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Assess your Suckler Cows at Housing

20 November 2017
Type Media Article

Press article by - Mícheál Kelly, Teagasc Adviser, Galway/Clare Regional Unit

Ideally, cows should be well fleshed at this stage of the housing period. However, in some cases, cows may be in poorer condition after weaning large calves or where grass was in short supply throughout the season. 

An animal's body condition score (BCS) is an overall assessment of the level of flesh or fat on an animal's frame. This can be a clear indicator of how your suckler cows should be fed during the winter months. The cover of flesh a cow is carrying coming into the winter months acts as a built-in energy reserve for the animal which plays a vital role closer to calving. Suckler cows

A cow's body condition is accurately assessed by checking the level of cover along the short ribs and around the tail head and grading a cow on a 1-5 scale. Many will not be familiar with this assessment, but all farmers should be able to judge their own cows visually.

It is important to group similar cows together when housing as cows at different levels of condition require different levels of feeding. This is increasingly important where the feed space is limited as heavier, stronger cows will continue to gain weight while shy feeders, young cows and heifers will be bullied which restricts their intake and lowers their growth rates.

One of the major reasons why calving heifers as two year olds is unsuccessful on some farms or why there is difficulty getting some cows back in-calf is because all cows are grouped together and fed a blanket diet throughout the winter period, regardless of their body condition.  It is important to remember that a cow does not reach mature size until she is five years old. Young cows and first calvers will need additional feed over the winter period as they are still growing themselves as well as feeding the unborn calf.

Now is the time to act. It is important to address the condition of the cows at housing, before we get too close to calving. Feeding of thin cows and heifers should be front-loaded at the start of housing and gradually tapered off as they reach a satisfactory level of condition. Where these animals calve down in poor condition, it can lead to weak cows at calving at time, less vigorous calves and a prolonged period before the cow comes back into heat post calving.

The reason behind this is that 75-80% of the calf's eventual birth size is formed in the final two months before it is born. At this stage the majority of nutrients the cow is consuming are being diverted towards the unborn calf. As the calf is growing within the cow, the cow's stomach naturally has less space to expand which results in the cow being able to eat less. For these reasons, feeding thin cows extra at this late stage will only serve to maintain the calf but will have little effect of the cow's own condition.

When cows are in good condition at calving they can compensate for being able to eat less by burning off some of the extra body condition they are carrying and using it as a source of energy. It is a common but dangerous practice to restrict feed to thin cows in the final month before calving as cows may rapidly lose body condition but it will have little impact on calf size. Although feeding in the final month has some impact on the calf's birth weight, the size of the calf is mostly determined by the calf's genetics, which were decided 8 months previous, when the cow or heifer was mated.

The aim for every farmer should be to have cows fit but not fat at calving. Again where cows are overly fat in herds, they should be fed a restricted diet from early in the housing period which will allow them to lose some weight prior to calving. Fat cows which are fed a high level of nutrition will continue to lay down fat. In a lot of cases this fat will build up around the pelvis which narrows the passageway the calf must pass through at calving. This is similar to reducing the size of the tunnel a train must pass through even though the train is getting bigger each day. This can be a major cause of difficult calvings in the suckler herd.

It is important to begin the "boot camp" now and get cows into proper order before calving time arrives. Trying to fatten thin cows or slim down fat from heavy cows in the final hour will be unsuccessful at such a late stage. Group cows according to their current condition and feed as appropriate throughout the winter.