Suckler Farm Management
Type Media Article
By Michael O’Connor Walsh Scholar, Teagasc Galway/Clare
Spring management varies significantly on suckler beef farms across Ireland with some farmers on lighter soils having cows and calves out solely on grass since February, while there are farmers on heavier soils only getting cattle out in the past few weeks and are still feeding silage at the time of writing. That said, there are good management practices that apply to all suckler farmers.
The suckler calving season should be aligned with the beginning of the grazing season in order to turnout cows as soon as they calve. High quality grass alone is enough to maintain a lactating suckler cow with a calf on foot. If ground conditions aren’t suitable, the lactating cow must receive high quality silage in housing, or it may need 1-2 kg of concentrates per day if silage quality is low (high expense). At turnout, a suckler cow should have a body condition score (BCS) of approximately 2.0 +, with the aim of having a BCS of 2.0 – 2.5 at breeding. Cows that have a BCS lower than 2 at turnout need to be given concentrates in order for them to reach the target BCS at breeding, otherwise conception rates will be low.
The most vital ingredient to a healthy calf is the intake of at least 4 litres of good quality colostrum, 6 hours after birth at the latest. The calf’s navel should be dipped immediately with iodine to avoid infection. The sooner the calf and dam are turned out to grass, the less likely the calf will pick up disease/infections, but if weather/ground conditions delay turnout, excellent housing hygiene is required to avoid scour. Young calves should be checked regularly for any signs of scour (even if the cows were vaccinated pre-calving) and immediately isolated with their dam if they have any. Coccidiosis (blood scour) is a dangerous scour in calves associated with poor hygiene and is highly contagious. Infected calves, along with any other calves in close contact, should receive an anti-coccidiosis oral drench to treat it and prevent it spreading. After a month, calves should also be vaccinated against fatal clostridial diseases such as Black leg.
Although suckler cows are lactating animals, they do not require as much minerals as dairy cows. A molasses mineral lick bucket is often sufficient as they take up essential minerals such as calcium, sodium and phosphorus from good quality grass. That said, magnesium must be supplemented when they graze lush, rank grass especially in risky periods for grass tetany (cold weather conditions, autumn time). Magnesium can be supplemented by bolus (provides slow release of magnesium), adding it to water troughs, dusting paddocks or mineral licks. It is also important to supplement minerals when there are symptoms of deficiency present. For example, a copper deficiency causes an animals coat to turn brown, which should signal the need for copper supplementation.
Good grassland management on a suckler farm is essential to increase profitability. The first step to good grassland management is to know how much grass is growing on the farm. In order to do this, the farmer must walk each grazing paddock every week to see what grass is growing (intensive farmers should consider grass measuring). The fields should then be grazed in a rotational fashion, so that the grass is grazed off at the 3 leaf stage (at least 21 days old) down to approximately 4 cm, and then left to grow for another 3 weeks. Investing in grazing infrastructure such as water troughs, roadways and fences to improve rotational grazing is well worth the money. When a suitable period of weather is forecasted in early spring, nitrogen (N) fertiliser should be applied to kick start the grazing season. If certain paddocks show little response to N, consider reseeding.
All silage ground should be grazed off in early April at least 6 weeks before harvesting and fertilizer then applied. Cutting silage takes away high amounts of nutrients from the soil, so nutrients should be returned back in the form of slurry. Silage ground requires approximately 125 N kg/Ha, 20 P kg/Ha and 125 K kg/Ha on index 3 soil. Silage ground that receives 3000 gal/ac of cattle slurry may only need a straight N fertilizer (3 bags/ac of CAN), whereas silage ground which received no slurry would require a compound fertiliser (13-6-20) and a straight N fertiliser (CAN). It is also important to include sulphur (S) into your fertiliser plan as most free-draining soils are deficient and adding S to grassland improves DM quality and quantity, and N efficiency. Silage fields should contain young perennial rye grass dominant swards (freshly reseeded) to increase quality. The grass should be tested for nitrogen levels and sugar content before harvesting (to improve ensiling).