su, Fe see note
Selenium 4-6 50mg/kg 5mg/day 6mg/day Issue re toxicity
Iodine 20-60 500mg/kg 50mg/day 60mg/day NB for sucking reflex
Cobalt 5-10 100mg/kg 10mg/day 12mg/day  
Manganese 335-415 1,000mg/kg 100mg/day 120mg/day  
Zinc**** 335-600 5,400mg/kg 540mg/day 648mg/day 1/3 protected if high Fe

  Table 3: showing suckler cow requirement for vitamins pre calving (Higher spec dairy mineral feed to suckler cow at 100gm/day)

VitaminsWhat you see on the labelFeeding 100g/dayFeeding 120g/dayNote
A 400,000 iu/kg 40,000 iu/day 480,000 iu/day  
D3 100,000 iu/kg 10,000 iu/day 12,000 iu/day NB for milk fever
E 2,000 iu/kg 200 iu/day 240 iu/day Keep higher on straw diet

 The lower end of the scale is for routine feeding, the higher end if advised if stock are at risk of a severe deficiency.

*If potassium (K) levels are high in silage, could have to increase magnesium levels to 30-40g. **If feeding straw ensure the phosphorous level is >3%. ***If you have high Molybdenum (Mo) >3.0ppm, Sulphur (S) >0.3% or Iron (Fe) >400ppm, then having protected Cu can be an advantage.****If you have high Iron (Fe) >400ppm, then having protected Zn can be an advantage.

Like everything, it’s important we know what is required and then we can see if our mineral meets that requirement. In reality if you buy from a reputable merchant, feed the recommended 100–120g for six weeks you won’t run into problems. Usually where you see an issue, it is where a low volume is fed for only 3-4 weeks.

As we know input costs have sky rocketed in the last year, but also remember, every extra €200 per tonne of mineral will cost an extra €1.20 per cow over a 60-day feeding period. It’s a false economy to scrimp on your pre-calving mineral.

Feeding out:

  • John is feeding 100g of mineral powder along on top of the silage every morning. 
  • All cows have access to feed at the same time, therefore all animals are getting there delay requirement.
  • Calving will start on the 14th of February this year, so John started feeding mineral just after christmas. Many problems with minerals are caused by feeding the incorrect rate for too short a time, not by the spec of the mineral itself.
  • John uses a bucket, weighs out the mineral and then marks the bucket so he know how much to feed daily. He also keeps and eye the number of bags used – a 25kg bag should feed 40 cows for 6 days when feeding 100 grams per day
  • Johns cows are turned out to grass very soon sfter calving. If cows are housed for a period you should feed a post calving minerals are high in calcium to help with milk production and prevent milk fever.

How about mineral buckets? The issue with buckets is getting the volume into the cow and the variability of intake. In addition, feeding buckets outside can attract badgers; they love the molasses in the buckets.

Last year’s minerals, if bags are clean, dry and unbroken – feed first, it’s the Vitamins and organic elements that will go off first.

See here for a Mineral Reference Sheet (pdf). This is not a definitive guide but can be used to discuss your mineral choice with your advisor or vet.


Fluke is not an issue on John’s farm, so he is not dosing for it. If you have a fluke issue you should ensure your suckler cows are dosed well before calving. Mature cows have resistance to stomach worms and lungworm, so they do not require dosing. First and second time calvers should receive a worm dose, they are still growing and calving can be a stressful period, which could lead to a break down in immunity, so it is better to dose, following all best practice protocols to avoid resistance building on your farm like dose to the heaviest animal, ensure your dosing gun is calibrated etc. Both cows and heifers should be treated for lice once all are housed. Trim all udders and tails to reduce the opportunity of the calf ingesting dirt when suckling, hygiene is paramount in a calf shed. 

John vaccinated all his cows and heifers for E.coli, Rotavirus and Corona virus. He also vaccinated for IBR pre calving. Like with all vaccines you must give the animal’s body time to build up immunity before it is required. With the rota and corona virus the vaccine is a single shot vaccine and must be give at least 3 weeks before calving, but it should not be given and more than 12 weeks pre calving. This ensures there is optimum antibodies in the colostrum for the calf when it suckles. These antibodies then pass from the colostrum into the calf’s blood stream giving it passive immunity. The obvious point to make is that the calf needs to get a good feed of colostrum and fast, our general rule is 3 litres of colostrum in the first 2 hours after birth. John also has IBR on the farm. Research has shown that vaccinating cow’s one-month pre calving helps to reduce the amount of IBR virus shed during the stressful period of calving. The antibodies also pass through the colostrum into the calf’s bloodstream and thus immune system.

Hygiene: cleanliness in the calving shed and with calving equipment is critical to avoid illness in calves. Slats and calving pens should be scrapped and limed, keep calving pens clean and well bedded. If you know you have a bacteria or virus and are disinfecting pens ensure the disinfectant you use works against the pathogen – read the label.

Calving preparation

Calving is due to begin on the 14th of February. But as we all know this is only a guide, so John like to have everything ready and waiting for when the first arrival comes. John has 6 calving pens and one calving gate and moves the cows down the shed. Currently all six calving pens have straw bales in them. These will be removed in the next week, the shed cleaned, disinfected, limed and well bedded.  

John has no cameras or monitors, so these do not have to be services. The calving gate and calving jack will be checked and any issues fixed.John then has a Calving Checklist to ensure everything is on hand, in the yard for the first calving. Gloves, two set of ropes, two stomach tubes, iodine, calf jacket etc. 

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