A late flush of grass and movement restrictions are conspiring to make feed intake management challenging for autumn calving suckler herds. Producers are being urged to keep a close eye on body condition, provide essential minerals and limit intakes accordingly to reduce incidence of calving difficulties and problems with fertility post calving.
Cold and wet weather has kept condition off suckler cows this year, particularly on hill-based systems, according to Dumfries-based Keenan nutritionist Donald Brown. But, for herds where this has not been the case, dramatically changing diet in the lead up to calving in a bid to reduce body condition score should be avoided, as this will lead to an onset of metabolic disorders.
Grazing cows on stubble and allowing access to grass for limited periods of five to six hours a day, depending on quantity of grass, is one way of maintaining condition without running the danger of animals becoming over-fat, he adds. “Trying to get condition off at this stage will also result in delayed conception post calving, something producers should avoid at all costs.”
Perhaps less practical this year, due to wet weather, is limiting grazing to tightly stocked pastures. “Where there is hard, tight grazing available, buffer feeding straw in ring feeders or providing high fibre, straw-based diets is an option to control intakes.
“Post-calving, condition needs to be maintained, even if this means sourcing supplementary forage,” he says. “A drop in fertility of even 10% will have a huge effect on profitability, so ensuring cows have access to good quality grazing or conserved forage is essential after calving.”
Over-fat cows are more likely to suffer from milk fever and metabolic diseases such as ketosis, both during and after calving, warns Chris Watson of the Wood Vet Group, Gloucestershire. “Cows which are carrying too much condition at calving will also have problems at calving, with fat around the birth canal reducing the available space for the calf to pass through.”
To prevent the prevalence of such problems, supplying an adequate source of magnesium is crucial, in the form of magnesium oxide, rolls or mineral licks.
“When there are more than eight weeks before calving rations can be adjusted to prevent cows becoming too fat. There are two key points to remember: Plenty of magnesium and plenty of exercise.” He suggests moving cows, where possible, between fields or across stubbles to increase fitness prior to calving.
Highlighting that lush grass may not be the norm for beef producers, SAC beef adviser Gavin Hill says there is a huge variation in cattle condition and grass availability.
“Autumn calvers are notoriously fit at calving, but this year this has not been a problem for some due to limited grass. The importance for these cows is post calving management, as they need a rising plane of nutrition while lactating to ensure they are fit for conception.
“For those who have increased grass levels, prevent cows getting too fit by restricting grazing. This can be done by grazing them on rough hill land or by bringing them inside and feeding a straw-based diet or limited silage based diet with minerals.”