Rethinking Cattle Performance: 5 ways to lift suckler herd performance

The final workshop in Farmers Weekly’s Rethinking Cattle Performance series saw farmers visit the Anderson family’s suckler herd in Ballymoney, Northern Ireland.

Health, hygiene and nutrition can all have a significant impact on beef fertility and subsequent calf performance, delegates learnt.

During the day vets Andrew Henderson from EBVC, Adam Con from Riada Vet Clinic and Jamie Robertson, consultant at Livestock Management Systems, gave their advice on how to improve these key areas on your beef unit.


© BillyPix

1 Monitor cow condition and nutrition

Feed costs can be the largest proportion of variable costs so it’s fundamental to get nutrition right.

Energy requirements vary throughout the year (see first table below) so it’s important to understand what your animal requirements are across the lactation and in the dry period.

Suckler cow energy requirements

Dry matter intake (DMI) Energy (ME MJ/day) ME/kg DMI Crude protein (CP % in dry matter)
Early lactation 12-14 120-130 9.6 11-12
Late lactation 9-11 85-95 9 11
Dry 10 75-80 7.75 9

Analysing forages monthly or when the silage changes as well as assessing the body condition score of cows are key starting points.

Ideally cows should be condition scored at least twice a year at calving and drying off to separate out thin and fat cows to reduce problems at calving but where possible four times:

  • Dry period
  • Calving
  • Service/early pregnancy
  • Mid-pregnancy

BCS targets (Source AHDB)

  Spring calving herds Autumn calving herds
Calving 2.5-3 3
Service 2.5-3 2.5-3
Housing 2-3.5 3

2 Feed good quality colostrum quickly and make sure calves have enough

Calves are twice as likely to die and don’t grow as quickly if they do not receive adequate levels of antibodies from colostrum.

The level of immunoglobulins fed to calves within the first 24-48 hours is therefore paramount as well as the amount fed.

Beef calves should receive at least 3L of colostrum within the first hour of life.

This can be difficult to monitor when calves are suckling dams but as a gauge this amount of colostrum can take up to 20 minutes to be consumed.

Colostrum quality is also more difficult to test in beef animals. However, a refractometer can be used to assess a calf’s colostrum status by taking a selection of blood samples from calves.

See also: Video – how to use a refractometer to test colostrum quality

Stress plays a big role in how immunoglobulins are absorbed so calves should be supplemented if:

  • They are twins
  • A caesarean has been carried out
  • Intervention has occurred
  • They are lethargic
  • Not seen suckling within two hours.

If you need colostrum avoid getting it off other farms unless your know their health status or they are pasteurising colostrum. And make sure you know the difference between supplements and substitutes.

Some products don’t have enough immunoglobulins in them to be relied on as a sole source.

3 Monitor daily liveweight gains

Weight gain is a key output for any beef system so if you don’t weigh animals regularly how can you tell if you’re operating efficiently?

See also: How precision technology can fine-tune beef production

Poor weight can act as a good indicator of health issues or poor nutrition.

Aim to weigh as often as you can and try to make it easier by tying it in with other jobs. The gold standard would be to weigh every 2-4 weeks.

4 Improve forage quality and management

D-Value decreases by 3.3% for every week silage harvest is delayed – this means an extra 1.2kg of concentrate will need to be fed a day to make up for the shortfall.

Aim for a D-value of above 70 by cutting before May 8 – D-value will drop to below this by 19 May and by the middle of June it will be 60.

See also: First-cut grass silage – when is best for top quality?

Formulation of the ration is essential to maximise DMI. Very wet or dry rations may depress intakes, overly fibrous can also as they fill up and depress DMI. TMR target 40 – 55% DM and minimise dust using say molasses.

5 Hygiene in calving pens

Cows expel 50-60 litres of fluid at calving so keeping bedding dry is essential.

To test if it is dry enough drop to your knees. It shouldn’t be wet when you get up. If you’re batch calving then it would be beneficial to put lime down before adding clean straw, especially if you’re running a scour issue.

If you are having to clean out a pen a lot you need to look at the reason – it could be drainage or ventilation.

Do a dry clean if your shed is poor draining or you don’t have time to steam clean. Remove all the organic matter and put down hydrated Lime or similar.

Once a year or if you’re running a scour or cryptosporidium problem then deep clean the shed. Steam clean (above 60C to remove the bugs) and use a detergent before you use a disinfectant to remove biofilm. You must have enough time to let it dry before re-introducing stock to the building.

Sponsors’ message

Thanks to ABP, Zoetis and Volac, whose sponsorship made it possible to run this Rethinking Cattle Performance workshop. Farmers Weekly had full editorial control of this article.

“ABP, Volac and Zoetis are committed to supporting UK cattle farmers in running enterprises that produce healthier, more productive animals.

Part of this commitment means working with organisations such as Farmers Weekly on initiatives such as the ‘Rethinking Cattle Performance’ campaign, to offer farmers the opportunity to learn from experts and their peers about the best ways to produce cattle, and particularly calves, as efficiently as possible.