Improving your cattle management throughout winter
Looking after cattle through the colder months throws up a range of challenges, whether you keep them housed or are out-wintering. Below we’ve outlined some actions you can consider as we head into the new year.
REVIEW AND IMPROVE HOUSING
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:
- Lighting is adequate to inspect stock at all times.
- There is machinery access for efficient daily feeding.
- Stock can access troughs and feeding areas without bullying.
- Pen sizes are adjusted to reduce stress.
- There are no leaks in the roof, gutters, downpipes or troughs, letting excess water into the building.
- Pens drain efficiently, so animals aren’t left on damp bedding.
- The building is well ventilated.
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.
MEASURE YOUR FODDER
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.
TRACK BODY CONDITION SCORE
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.
GUARD AGAINST PNEUMONIA
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.
ENSURE YOU HAVE ACCURATE RECORDS
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.
We are trying to produce beef that meets market specification and make the most profit possible. Using Stabilisers we are achieving our objectives, we have a low cost, low labour cow and good quality finishing cattle that meet the needs of the market.- Mel and Pete Momber, Hampshire
I’m excited by the prospects the Stabiliser can deliver for us. The proof was there based on scientific research, backed up by a large gene pool and precise management systems. It seemed the perfect breed for our farming system.- Will Evans, Machynlleth
On weaning in May at 10 mths old the Stabiliser calves were on par with the Blue and Angus calves. These were turned out to grass until early September then housed. This is when I was surprised by the differences between the breeds, the Angus averaged 480kg, the Blues 490kg but the Stabilisers were 530kg.- Robin Talbot, Laois – Ireland
In 2011 we bought 46 Stabiliser heifers plus 3 bulls and sold our 3 Belgium Blue bulls. The results were clear to see, by the time we pregnancy tested our 100 cows later that year. We went from historically having 15% barren cows to only 3% barren in a 9 week mating period.- Jeremy Iles, Gloucester
I have found Stabiliser cows to be very forage efficient. Their ability to put weight on in the summer months means I can save on winter feed costs. This has allowed me to keep more cows on the same resources.- Jono Cole, Cornwall
We have an easy-care system that is as profitable as any other beef enterprise. We benchmark our herd against the AHDB industry figure and we sit comfortably ahead of the top third performers. I believe we are now producing a carcass with the conformation and eating quality consistency that the market wants.- Dan Burling, Cambridgeshire
Docility, feed efficiency tested, easy calving, hybrid vigour, fertility, growth AND carcass traits from highly maternal cattle, what’s not like?- Robin Norrie, Fife
We aim to get most out of grass as possible. The hardy nature of the cattle seems to suit this system very well. Hardly any assistance is required during calving, combined with the excellent calf vigour produce healthy and strong calves which further reduces labour costs.- Llion and Sian Jones, Conwy
We’re over 10 years into our Stabiliser journey, we’re reaping the rewards. Moving to the Stabiliser has been a game changer for efficiency and job satisfaction, allowing us to increase cow numbers on the same area and finishing bulls averaging over 380kgs at 13 months. Our only regret is that we didn’t do it sooner!- Peter and Jackie Storrow, Pembrokeshire
Stabiliser cattle are a specialised suckler beef breed with the added bonus of hybrid vigour. The cattle are multi-trait performance recorded to produce EBV’s, this has a huge positive economical effect on our business. All of this is crucial for us to have a financially improving suckler herd on the farm.- Harri Parri, Llyn Peninsula
We chose the Stabiliser breed for their docility and easy calving traits, but with the added benefit of turning grass into meat. We soon saw all of these traits were true. Our first home bred steers were finished off grass at an average age of 19 months.- Dyfed Roberts, Anglesey
Despite our rainfall, we outwinter our cows on kale, the stabiliser cow will lay down excess fat, and successfully rear her calf. During the winter considerable cost savings are made. By changing to Stabiliser cattle I keep approximately 50% more cows as they only weigh 650Kgs, which meant more beef being produced.- Matthew Cooke, North Devon
We started using Stabiliser bulls 20 years ago. The fertility of the breed has enabled us to calve our own heifers at 24 months and reduce our calving period to nine weeks. This together with their good temperament has encouraged us to increase cow numbers. Consequently, the farm is now producing a lot more kilos of beef.- Edward and Ellis Griffith, Pwllheli
Minimal labour is required at calving time, with easy calving cows and calves up and suckling in no time at all. This gave us the ability to increase our cow numbers with no extra labour. The growth rate of Stabiliser cattle is exceptional, producing high weaning weights whilst converting feed efficiently.- John and Ianto Pari, Gwynedd
We started using stabiliser genetics in 2016, we have not looked back since, they exceeded all our expectations. Changing to stabilisers has enabled us to calve heifers at 2years old with no problems, cows wean a higher percentage of their body weight, we have increased cow numbers without any need for extra labour.- Carys Jones, Camarthenshire