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Ten Top Animal Health Tips for your Suckler Herd 2020


Ten Top Animal Health Tips for your Suckler Herd 2020

Written by Tommy Heffernan AKA Tommy the Vet 

The spring is a time where both animals and farmers are probably under the most pressure. The start of lactation for your cows and new calves brings with it huge challenges around animal health management. By focusing on these top ten areas on your farm, you can really improve animal health and performance.


 1. Good Nutrition

Calving time is a huge metabolic and nutritional challenge for the suckler cow. She must go through birthing and begin milking. The start of a new lactation requires new energy and protein demands. When the suckler cow produces milk she needs to increase her dietary intakes of energy to match her needs. We don’t want her to do this my mobilising too much body fat (condition after calving).

This is why we spend so much time focusing on body condition scoring of cows in the dry period. Having cows fit not fat before calving. We must pay special attention to any thin cows or those having twins around calving. These ladies may be more prone to nutritional stress and ultimately infectious disease.

The suckler cow will have increased energy demands when she starts milking. While good silage and grass can sustain a good level of production, we must match any deficits at this time with supplementary feeding of concentrates.

If you are feeding forages it is critical to know what the feeding value is (test energy and protein). Then we can more accurately supplement the herd to match their needs.

Suckler cows who lose a lot of condition around calving, will really struggle to get back in calf. This negative energy challenge will also make them more prone to womb infections (metritis) and other diseases.

So let us help you figure out what she needs and what you have to make good nutrition decisions for your herd. 

2. Calcium

Every farmer will be wary of the cow down with milk fever. They present a real challenge to get right and back up and going. Any downer cows should be treated carefully and always provide a well bedded lie until they are standing, not every down cow has milk fever and should be checked by your vet.

The cow will have a huge demand around calving for calcium in colostrum and then in milk. If this calcium drops down in blood you can get the classic symptoms of milk fever with cows down.

This is because calcium plays a key role in muscle function. In very simple terms it is muscle weakness that contributes to the obvious symptoms we see. However we must remember calcium plays an important role also in immune function.

Anything that effects immunity can have a very big impact on your cows. We also must remember you can have low blood calcium in cows without them showing the obvious symptoms we described earlier. While down cows often need to receive urgent attention and calcium. This subclinical milk fever can really cause problems and needs to be managed.

The cow will naturally flush calcium from her bones before calving to meet the demand. This process is very important because she can’t meet her demands in her diet. Magnesium plays a key role in this process. This is in very simple terms why we feed magnesium to cows precalving. It can also be complicated by some silages having high potassium (slurry/potash) which locks up magnesium.

Calcium is an important mineral to get right this spring.


3. Minerals

The cow around calving is going through big change in diet and has extra pressure on her immune system. This period from no production to growth in her output (milk) to feed her new calf. This will put her immune system under huge stress. Minerals play some key roles in a number of areas, but are very important in immunity.

Good mineral supplementation around calving time can make a big difference to the cow and even the new born calf. Four very important minerals to focus on this spring are

  • Selenium (vit E) which plays a vital role in immunity and helping the cow around calving. It can also play a role in calf health and vigour. Selenium issues have been reported in cases of increased retained placenta and weak calves.
  • Magnesium is another critical mineral to get right. While it plays a very important role in calcium management. On its own a deficiency can be disastrous. As most farmers know, low magnesium levels increase the risk of grass tetany. This diseases leaves us little time to act. Low magnesium (grass tetany) is a particular risk at grass. It is important to remember cows don’t store magnesium and need regular daily intakes or supplementation at this time.
  • Copper plays an important role in immune function and other enzyme processes in ruminants. While we can see deficiencies, it is more often associated with “lock up” with other minerals. This means where we have high molybdenum, sulphur or iron we can potentially see copper being locked up and not utilised.

We can also over supplement and cause toxicities in some farms. This is another reason to measure what’s in feed and then supplement with what’s needed.

  • Iodine is a very important mineral for immune function and especially with young calves. It has been associated with cases of stillbirths and weak calves. Again cows may not store iodine well and require daily intakes where farms with deficiencies have been identified.
  • Cobalt is also an important minerals in ruminants who are growing quickly or for cows at calving going through this metabolic challenge. It is a mineral we need to make sure we get right but deficiencies are often not reported.

With all minerals there can be big differences between farms. While a good dry cow mineral is very important in the (8-6) weeks coming up to calving. Some farms who identify deficiencies, may need to make increased supplementation of some specific minerals.


4. Colostrum

Getting colostrum management right on farm is the key ingredient to rearing healthy young calves. This liquid gold contains all the energy, immunity and hormones the young calf needs. This important immunity is especially vital as she does not receive any of this from her dam in the womb.

The cow will start brewing this colostrum in her udder 14-7 days before calving and her diet must have enough energy and good quality protein at this time. Some silages may be low in protein which can affect colostrum quality. Some suckler herds will greatly benefit from supplementation as she approaches calving. It takes 10 days for any diet changes so this also primes her rumen post calving for supplementation.

This first milk contains big proteins called immunoglobulins, which are essential for the newborn calf with little immunity of their own. It must be consumed quickly as every passing hour means less will be absorbed by the gut of the young calf.

The aim is for a suckler calf to consume up to 3 litres of colostrum in the first 6 hours. Any hard calving’s or weak calves may need to be stomach fed colostrum. One other very important area is cleanliness. We do not want the calves first feed to be bugs and bacteria. Having suckler cows on clean, dry bedding leading up to calving ensures cleaner udders and less chance of the calves first feed being faeces.

