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Making the most of Autumn Growth

06 August 2019
Type Media Article

By Mícheál Kelly, Teagasc Drystock Advisor, Galway/Clare Unit

This year has left a lot of us at a loss so far in terms of forecasting what is coming down the tracks for the beef industry in Ireland. Both Brexit and the Mercursor deal have caused huge uncertainty in the beef sector but there are things which will definitely proceed, without the need for another referendum or vote, and those are the autumn weanling sales.

Weanling sales will take off throughout September and October and it is vital for farmers with spring calving herds to have their progeny in top form on sale day. Stress free, well-conditioned weanlings that have been dosed and vaccinated will always achieve a premium price.

Grass is a premium product and on suckler farms, stock that will be going for sale must be given first refusal on grazing rights. Suckler cows have been yielding well all summer but this milk production will begin to decline in the coming weeks, and already, in some instances, the cows are now contributing very little towards the liveweight gain of their calves. Cows for the most part are in great condition after the summer and this can be managed so as to focus the better quality grass to their calves and forcing the cows to clean out fields. This can be achieved through forward creep grazing the calves. A simple system of raising a wire or using a creep gate allows the calves to graze ahead of the cows, offering calves first refusal on the leafier grass, which will improve the calves’ liveweight gains in this important period with sales around the corner.  Successful weaning is based upon breaking the cow/calf bond over a period of time, thus reducing the impact of stress on the animals and avoiding setbacks in growth. Creep grazing the calves ahead of the cows helps to break this bond.

Where grass is scarce or grass quality is poor, ad-lib creep feeders are ideal for introducing meal to calves. However, over a longer feeding period, these may have negative effects. Grass intakes will be reduced due to the calves’ preference for meal, smaller calves will be bullied, and the costs of meal feeding can spiral out of control. Once calves are accustomed to eating meal, open troughs in an area inaccessible to cows are far more beneficial than ad-lib feeders. In this way the level of meal feeding can be controlled, each calf gets an equal chance to eat, and indirectly it allows you to observe the calves easily each day making it easier to spot shy feeders or sick animals.  The response to meal feeding will vary greatly depending on age, breeding, and sex. With meal and good quality grass, bulls can achieve growth rates of 1.3-1.4kg/day with heifer achieving 1.2-1.35kg/day.

Weaning is often based on weight rather than age, and ideally calves should not be weaned before reaching 250kg. Abrupt weaning will lead to stress, pneumonia and setbacks in growth rates. Always wean in batches. Cows should gradually be removed from group rather than the calves, leaving the calves in familiar surroundings. Leave a week to ten days between weaning batches. Once weaned, calves should continue to eat at least 1kg/day of meal for at least a fortnight. Magnesium buckets should be left out with cows to reduce the risk of Tetany after weaning.

For the most part we have had a very good year for grass growth. Pits and yards are full of silage again and the hay famine is over for a number of years. Coming into autumn however, it is important not to let the eye off the ball and to keep quality grass in the diet of all animals for as long as possible. August is a crucial month to assess the amount of grass that there is on the farm and to plan final fertiliser strategies for the year. As we all know grass growth is still strong in most places, with grass really taking off after the recent rain. It is important to build grass on the farm from mid-August onwards but we have to be prepared to find equilibrium based on our own situation. We want to build enough grass to extend the grazing season but we do not want to carry very heavy covers into the backend as we may run into issues getting them grazed out. Each farm will be different but hopefully we can make the correct grassland management decisions and the weather will play ball to allow us to achieve our targets.