Cattle conditioning a winter challenge

by Dr Clive Dalton

The main challenge during winter is to get cows in good condition for calving and any skinny pregnant cows as a result of the drought need extra feed, as if they calve when emaciated, there will be ongoing problems in spring.

They’ll be slow to cycle and get in calf again early, and having cows calving at hristmas can be very inconvenient.

Cows should calve at Condition Score 5, which is when they have rounded hips.

A thin cow will need good quality supplements during winter to replace lost body condition. It takes 180kg of  DM to replace one condition score, and that’s on top of basic maintenance of the cow, so that’s a lot of feed to provide in supplements, and it takes at least a month to see its effect.

Young stock need to keep growing all the time, but in winter if feed is short, all you may achieve is to stop them losing weight. If they stop growing, it takes a lot of extra feed and time to catch up and reach their target weights for mating in October.

In this state, young stock may be prone to internal parasites, but before you dive in with drench assuming they have worms, consult your vet about the actual cause. If it is worms then it’s essential to use the correct drench to avoid drench resistance, which is building up in cattle with such frequent use of pour-ons. Mature cows should not need drenching.

Lice are a regular winter problem, so again consult your vet about which product to use and the withholding times for meat and milk. There are more than 40 products on the market and cattle lice too are becoming resistant to chemicals.

Check with your veterinarian about getting blood profiles done on any stock not thriving, and take their advice on hat action to take. Building up mineral reserves in the liver takes time – it’s like charging up a battery. If you do send any stock to the works, it’s a good idea to get some livers tested for minerals from the works through your vet. The liver test is better than a blood test as it shows what minerals are in the store to draw on and not just circulating around the body. Facial eczema should have gone, but watch for long-term effects on any affected stock. Long-term zinc treatment can strip the copper reserves from the liver, so copper supplementation may be recommended (check with your vet).

Also the liver may have been damaged by the toxins, which can result in milk fever at calving.

Abortions in winter are always a worry as often the aborted foetus is very small and can be hard to find – the dog may find it for you. Even when you send the foetus for lab testing, it’s rare to get a positive diagnosis. Talk to your vet as soon as you have trouble, as you never know if it’s a one-off or the start of an abortion storm. Only winter bulls on the property that you want to use next year.

Any surplus bulls are a hazard and also eat feed that would be better used by productive females. Never put bulls out on the road verge to graze.

Don’t be tempted to buy calves to rear that are born in June. It’s far too early as you’ll run into pasture shortage problems after weaning at 8 weeks old and you’ll have to keep them inside on meal too long to make a profit, especially if the weather is bad. If you are going to rear dairy beef calves in spring, do your homework now to find a dairy farmer who will be willing to supply them in late July or August, which is early enough to start. Buying direct from the farm avoids the risks of disease from saleyards, and the calves have minimal stress moving from their farm to yours. If you pay a little bit above the going rate, the farmer will make sure you get a good deal and will offer good advice and support.