While we can feed dairy cow colostrum to calves beware of the risk of spread of diseases like johnes between farms.

The best options for storage is freezing in containers with a large surface area. This makes thawing easier and quicker. Never put colostrum in a microwave or in water where you would not put your own hand. This excessive heat will denature these vital immunoglobulins in the liquid gold.

So focus on:

  • Quality colostrum (feeding precalving)
  • Delivered quickly (lively calves with a good suck)
  • In the right quantity
  • Cleanly


5. Calf Health

After getting a good feed of high quality colostrum the calf is set up for the first weeks of life. It is important to dip the newborn navel quickly and thoroughly with something like iodine. The big risks for disease are calf scour and pneumonia.

Farmers have gotten on well with scour vaccines used on cows to boost the immunity of colostrum against viruses and bacteria.

Having a lie back area for young calves also helps provide a warm clean area for calves to rest on straw. Avoid draughts and poor drainage. Any cases of scour should be removed with their dam into isolation to prevent spread. Oral electrolytes should be given warmed and quickly. Farmers can get their vets to test scour samples, to check what agents are causing then problem.

Pneumonia vaccines can also be administered to young calves at one week of age. These vaccines can be administered intranasally and help build immunity in the young calf. Older calves can be given dead vaccines requiring two injections.

A good tip for calves at debudding, is to use pain killers and local anaesthetic to reduce stress.


6.  Housing

This is another very important area to focus on this spring. For cows indoors whether dry or milking, make sure they have space to lie down. Run scrapers regularly when cattle are indoors on cubicles to help reduce the build-up of infection.

Good ventilation is very important and get fresh air right as this helps prevent build-up of disease also keeping lying environments dry.

With calves they have a higher critical temperature. This means they can get cold easier. Avoid draughts indoors particularly with calves. Some farmers are finding calf jackets a great help when weather is colder or for weak/smaller calves.

A very simple tip this spring is use your own nose to check the smell in your shed. Whenever we are getting an ammonia smell, ventilation needs to be looked at. Also watch calves for huddling or signs of cold. Cobwebs in sheds can also be a crude indicator of poor airflow.

Get housing right this spring particularly for calves. Getting fresh air right can really reduce the risk of pneumonia. Make sure drainage is good in sheds, as this can dramatically reduce the build-up of moisture.

When turning out cows and calves think about having enough feed and during adverse weather watch cows for grass tetany.


7. Hygiene

When we are talking about animal health on farm we are always trying to maximise immunity of animals and minimise down infection. One very important part of this is good hygiene. Having cows on clean dry beds and using lime to disinfect calving areas regularly.

At calving time remember always to wear gloves and also clean all calving equipemtn regularly. Also disinfect that navel early and thoroughly after calving.

Even your calf stomach tube can be responsible for spreading unwanted infections, if it is not cleaned properly. Good shed hygiene can also play an important role in reducing down the risk or spread of infectious lameness. Footbathing cows after milking can also be good practice on farms trying to control mortellaro DD.

Clean your calving pens regularly between batches. A good cleaning routine is to use high pressure cold water (+detergent) first, then follow by steam cleaning or disinfectant applied to the cleaned surfaces.

Good hygiene practices reduce down the spread of infectious around the farm and between animals. Also focus on good disinfection points and ask all visitors to wash their boots and overalls before entry onto your farm


8.  Hard Calving’s

Any cow that has a hard calving will require special attention. Talk to your vet about using anti-inflammatory medications on these ladies. A pain free cow will be more likely to bond quickly with her calf, let down milk and start eating.

The calf that has a hard pull also requires special attention. They will be bruised and in pain. Keep them warm using a calf jacket or maybe a heat lamp. These calves must receive warm colostrum quickly, often by stomach tube feeding if needed.


9. Parasites

It may seem early to be talking about parasites but around calving time it is a good time to administer any adult flukicides before cows go out to grass. It is also the beginning of another grazing season.

Remember cryptosporidium is a parasite and can be a devastating disease on farm (scour). Work hard on hygiene and colostrum to reduce your risk. It can also be contracted by yourself to take great care around hygiene this spring.

It is also a good time to start planning a strategy for calves at turnout to manage coccidiosis and consider using pooled faecal egg counts in 1st grazers to make better treatment decisions. With suckler calves we don’t have to worry about parasites until later in May/June when they are suckling. This is a good time to think about some faecal e.g. counts to monitor for worm.


10. Comfort, Space and Water

We often forget the simple things, one of those is adequate amounts of clean drinking water for calves and cows.

With cows ensure adequate amounts of large drinkers with good flow rates. Avoid leaking troughs, as they can add massively to the moisture in sheds and the risks of bugs and bacteria building.

Any animals indoors should have adequate space and a comfortable lie. Calves do well in deeply bedded fresh straw lie backs. Remember straw is fantastic, as it keeps them clean and warm. Make sure drainage is good in sheds also as this can dramatically reduce the build-up of moisture. Watch stocking rates with all cattle in loose housing or slats.

With cows the aim should be a cubicle per cow indoors or 3 metres squared in lose pens and maximise feeding space also. While having good quality feed with energy and protein is important. Every animal must have space to feed particularly your freshly calved cows indoors.

Following these top ten tips will improve animal health and also dramatically reduce the risk of disease.


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