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Quick fixes for winter housing

Housing, nutrition and health are three areas that beef store and finishing systems should consider to help maximise prices and minimise additional costs as winter approaches.

Author: Matt McClymont, InTouch Feeding Specialist – Scotland

The darker and colder days of winter will soon be upon us. Clamps are closed — and following Storm Babet, most cows in the UK are either already housed or are heading for the sheds.

Similarly to last year, for the most part, we’ve ended up with a late growing season, and there’s been plenty of grass to keep cows out. In contrast to this time last year, however, AHDB is reporting that deadweight cattle prices have risen sharply

What are some of the most practical steps you can take now to help advance the winter management of your herd? Read on to learn more about the most important factors you should consider — and how you can reduce your feed costs while capitalising on favourable beef prices. 

  1. Housing

  2. Nutrition

  3. Care

1. Housing 

As we bring stock together in the winter and introduce them conditions that are both more comfortable but more confined and artificial than the outdoors, we often have to take extra steps as we manage their health and welfare.

For productive cattle to thrive, they need to live inside comfortably. When it comes to the buildings and infrastructures of our farms, there are often challenges related to investments and space, which are likely compounded by limitations on what can be accomplished at this stage of the year. Fortunately, however, we can still do a lot to maximise our existing frameworks.

The first step is making sure that the basic needs of the herd are being met, including the following components: 

  • Space: Plan your stocking levels to avoid overstocking, which interferes with optimal feeding, cudding and rumination. As outlined in the table below, the dimensions of the shed depend on the weight of the cows. A key indicator of comfort is when cattle rest for a minimum of 12 hours a day. If you’re looking short on space, consider how you can utilise any unused or alternative-use shed space around the farm. If your yard allows for it, consider feeding off-pad by offering a feed trough a short walk away from the bedding area, which will help maximise space for cattle indoors. 

Image source: AHDB

  • Hygiene: Before bringing the cattle in, power-wash, disinfect and “damp-proof” all areas of the housing. Preventing dampness is key to restricting the survival rates of pathogens, whether they are airborne or thrive on bedding. Dampness can be combatted by repairing any overflowing or leaking troughs, maintaining drainpipe clearance and avoiding using excessive amounts of water when cleaning feed passages. Give these areas enough time to dry out before bedding down. 

Check out this article from AHDB to learn more about the proper management of outdoor straw pads

  • Ventilation: Pneumonia is one of the biggest threats to cattle health. To reduce the risk of pneumonia, cattle and calves must be provided with adequate ventilation and a dry environement. A smoke test will give you a clear picture of the airflow in your shed. If it seems suboptimal, fans can be installed relatively quickly in most situations. Alternatively, buildings can be adapted by adding roof ventilation outlets or modifying walls with Yorkshire boarding or moving curtains. Clipping the backs of adult cattle can help prevent sweating, overheating and humidity while also allowing you to address the differing temperature requirements of calves. 

  • Social: Group-housing cattle with stable relationships is Good Management 101 for minimising social tensions or conflicts within the herd. Keep groups the same and avoid introducing new animals to an established herd. When isolation is required, maintain a safe distance, but ensure that the animal is still in sight and within earshot of the herd to help minimise their stress. 

  • Light: Make sure that your herds are getting an optimal 16 to 18 hours of light each day at around 170+ lux, with six to eight hours of darkness as well. Maintaining these conditions can be a cost-effective way of improving daily live weight gains (DLWG) and advancing the onset of puberty in heifers. 

  • Water: Measure your troughs against the stocking density to ensure that adult cows have adequate access to water to meet their consumption requirements (i.e., 15 litres of water per day per 100 kgs of liveweight). Keeping the troughs clean sounds simple, but it’s often forgotten. Remember: A cow that doesn’t drink enough also doesn’t eat enough!

Image source: AHDB

  • Stimulation: Scratching or rubbing devices allow animals to perform important natural behaviours and should always be provided to help improve their coat condition and to diminish behaviours associated with the discomfort of itching.

  • Calm: Cattle are a prey species and, as a result, are naturally easily alarmed and sensitive to human interactions. They respond well to calm, quiet operators they can trust. 

As soon as the cattle are in, keep a close eye on the illness incidence rate and any behavioural problems, such as bullying at the feed face or a decrease in lying down. Even if you don’t seem to have any obvious issues, it is worth seeking an independent opinion to counter any wishful thinking.

Take a look at the AHDB BetterReturns booklet for more information on improving housing.

2. Nutrition 

Now comes the tricky part: nutrition. The process of trying to get the right nutrients to every animal offers the greatest opportunity for error — and for variable cost inefficiencies.

We’ve come a long way since the days of ad-lib silage feeding. Now, we know so much more about meeting the needs of the animal, and it is our responsibility to keep up with those modern advancements. 

