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Suckler Herd Management in September

There are a number of essential jobs that should take place over the coming weeks on suckler farms. Pearse Kelly, Head of Drystock Knowledge Transfer, Teagasc outlines those that will increase output and save costs and bring benefits over the coming year, if not for years ahead.

Forward Creep Grazing

As we approach weaning and sale dates on most suckler farms we now start to see the introduction of creep feeders into fields across the country.  They are a simple solution for feeding meals to calves while they are still on cows, however, that is about the only advantage of them.  They are expensive to buy, it is impossible to regulate the amount of meals that are being fed in them and they do very little to help wean the calf from its mother.

Feeding meals in troughs on the other side of the fence / gap is a cheaper and more beneficial option.  A trough is much cheaper to make/ buy and you can set the amount to be fed each day.  It also means the calves are leaving the field that the cows are in and they are going into a field of better grass.  Cows that have calved over five months do not now have a lot of milk so why should they get the same amount and quality of grass as you are giving to their progeny that you are trying to push on?  Lifting the paddock wire between two posts or having a creep gate in a gap is the first step.  The next step is to make the calves go through to the next field each day for about three days.  After that they will go through themselves especially if the meal trough is near the gap.  The cows should really only be used to clean out the fields that the calves have been in.  They will decide on when the next move should take place when they have fully grazed out the field they are in.

Scanning Suckler Cows

The economics of suckler calf production are so tight they leave no room for carrying unproductive cows.  A cow that is not in calf on the 1st September which is subsequently kept until the 1st January to go in calf and calve down as an autumn calver in 2022 will be unproductive for 120 days.  The cost of keeping this cow and the lack of any production by her is estimated to cost over €200.  This means that when she does produce a calf that calf (assuming she does go in calf by the 1st January) had better be worth at least €200 more than the rest of your calves on average to justify having kept its mother.  This is why suckler cows that are not in calf at this stage need to be identified so that they can be fattened and slaughtered as soon as possible.  Also with the price cull cows are making this year why wouldn’t you cash in your least profitable cows?

Scanners can pick up whether a cow is in calf or not 30 days after the breeding season has ended.  The longer you leave it the more accurate they are though.  Empty cows should be weaned if they are not already and put on good quality grass for no more than two months with 2 to 3 kg of a high energy ration.  Leaving their calf on them for longer will mean they will continue to loose condition which will then just have to be put back on them.  By knowing at this stage how many cows are in calf it gives you the option of buying perhaps in-calf heifers to replace the cows that are going to be culled.  The cull value of the cow should go a long way towards paying for this.  The scanner should also be able to estimate the age of each foetus.  

This will allow you to predict the calving date for each cow.  By penning your cows according to their calving date it should mean less unexpected calvings and also allows you to implement night time only feeding for a small number of cows at a time for a month before they are due.

Herd Health

September is the month when we start to see cases of grass tetany starting to pop back up again in suckler cows especially in the days following weaning when they are most stressed.  Preventing it from happening in the first place is definitely the best option.  Pasture dusting with calmag is the most reliable way.  The fine powder form of calmag should be used and enough grass for one weeks grazing should be done at a time.  It is really only economical at above average stocking rates.  Put it out at a rate of 17 kg per ha.

A lot of farmers have used the home-mix of calmag and molasses over the years with quite good success.  The recommendation is that 20 kg of calmag and 20 kg of molasses mixed together should supply 50 cows with enough Mg for one week.  Make sure you stir the mix at least once a day.  

You may have to train the cows early on to eat this mix by having a much higher proportion of molasses to begin with.  There are also a number of oral Mg Salt products for putting through the water on the market.  When used properly these can work very well but if there is a lot of rain cows may not drink a lot of water from the trough.

September is also the month for hoose although there are already reports of it from earlier in the summer due to the warm wet weather we had this summer.  Calves should now be eating substantial quantities of grass and so are taking up worms.  Plan out you parasite control programme for the remainder of the year.  A faecal egg test will quickly tell you whether or not you need to treat weanlings at this stage for stomach worms.  Some of the long acting products will give you enough of a cover to cut out the need for doing them again at housing but this may mean delaying treating them until later in the month.  Perhaps a shorter acting treatment now followed by one more long acting treatment late in September or early in October would be a better option.

Keep Grass Covers Building

The race is now on when it comes to your autumn grassland management plan.  Daily grass growth is starting to decline and it is soon going to match your daily herd demand.  Once they meet, whatever days of grass you have ahead of you will not be able to rise any further.  This means if you have for example only 15 days of grass ahead of you when this happens you will remain at or below this for the remainder of the year.  Any slow down in growth will then leave you with very little grass and you will be looking to house some cattle / cows much earlier than you would have liked to.  For this reason you should use whatever days are left in September to continue to build covers up by:-

  • Growing as much grass as possible – if you still have nitrogen left to spread get it out as soon as possible
  • Reducing daily herd demand by whatever means possible – weaning cows, selling fit cattle, feeding meals at grass to cattle being finished.

Farms that are short of grass in October have very little flexibility.  Closing fields for early grazing next spring will not be an option for them.  That is why if grass covers were not built up during August every effort should now be made to rectify it during September.

Choose Your Replacements

Are you keeping any of your homebred heifers for replacements?  If not, why not?  Are these not the heifers that you know the most about compared to going out and buying heifers that you have very little information on?  September is one of the best months for looking at your heifer calves and deciding which might be candidates for breeding.  Most of the weight they have put on is because of the amount of milk their mothers supplied them with.  Suckler cows with a good milk supply should now have well grown heifers.  Their heifers should also then be reasonable when it comes to their milk supply.

HerdPlus from ICBF can supply information on every one of your suckler cows.  Apart from showing which of your cows are the highest on Replacement Index (ideally heifers should where possible be selected from these), the reports also show the calving interval history on every cow in the herd and this is invaluable.  By checking the calving history of a cow you now have another part of the jigsaw when it comes to selecting heifers for breeding.  Keeping well shaped heifers out of cows that have been regular breeders and that are good milkers must be better than buying beef heifers in marts where you have considerably less information.

If you liked this article you might also like to read How does your suckler cow measure up?

The Teagasc Beef Specialists issue an article on a topic of interest to beef and suckler farmers every Wednesday here on Teagasc Daily. Find more on Teagasc Beef here