By John McAloon, a veterinary practitioner, who works with Patrick Farrelly and Partners in Co. Meath.

Having a cow that will produce a calf every 365 days is key to the profitability of any suckler system.

Below are the top five complaints of our suckler clients over the past 12 months. Do they seem familiar? I will now try to link all of the below issues into a single resolution – early scanning.

Top five beef issues:
  • Empty cows;
  • Slipped calving pattern;
  • Nutritional provision;
  • Calf health – scour and pneumonia;
  • Difficult calvings.

Learning from dairy farmers

As a routine practice on our dairy units, we scan cows from 30 days post-service. This ensures costly days open (non-pregnant days) do not mount up and result in a stale herd. Is fertility in a suckler herd any different?

A tight, well-managed calving pattern is essential to financial efficiency. Many factors affect conception rates, but scanning is a sure way to investigate how the herd has performed in the early part of the breeding season.

If problems are detected at this early stage, further investigation and discussion may save the calving pattern from becoming too spread and the essential crop of calves due to arrive the following spring.

Scanning mid-winter is too late and buys you little information apart from a positive or negative pregnancy diagnosis.

Empty cows at this time have already cost you money by consuming large quantities of forage or concentrates.

A lot of farmers are happy to run extended calving blocks and leave the bulls in with the cows/heifers all summer to be sure all are pregnant. This ends up dragging out future calving dates, resulting in more issues than you need.

A tight nine to 12 week block will reward you, any cows that fall outside of that window must be carefully considered before they are re-bred.


At present, the national herd achieves an 88% calving rate; this means that 88 calves are born from every 100 cows/heifers that are put to the bull.

The target for a financially-viable suckler herd would be greater that 95% – how does your herd compare?

Following on from this target, we would expect a weaning rate of greater than 94% which leaves little room for calf losses from birth to weaning.

A healthy, fertile bull should be more than able to manage mating with more than 90% of a healthy group of 50 cows or heifers in a nine-week period.

If this is increased to 12 weeks, you should expect pregnancies of greater than 95% and 60% of the cows should calve within the first three weeks – in other words ‘front loading’.

‘Front loading’ is key to maintaining future blocks, especially with heifers.

Many farmers also calve their heifers at three-years-old, to ensure they are well grown. Financially, it’s essential to aim for two years at first calving.

This can be achieved by achieving good calf health and heifer growth rates to ensure that the heifer is 60% of her mature weight at 15-months-old.

These heifers should also be managed carefully to ensure that they calve down at 85% of their mature cow weight. With care over the following year, they will mature nicely and you will have an extra calf over their lifetime.

Bord Bia

So are the rewards there for sticking to a 12-week block? I hope you agree – yes. It’s certainly financially viable, but admittedly difficult to maintain. To achieve this, the first thing you need to do is sit down and plan.

You need to understand what system you want to operate; when to let in and take out bulls; focus on nutrition and health; and plan to scan your cows early. Early scanning will help to check if you are on track.

The first scan or pregnancy diagnosis should be carried out six to eight weeks after the bulls have been introduced to the herd; the second should be carried out six weeks after the bulls have been removed.

How to achieve these testing targets?

1. Bull fertility

Some 20% of bulls struggle with varying degrees of sub-fertility. Do not leave it to chance, get your bull tested. It’s also critical to ensure that the bull’s body condition score (BCS), feet, eyes and mouth are all sound.

Lastly, if the semen is there but libido or mounting ability are not, then it is not going to happen – watch quietly and assess the bulls mating ability.


2. Healthy cows and heifers

Too many herds accept slipping calving blocks and this is often due to infectious diseases and/or body condition score.

Know your infectious disease status and manage it carefully with biosecurity protocols. BVD, for example, is costly in terms of cow fertility, calf health and screening/removal. Therefore, it’s important to protect your valuable cattle.

3. Discipline and an active health plan

Ask your vet about herd health. Your vet can blood screen your herd for the most common infectious diseases seen on farm, such as BVD, IBR and lepto.

This is usually done by blood sampling six to 10 cows from your herd. These bloods can also be used to check for johne’s disease.

Blood screening is a very useful tool to see what level of disease is on your farm. A negative result can highlight the importance of maintaining strict biosecurity on your farm to prevent these diseases from coming into your herd from bought-in cattle.


How will hitting targets benefit you?

Achieving the above mentioned targets will have a positive impact on the financial viability of your suckler farm business and this can be achieved by meeting a number of targets.

Five steps to achieving these targets:
  1. Tight calving block: a tight, well-managed block will give cows and heifers enough time to recover to re-breed.
  2. Improved calf health: with tight calving patterns, there is less chance for pathogens to build up. These is also less age mixing and, as a result, less scour and pneumonia.
  3. Reduced feed wastage: with unpredictability in forage crops, picking out empty cows or heifers will allow for better feed and forage management and less overstocking in winter housing.
  4. Increased weanling weights and even batches: by calving more than 60% of your herd in the first three weeks, you end up with excellent weaning weights and well-grown calves to select replacements.
  5. Cow and bull health and BCS: keeping it tight and organised gives you the opportunity to easily manage feet, bull fertility checks and BCS. Over-fat cows and bulls will not perform well and assessment and manipulation is possible if all cows are calving within a 12-week window.