InTouch: Determine your own odds in an autumn calving lottery
With the daylight hours getting gradually shorter with each day, the arrival of autumn brings with it a changing colour to the countryside. For a lot of farms, silage stocking should be completed, bar a few small opportunities to come in the next month. Grain crops are almost in and, unless you are waiting for a maize or beet crop, you should have a fair idea of your feed plans for the winter.
Autumn also brings a lot of calvings on Irish farms, to maintain production over winter. Unfortunately, with a lot of very productive feed to be eaten around the farm, this sometimes does not mix well with unproductive cows at this point. Two of the most significant imbalances to juggle over the next month or two are energy and potassium/potash (K). Too much energy and we will have fat cows, predisposing them to metabolic issues — reduced intake and performance post-calving, as well as rapid loss of body condition. Whereas high levels of K, which is linked to grass tetany for the milking cows, is heavily associated with milk fever.
If you have not already done it, it is important to body condition score (BCS) your cows. Knowing where they are and where they should be at calving is a start, and this will determine how you will get there. With the UFL of autumn grass around 0.85–0.9 (UFL/kg DM), a dry cow will only need to consume about 9 kg of grass dry matter (DM) in the last month of gestation. A dry cow is quite capable of consuming 50% more than this, and it will go towards extra body condition. Using this simple analogy, this cow will put on >0.5 BCS every month she is in this situation.
Likewise, high levels of K in the grass will cause mineral imbalances and lock up the calcium (Ca) needed to get the cow calved, up on her feet and back into the milking parlour.
The control of this excess energy and K in the diet is very important. The use of silage/hay or a mixed diet of straw and silage is required to reduce the intake of grass on a bare paddock. It also provides the ability to add magnesium to the diet and reduce overall intake of energy and K from grass.
While ‘hand’ feeding is another job, this provides you with the ability to control the outcome of calving. While there is a cost in this, grass is also a cost, as well as the veterinary/health and labour cost associated with a metabolic issue, not to mention an unproductive cow post-calving. In the absence of this control, you are in a lottery where the odds are not in your favour.
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