Ventilation and minimum stress for suckler success

Good ventilation created by open-sided buildings and every effort made to reduce stress at housing are important elements of autumn suckled-calf management, even when all stock are vaccinated against pneumonia.

That’s the message from Brian Atkinson’s Scratchmere Scar, Plumpton, Penrith, where about 1000 head of cattle are housed during the winter.

Avoiding costly pneumonia outbreaks is now a priority when calves start to move inside during October.

“And it isn’t necessarily warm and muggy weather that triggers pneumonia:

A sudden change in the weather can quickly cause an outbreak, particularly a sharp frost.

“We used to go in with fire-brigade tactics, but it often meant injecting a whole shed-full of calves.

Even though you can treat them, affected calves really do take a growth check,” says Mr Atkinson.

For the first time last winter all calves from the 400-cow suckler herd were vaccinated against pneumonia one month before housing, with a second jab on the day they were brought inside.

“We kept the cost down by our involvement in a buying group.

And while it still cost us 7 a head, it was well worth it.

Three-quarters of the herd calve from April into summer and the rest in autumn with the first spring-born calves, as well as older cattle for finishing or sale, housed from October onwards.

And it’s at housing time and the weeks beforehand that every effort is made to reduce stress levels.

“With so many calves to wean the only practical way is to do it at housing.

But we never leave calves on cows too long.

“If we left calves on cows until late November they’d be going backwards and would have lost all the condition they’d gained in July and August.

“When we wean calves and give them the second pneumonia jab, we give a worm dose and treat them with a louse powder.

We aim to do these tasks as quickly and efficiently as we can, with minimum stress and then we don’t touch the calves again for any routine handling,” he explains.

At housing calves are immediately switched on to their winter mix of whole-crop barley, maize distillers, barley, bread and molasses.

Five tonnes of bread is used a week which has helped reduced feed costs.

Winter intakes for finishing cattle are about 20kg a day, with fodder beet sometimes used to bulk out the ration when whole-crop runs short.

Getting calves settled quickly and eating plenty is the key, reckons Mr Atkinson.

“We want them eating straight away, so we top-dress the winter mix with the barley they were getting in creep feeders outside.

It’s these small things that all help calves to overcome the trauma of weaning and housing.”

Since going out of milk and deciding not to re-stock with sheep after foot and mouth, the Atkinson family has concentrated on sucklers.

Cows are Limousin crosses – as well as some commercially run purebreds – along with Belgian Blue crosses.

There are also some Simmental-cross cows remaining from the restocking.

The switch to an all-beef enterprise involved investment in new buildings, but the aim was to run a simple system that was easily managed and healthy for the stock.