A good nutritionist should be working with you to ensure that your rations are set up to maximise your animals’ performance efficiency through the following areas:

  • Transition: When coming off grass, all cattle should be gradually transitioned onto a new diet. This allows the rumen to adjust and helps prevent problems such as acidosis, liver abscesses and stomach ulcers. Gradually wean calves on creep for three to six weeks before housing to develop their rumen.

  • Presentation: We know that what cattle need doesn’t always correlate with what they want. If their feed is not chopped, mixed and/or presented properly (i.e., it is under- or over-processed, is processed inconsistently or is not processed at all), cows will be able to avoid the fibrous dry matter and nuzzle for concentrates. This will impact their rumen health and, in turn, your feed conversion ratios. 

Different ingredients have different physical properties. As such, the loading order of these ingredients can impact the final ration. Consider the moisture and fibre levels and the density of the ingredients before deciding the order in which they will be loaded into the diet feeder. Forages shouldn’t stick or ball together, and concentrates should be evenly mixed throughout the ration. We generally advise that forages be added last, but there’s no one-size-fits-all strategy. Speak with an InTouch specialist to work out an effective plan.

We all know the power of the correct chop length of fibrous matter for achieving a “scratch factor” within the rumen. To accomplish this, we should ensure that the ration isn’t over- or under-processed. Read this blog for a deep dive into what the perfect ration looks like, and remember to stick to the capacity of your diet feeder and keep the blades maintained with regular servicing. 

  • Accuracy: Ensure that you are plating the right number of portions for each group and adjusting the rations as those groups change — and as silage changes, too. It is also important to ensure that the ration you formulated is actually the ration you made through loading accuracy. Consider using a feed management system on your diet feeder to calculate, weigh-in and report on the loading process. InTouch does all of this in real time and with the support of remote and on-farm specialists. 

  • Balance: Forage variation can be so drastic that it would be negligent to expect the same values from cut to cut, let alone year to year. Silage and mineral analyses are critical to create a balanced ration that will maximise the value of homegrown forages without overspending on or undersupplying ingredients to supplement energy, protein, starch, trace elements and more. 

  • Troughs: Ensure that there is adequate access to the feed. The suggested trough space allowance is 500 mm for store cattle and 750 mm for suckler cattle. 

  • Routine: Respect the fact that cows are habitual and love having a routine by feeding them at the same time each day and pushing up feed as regularly as needed (without creating an unnecessary distruption) to ensure that it stays freely accessible. 

Meat Promotion Wales: Practical Beef Cattle Nutrition

3. Care 

With any housing system comes an increased risk of immunosuppression and health issues compared to the risk for cows outdoors, especially for young cattle that are being weaned. Some issues to watch for include: 

  • Pneumonia: A pneumonia vaccine can be administered prior to weaning, but the incidence rate is also influenced by housing, as mentioned previously. 

  • Parasites: Housing is an ideal time to get on top of parasites — such as worms, fluke and lice — in order to prevent production losses, but testing before treating is vital, both for economic reasons and the potential for an increased risk of resistance. The farm’s history and any other symptoms that have manifested should be considered when using faecal egg count tests for worms and coproantigen tests for fluke to properly determine whether there is a burden.

  • Lameness: This can be one of the main reasons for using antibiotics with a beef herd. At housing, assess the animals’ feet; anything with long toes should be trimmed. Consider conducting semi-regular footbathing after any foot-trimming treatment or when bringing cattle in. Avoid doing footbathing on a regular basis, however, as this can lead to over-handling cattle, causing their growth rates to regress. Cleaning out straw bedding every four to six months and continuing to monitor the dampness and humidity of the shelter can limit the likelihood of pathogens and bacteria contributing to lameness. 

The most important thing to remember is that there is no one-size-fits-all strategy for cattle, especially when it comes to feeding. Different tactics work for different farms, depending on a huge number of factors, from the type of forage to the breed of cow. 

This is where InTouch proves invaluable. InTouch is an advanced feed-management system that keeps farmers connected with and in control of their feed conversion efficiency, their margin from feed and the all-around sustainability of their farms. The InTouch toolkit — which includes a control unit, a mobile app and an online dashboard — puts precision feed management at the farmer’s fingertips. 

This data is all driven and supported by our specialist on-farm and remote team, whose goal is to work with farm teams to help improve their feeding accuracy and optimise their TMR performance. Powered by InTouch feeding technology, our team of independent advisors are valued by beef farmers all over the U.K. for their independent expertise and capabilities, which allow us to help producers continually improve and ride out all the pressures and challenges of raising cattle.

Get in touch with your local InTouch feeding specialist today or visit the Contact Us page.