Dairy focus: Gearing up to calve 220 cows in February

Home to the Next Generation Herd, Teagasc’s research farm in Kilworth, Co. Cork, is preparing for a busy period ahead; some 220 cows are expected to calve during the month of February alone.

“There are 340 cows to calve altogether; 270 will calve in the first six weeks and 180 in the first three weeks,” Ricki Fitzgerald, the farm manager, explained at a recent Teagasc / Animal Health Ireland calf care event.

“Calving is fairly compact and the facilities are excellent,” he added.

Touching on managing the herd prior to calving, he said that cows are grouped on the basis of calving date. This means that three groups of cows (February, March and April calvers) are found on the farm.

It makes it a lot easier for the team working here. The February calvers are prioritised when it comes to supervision. We walk that section of the shed six-to-seven times each day; the rest of the shed is walked in the morning and the evening.

Ricki – a graduate of the Teagasc Professional Diploma in Dairy Farm Management – said that such grouping is essential when it comes to drafting cows to calve.

“Every day, we draft out anything that’s close to calving from the February mob and they are moved into the calving shed, where they spend 1.5-2 days at most.

“Once calved, the cows are moved out of the shed as quickly as possible. There would be anything up to 30 cows in the shed. As soon as they show signs of calving, they are moved into an individual pen to calve.”

Managing peak calving

During peak, approximately 20-25 cows could calve on any particular day. Despite this, Ricki insisted that things run smoothly and everybody knows their role.

It’s fairly streamlined and the entire team knows what’s happening. It runs quite smoothly, it’s quite simple and everyone knows their routine.

He also spoke about the schedule for newborn calves on the farm, adding: “After calving, the calves are taken away immediately. They’re weighed, tagged, iodine is placed on their navels and are moved to an individual pen.”

Following this, the calves are fed colostrum – an essential step in protecting the calf from diseases in the early stages of life.

The calving shed

The area laid out under the calving pens stands at approximately 290m²; allowing for 29 cows to be held comfortably (10m²/cow).

The front of the shed, where cows eat silage, has a slatted floor. However, the remainder of the shed is finished with a smooth concrete floor.

The front-facing feed barrier can be opened to allow the shed to be cleaned out easily. Regular cleaning is essential to reduce the risk of diseases and bugs flourishing as calving progresses.

Each of the calving pens also features an exit route, which is essential when managing any ‘difficult’ cows on the farm. Furthermore, the shed features a number of calving gates, which eliminate the need to move cows if veterinary assistance or a cesarean section is required.

Preparing for calving

Also speaking at the event, Teagasc’s Emma-Louise Coffey said farmers are approaching the busiest period of the year – in terms of managing cows and calves – on their farms.

The national herd has increased and this essentially means that the average farm has more cows. As well as having more cows to calve, farmers are also increasing the compactness of calving.

“Where farmers are increasing the six-week calving rate, they are increasing the number of cows calving in a very short space of time.”

Given this, the Teagasc dairy specialsit said, it’s vital that farmers are prepared for calving in the coming days and weeks.

Farmers must prepare an adequate calving area, she said, and 10m² is the recommended space allowance for each individual cow.

A 100-cow herd with a 90% six-week calving rate will have a medium calving date of 15-16 days after the start of calving. This essentially means that 50 calvings will occur in the first 15 days or four cows – on average – will calve per day.

Teagasc’s Emma-Louise Coffey speaking at the event

Therefore, she said, the number of spaces required is determined by how frequently cows are drafted out and how long they spend in the calving area.

Given that the recommended area for cows in calving areas is 10m² (both lying and feeding area), the minimum recommendation for the example herd above is 15 pens or 150m².

However, with the growth of the Irish dairy herd, many farmers – especially those with larger groups of cows – are finding that group pens are useful.

The role of group calving pens:
  • They are easier for feeding and cleaning out;
  • Can draft out every two-to-three days, rather than daily;
  • Some individual calving pens and a restraining area are also required;
  • If these areas are used as winter accommodation, they need to be cleaned and disinfected in advance of calving.

The importance of layout

Emma-Louise also touched on why having an efficient farm layout is becoming more and more crucial as herd size increases and calving becomes more compact.

The following diagram presents an efficient farm layout for an ideal flow of cows and calves around the farmyard during the calving season.

Source: Teagasc

When it comes to managing calves, Emma-Louise stressed that it’s important that farmers keep calves destined to leave the farm and potential replacements separate.

This is necessary to avoid the potential risks of introducing a disease if calves are transported to the the mart and they fail to sell.

“Returning unsold calves could pose a potential avenue for the introduction of disease,” she said.