With sire selection soon to be a priority for early season calvers, avoiding bulls with calving difficulties and long gestation periods is an obvious requirement, particularly when a bad calving could cost more than £340.

With subsidy-related payments no longer available for suckler cows, maintaining assistance-free calving periods and maximising growth potential of suckled calves will be essential, says Genus Breeding development manager Neil Wharton.

“Work carried out by SAC has shown that when vet cost, calf losses, damage to or loss of cow, any delay in time taken to get the cow back in calf and loss of production are added together, a bad calving can cost up to £345.”

That’s the equivalent of £8.50 a calf extra required for every batch of 40 suckled calves sold, adds Mr Wharton.

“In terms of extra calf output required, when using a bull with 2.5% calving difficulty on 40 cows, every calf lost at birth means the others have to be 6kg heavier at weaning.

At 5% losses each calf has to gain an extra 12kg.”

When almost half of all calf mortality in heifers and a quarter of all calf mortalities in cows are associated with calving difficulties, or dystocia, SAC’s Cathy Dwyer says more attention should be paid to management of cows and heifers before calving.

Management issues, such as achieving optimum foetal growth and boosting colostrum immunoglobulins through improved nutrition, as well as consideration of the season of calving will help reduce dystocia, she adds.

“And although calving ease has a relatively low heritability, selection against dystocia is possible.”

Calves are 3-15 times more likely to die when there has been calving difficulty, so calf survival can be increased through better genetic selection, she says.

“Growing heifers to optimum body weights for calving, nutritional issues throughout pregnancy and lowering stress levels at calving will also have an impact.”

When short gestation length bulls are selected the economics soon stack up, adds Mr Wharton.

“For a 70-cow suckler herd reducing its calving spread by seven days by using a short gestation bull an extra 490kg can be achieved – taking an average gain of 1kg a day.

And at £1/kg when selling, this equates to £490 or £7 a calf.”

And it’s not just bulls where improvements can be made.

With return of OTM cows to the food chain, suckled calf producers now have a chance to establish long term replacement heifer purchasing policies, believes NBA chairman Duff Burrell.

“The desire to hold on to badly bred and poor performing cows just because they can produce a calf every 15-18 months is already weakening now that reasonably fleshed cows can be cashed for about £500 and those that are heavier are making more,” he reckons.

With cull cows at last making money, better quality bulling heifers are now within the price range.

“This will give breeders opportunity to establish more consistent cow herds able to produce even batches of similarly bred calves as well as attacking performance losses caused by poor fertility and stretched calving periods.”

chrissie.lawrence@rbi.co.uk