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17th February, 2019


The workload on spring calving dairy herds has now stepped up into “sixth gear” as we approach week 5 of the calving season on most farms. Pressure points have increased because of restricted opportunities to get freshly calved cows out to grass, slurry storage facilities are full on most farms and it has not been possible to spread fertiliser or slurry to support early grass growth.

There are three welfare elements which require management at this time to optimise health outcomes:

Human Health

In the first instance, farm staff are working long unsocialable hours. It is impossible to get extra skilled staff required on most farms for this current peak in labour demands on the farm. Social isolation in association with work overload will lead to depression. This results in a failure to optimise the opportunity for both cow and calf health. It is important that an offer of social contact and assistance is offered by neighbours and relatives for those managing dairy herds at this time of year.

Cow Health

We now have the challenge of managing dry cows, close up cows, fresh cows and late lactation cows.  Failure survivability depends on getting optimal health status of cows in all four groups.  Failure in any group will have a knock-on outcome as cows move to the next group in the production cycle.

The current dry cow group will be your late calvers for this year. This group of cows will contain a higher proportion of your older cows, problem breeders from last year, cows carrying twins and over-conditioned cows. Do not neglect the management of your late dry cows. These cows form the basis of an “extra dividend” in the profit of the farm enterprise this year. There are significant gains by optimising welfare of your late calvers in the next 6 weeks. Focus on the cows carrying twins and those over-conditioned cows. They need to get a bolus containing Monensin 4 to 5 weeks before calving. This bolus has been scientifically proven to improve metabolic disorders which reduce the survivability of cows in their next lactation.

The close up cows require a comfortable environment with access to clean water and fresh forage and concentrate to blend at all times. Unfortunately, this area is neglected on many farms. Avoid any risk of bullying when cows are mixed with new cows introduced to the close up group. Bullies need to be isolated as they will cause other cows to have womb infections and consequent poor reproductive performance in the next lactation. Any stress, be it silage quality, supply of clean water, adequate mineral and vitamin supplementation will result in cows which are calved a week with dirty womb discharges.

The freshly calved cows have the stresses of early lactation, demand for feed intake, repair of the reproductive tract and the adjustment to lactation with continued growth to mature size for first lactation cows. Ideally, the fresh cows should be managed as a separate group for the first week after calving. This is a high risk period for metabolic diseases such as Milk fever and Ketosis. Optimising management here will increase survivability of your cows and herd.

There is an overemphasis on grazed grass for the freshly calved cow. We need to remember that cows naturally lose weight in early lactation. Grazed grass needs to be balanced with supplemental silage and concentrates to avoid no more than 0.5 BCS loss in the first 6 weeks post calving.

Cows are currently losing too much weight, which is currently resulting in too many cows with womb infections when 2 to 3 weeks calved. These infections will result in more cows not cycling when the breeding season begins in April/May.

Ensure your milking parlour has recently been serviced. Mastitis and high SCC not alone effect milk price but also increase the risk that your cows will not get back in calf.

Calf Health

Colostrum quality and quantity is detected by management of the cow in the dry cow transition period. The challenge now with your later calvers is maintaining high immunoglobulins for these are needed to avoid the risk of Coccidiosis, Cryptosporidium, Rotavirus infections. Calf houses will carry a heavy burden of disease risk after the first 4 weeks of the calving season.

Automatic calf feeders have improved health status and growth rates of young calves on our larger dairy units. They have also proven to be an excellent labour saving device. Many farmers use the automatic feeder to rear their future replacements until weaned off milk.

However, male calves are frequently neglected prior to sale as young calves. There is a key requirement that all calves get adequate colostrum to ensure resistance to disease when sold onto other farms.

Thermoregulation is a major challenge for the new-born calf. A draught free well-ventilated calf house is essential to avoid health disorders. Calf jackets are a proven aid to help young calves improve overall health and survivability.

It is worth noting that calves experiencing health setbacks such as cryptosporidium will have poorer fertility, as maiden heifers. Your late born calves may not be future replacements, but you need to focus on creating a business where customers can source healthy calves for their beef enterprise.

Dr. Dan Ryan is a bovine reproductive physiologist and can be contacted at

Article written by Dr. Dan Ryan for the Farming Independent 27th February 2018