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Suckler cow Nutrition and management to reduce costs

Updated: Apr 30, 2020

As we move towards spring calving and lambing our minds are focused on nutrition and the feed, we have available on farm.

There are many steps that can be taken to ensure home ground feed is utilised efficiently and the cost of bought-in feeds is reduced to a minimum without compromising performance. These being:

  1. Analysis – By now all forage should be analysed to assess the dry matter available and the energy and protein content of this forage.

  2. Targeted forage use – Based on this analysis forage can be targeted carefully to ensure the stock are fed with the forage that best meets their nutritional requirements

  3. Supplement – Supplement to balance the forage being fed

  4. Measure

Suckler cows and utilising body condition

As we experienced a relatively wet autumn many cattle were housed early to ensure they didn’t do too much damage to grassland.

Cows were in good condition. This offered many opportunities. Firstly, this condition needed to managed to ensure cows are not calving above condition score 2.5 - 3 meaning cows could be fed a diet to remove some of this condition.

Targeting lower energy (8.5 – 9ME) lower protein (above 9% CP) silage at these cows makes sense a 650 kg cow requires 75MJ of energy per day for maintenance. This is 9kg of silage Dry matter.

Fed unrestricted, a suckler cow will eat 2% + of its body weight in dry matter which equates to 13kg.

This provides 110 MJ meaning the cow will be gaining weight. By doing this we are providing the cow with energy it doesn’t need and we are not utilising the cow's body condition that it gained cheaply at grass. On a restricted diet, all cows need to be able to feed at the same time. Straw can be fed to satisfy the cow's appetite remembering this adds come energy but also, importantly, adding straw reduces the protein in the diet so it is important not to go too far so as not to compromise colostrum quality. It is also important not to alter diets to reduce condition quickly in the last 2 months of pregnancy, if cows are too fit at this point it is generally too late and mistakes were made earlier in the grazing season.

Weighing & using EID in suckler cow nutrition

1 body condition score equates to 13% of body weight. For a 650 kg cow this is 84kg. if a cow at condition score 3.5 can lose half a condition score, this is a 0.25kg loss per day over a 150-day winter which further reduces its energy requirements.

We can monitor this through condition scoring and via weighing animals, made easier through EID readers linked to weigh heads, weighing animals at the same time of day to ensure equal belly fill.

Saving 4kg of silage dry matter as per the example above will save 16kg fresh weight of a 25% Dry matter silage which is 2.4 tonnes of silage per cow per winter or 240 tonnes for a 100-cow herd.

In terms of grassland and silage area required this is 34 acres of grassland that is not required for silage based on a yield of 7 tonnes per acre. This land can be utilised by youngstock.

Grassland management

The above opens many options and ask many questions.

Do we need as much forage as we think? Can we reduce forage costs? Can we keep more cows or utilise this excess forage area elsewhere?

As cows have been housed earlier, grassland should have had time to recover and there should be a decent cover of grass to turn out to. Turning out to decent covers means we can look to control grazing earlier. This is an ideal year to put into place a rotational or paddock grazing system to further improve grass utilisation and improve and maintain grass quality longer through the season. By utilising more grass and managing grassland closely you will find you can grow even more grass and this will allow you to carry even more stock, or, in a tenanted situation, you may find you don’t need as much land to carry the same number of stock. An important consideration as we move into a new era of agricultural policy and subsidy support.

The above management changes enable us to utilise cow body condition gained through the summer, reduces the forage requirement for winter, saves on machinery and contractor costs, ensures the correct forage is targeted at the stock that needs it most to save feed costs, enables us to manage grass more closely, improving grass quality and quantity which reduced the land area required.

All in all, not a bad return on any investments needed on weighing equipment and electric fencing and water supply. Food for thought.

Written by James Hadwin

JH Agri Consultancy


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