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Feed Requirements of the Lactating Suckler Cow

20 February 2017
Type Media Article

By Anthony O'Connor, Teagasc Adviser, Galway/Clare Regional Unit

With 80% of the national suckler herd calving in the months of February, March and April, calves are starting to appear on farms across the region. Calves are dependent on their dam's milk for the first few weeks of life until their rumen develops. Lactating cows need to be on a high plane of nutrition in order to produce milk for their calves. Body Condition Score (BCS) must be maintained post calving so that the cow will return to normal heat cycling every 21 days. Most importantly, it is critical that suckler cows be at a BCS of 2.5 at breeding time.

Feed Requirements of Lactating Sucklers:

Aim to turn out spring-calving cows to grass as they calve. Cows going to grass directly after calving don't need concentrates if there is a good supply of high-quality grass. If cows with calves at foot are indoors on a silage-based diet and in good condition, feed moderate to good quality silage, to appetite, for 4-6 weeks after calving, provided the diet is grass-based thereafter. If silage quality is poor, feed 1-2 kg meals. If cows with calves at foot are indoors on a silage based diet and in poor condition, feed moderate to good quality silage, to appetite, plus 2-3kg meals per head per day. 

Bear in mind the following when feeding lactating cows:

  • Where feed is restricted and/or concentrates fed, it is important that feed space at the barrier is adequate so that all cows can eat at the same time.
  • The crude protein content of the concentrate being fed should be at least 18% in order to meet the dietary protein requirement.
  • Feeding straw is not suitable for thin cows or for cows after calving.

First Calvers: 

These young cows are still growing and need to be observed carefully post calving. After calving, first-calvers require concentrate supplementation in all cases until turn-out to pasture. Where silage quality is moderate to good, feed 1-2 kg meal per head per day and if silage quality is poor, feed 2-3 kg meal per head per day.   

Silage Stocks: 

Until temperatures rise and grass starts to grow, cows and calves can remain indoors.  Ensure there is enough silage for all your stock on hand. Complete a fodder budget until projected turnout date. If silage shortage is predicted, it may be necessary to restrict silage intake and increase amount of concentrates fed.  Calves need to have access to a dry, clean well bedded, draught free creep area while cows are consuming silage or concentrates. 

Early Grazing: 

After a mild winter, there is grass available on most farms. Early born calves and their dams could be allowed out in small groups to graze the driest and most sheltered fields. On/off grazing can be practiced if infrastructure on farm is suitable. Cows turned out with young calves should have some form of Magnesium made available to reduce the risk of Grass Tetany. Aim to graze silage fields first and ensure heavy covers of grass are eaten on grazing fields before Nitrogen is applied.  

Early Grass: 

Spring grazing gets grass back into the diets of suckler cows and beef cattle while at the same time it increases the quality of grass that is grown and eaten later in the grazing season. For early grass in late March or early April, then Nitrogen fertiliser must be applied to bare grazing fields or paddocks. Spread half bag of urea (46% N) per acre when consistent soil temperature rises to 6 degrees centigrade, normally in the latter half of February or early March. This should provide enough fodder for lactating suckler cows and their calves.