The Management of Summer & Autumn Calving Dry Cows

For both dairy and suckler cows the lead up time to calving is crucial. The management programme during this phase directly affects the incidence of post calving disorders, milk production and reproduction in the post calving period.

In the dairy cow the transition period, between drying off and calving, imposes a number of abrupt changes on the animal. The termination and commencement of lactation is one example. The cow can experience as many as three ration shifts during this period and she may be subjected to location and social group moves. Rapid changes in both hormonal and metabolic systems must occur. All of which have an effect on the stress levels experienced by the cow.

Poor management of the dairy cow in this period can lead to a number of problems including udder oedema, milk fever, retained placenta (cleansings), displaced abomasum (stomach), laminitis (lameness), metritis (uterus infections), ketosis and fatty liver syndrome all of which will affect the forthcoming lactation and calf viability.

The changes in the suckler cow cycle are less distinct but attention to the cow at this time is equally as important if weak calves and calf mortality, through difficult calvings, are to be avoided.

Profitable suckler cow production relies on a cow producing sufficient milk for the calf as well as getting in calf again, within 80 days of calving is the ideal, so that she calves nearly on the same day every year of her breeding life. The recommendation is that a suckler cow should be at condition score 2 – 2.5 at calving and 2.5 – 3 at service.  The latter can only be achieved with a stress free calving and subsequent good nutrition leading up to service.

Summer calving cows, in both the dairy and suckler herds, can be difficult to manage as they approach calving during a period when grass growth is at its strongest and the grass itself is of the best quality. It is important, therefore, during this period that dairy or suckler cows are kept on an actively managed feed regime to reduce complication during and post calving.

In the early dry period a dairy cow should receive a balanced ration including bulky forage, such as straw, to keep the rumen expanded and working. The ration should be low in grass or preserved grass, to reduce the calcium intakes, the overall goal being to maintain body condition. Any weight gain should be due to foetal growth.

At about 3 weeks prior to the calving date the ration should be adjusted for a lower Dry Matter Intake, this should include the post calving ration. This will ensure the correct rumen bacterial flora post calving and will minimise any palatability problems. Any grain fed should be limited to 0.5 - 1% of bodyweight.

Pre calving dairy cows should receive a speciality mineral which is low in calcium and high in magnesium so that at calving the animal will be in a position to mobilise the calcium body reserves required.

High levels of vitamin E, zinc and selenium should be included in the mineral portion of the ration as these interact with the immune system in the body. Levels of vitamin E and zinc decrease in the last 2 weeks before calving and these two elements, along with selenium, are necessary to enhance the body defences to protect the cow from challenge by infections and to reduce the incidents of retained cleansings.

For summer/autumn calving sucklers, good grazing can produce excessive weight gain. This can lead to bigger calves resulting in more calving difficulties. So it is wise to limit forage intakes by putting animals onto bare pasture with straw, which will maintain rumen function. However, it will be necessary to keep an eye on these cattle so they do not lose condition.

Just as dairy cows, pre-calving suckler cows should receive a balanced mineral ration containing high levels of vitamin E, zinc and selenium to maintain body defences with the aim of getting in calf within the vital 80-day window to ensure the calf a year target.

Improving fertility by a better managed feeding programme pre-calving with the correct mineral balance can influence the overall profitability of the average suckler herd by over £20/head (source: Eblex).

Summer/autumn calving can be a problem for both dairy and suckler herds but with active management and the availability of the correct forage, mineral and trace element balance problems will be reduced, and healthier, more fertile, post calving cows will be the result.