Housing cattle might be the best way to protect them from the elements, but the confined environment can be stressful and encourage the spread of disease. While you can’t overhaul housing right now, you can review arrangements and see where you can make improvements.
You should check that:
Good ventilation is critical – in its absence damp, humid conditions see respiratory diseases thrive and straw costs increase. Testing ventilation and identifying draughts can be done with smoke bombs, as shown in the AHDB video Assessing Ventilation in Cattle Sheds. If smoke lingers, make efforts to exhaust stale air. This could involve the removal of roof ridges or the installation of fans. If you can’t improve ventilation, consider reducing stocking density, increasing hygiene controls or out-wintering some cattle.
Out-wintering can lower the cost of production, with reduced costs for labour, fuel, winter feed, bedding and muck disposal. It also reduces the stress and quick spread of disease that’s a risk for cattle kept in a confined space. The reduced pressure on housing creates opportunities to expand other operations, such as finishing more store cattle.
As substantial as the benefits can be, weigh up out-wintering carefully. It is best suited to land with well-drained soils and reasonable rainfall. Young calves and store cattle should only be out-wintered in areas with reliably mild winters.
You have to be able to provide shelter and a dry lie and manage livestock to minimise poaching, runoff and erosion. You should also be aware of the increased risk of liver fluke, which can be present on pasture until December in mild winters.
Early this winter, assess the quality and volume of your available feed against your herd requirements. This will call for a silage analysis, as the dry matter content and nutritional value can vary substantially.
In the case of fodder shortages, weigh up selling underperforming stock against buying in feed or using alternative forages and feeds to stretch forage stocks. The earlier you address shortages the better – otherwise you’ll be forced to buy expensive feed late in the season or rush diet changes on cows heading into calving.
Body condition scoring (BCS) is a technique used for assessing the energy reserves of livestock, on a scale from 1 to 5. Condition scoring can be used to adapt feeding strategies to ensure cows are in the correct condition for each stage of their production cycle, with cows grouped according to their needs. Cows should achieve target body condition 6 weeks before calving starts.
Take note of any cows that lose body condition unexpectedly or are failing to gain body condition when expected. This can be an indicator of an underlying health problem, and reason to contact your vet.
While lice and mange spread more readily when cattle are housed, it’s actually an opportune time to get parasites under control. Treatment using anthelmintics removes worm burdens, and cattle are free of their negative impact for the remainder of the housing period. And when cattle go out to pasture the following year, they won’t immediately contaminate pasture with worm eggs.
It is efficient to use more than one parasiticide and/or combination products at housing, to treat lungworm and liver fluke and to prevent lice and mange infestations later in winter. You’ll find extensive, up-to-date information on parasite control on the Control Of Worms Sustainably (COWS) website.
Bovine respiratory disease (BRD) or pneumonia is common in commercially reared beef calves and yearlings. The disease, which can lead to reduced liveweight gain and feed conversion efficiency (FCE), has been estimated to cost the UK cattle industry around £80 million a year.
One of the biggest risk factors for pneumonia is when calves come in for winter housing. Already under stress, they face serious exposure to the bacteria and viruses which cause pneumonia.
Strategies to reduce pneumonia should improve cattle immunity and reduce stress, as well as treat any concurrent disease present. As well as adequate housing (see above) an adequate intake of colostrum soon after birth will mitigate disease outbreak, as will strict biosecurity and vaccination against the four key viruses which lead to BDS.
Finally, like all farm operations, your cattles’ performance can be better reviewed and improved upon with good record keeping. By tracking all your inputs, including feeds and treatments, along with animal weight gains, you can better identify weaknesses in your operation, and improve upon them.