22 November 1996

How feed is a fillip to autumn calving

Improved feeding management on one autumn calving suckler unit has halved the number of cows returning to service. Jonathan Riley reports

BETTER fertility in one Suffolk-based autumn calving suckler herd is due to improved feeding.

Mike Adlam manages a 485ha (1200-acre) arable beef farm at Stratton St Andrew, where in the past up to 12% of his 160 cows have been empty. But careful feeding and tighter management this year have cut this figure to 5%.

"We favour autumn calving because we have insufficient space to house the herd during winter, and calving outside in February/March presents problems for young calves. Also we have a larger calf to sell for the store market next autumn than our spring calving counterparts," says Mr Adlam.

The traditional drawbacks of autumn calving are that the system cannot exploit summer grazing for milk production and it incurs higher winter feed costs.

In an attempt to cut winter feed costs, he has fed strip-grazed kale, sugar beet tops, straw and silage in the past, with blocks supplying minerals to offset the farms copper and selenium deficiency. But on this diet cows were returning to the bull in January.

The pattern of returns suggested that cows had taken to service but had then reabsorbed the foetus, an indicator of inadequate nutrition, explains Mr Adlam. And blood samples taken in the spring confirmed that cows were deficient in copper and selenium.

"Our problem was how to get sufficient quantities of minerals into the cow while she was at grass. We designed a tractor-drawn trough, large enough and robust enough to cope with a batch of 35 cows at once," he says.

By feeding sugar beet tops in the morning, and up to 1kg of a home-mixed barley-based concentrate with 14% protein and high copper and selenium levels, the number of empty cows has been reduced to 5%.

Improved nutrition has also reduced the calving period from 12 to eight weeks.

"In the past some later calvers were put to the bull before they had recovered sufficient condition. Now we can manage condition better and all cows are on a rising plane of nutrition when they are put to the bull," he says.

"Compressing the calving period means calves are bigger before winter, so they cope better. And a more uniform batch of calves is simpler to manage.

"In addition, bulls are in peak condition when they are turned into the cows after being housed for three months and fed 4-5kg of concentrate a day," he says.

Bulls are then wormed, treated against ectoparasites and have their feet trimmed if necessary before they are turned in with the cows.

"Observation of the herd is the key through the mating period so that we can spot any problems with the bull or cows. As we feed twice a day we use this time to observe the herd and all services are recorded," says Mr Adlam.

"After six weeks cows are put into groups of 70 to one bull and are mixed finally into two groups with one bull to 100 left to sweep up," he says.

Cobbold Farms suckler herdsman Ray Fordham, feeding a 14% protein barley-based diet to autumn-calving cows to help improve fertility.


&#8226 Ensure sufficient minerals on offer.

&#8226 Rising plane of nutrition at service.

&#8226 Ensure bulls are in peak condition.