Farmers’ thoughts are beginning to turn to winter housing and how best to manage their cattle, whether it be cows, weanlings or finishing stock, over the winter months.

Winter housing can be a costly time on farm, but the weight gains made over the winter period, particularly in finishing systems, may be the difference between making a profit or a loss.

To get the best results and to make the process of housing as stress free as possible, for both man and beast, a good plan is essential.

Preparing and implementing a plan will allow your cattle to perform to their maximum over the coming months while also reducing the stress, both financial and mental, associated with under-performing stock.

1. Is your housing winter ready?

The first step to any good winter housing plan should be assessing the quality and type of accommodation available for the cattle on your farm.

Improvements made to winter housing over the next couple of weeks can lead to an increase in animal performance over the winter months.

These adjustments or improvements don’t have to be major and simple modifications to the side sheeting of sheds often suffice to allow extra fresh air to circulate.

clean straw in shed

A continual flow of fresh air throughout a shed is important, but it is also necessary to keep draughts to a minimum to prevent cattle from getting chills.

Research has shown that animals perform better in well ventilated sheds, as they are less like to develop respiratory infections or pneumonia.

Farmers should also pay careful consideration to the size of the shed available, as overcrowding can lead to a significant reduction in animal performance.

Guideline floor space required per animal:
  • Young cattle: 0.9-1.1m2
  • Finishing cattle: 1.4-1.7m2
  • Suckler cows with calves: 2.3-2.75m2

2. Making the housing process as stress-free as possible

For many farmers, the housing period is seen as an ideal opportunity to wean suckler cows from their calves.

However, at weanling time the calves are more prone to diseases and infections as their immune system is suppressed due to the stress of weaning and housing.

To reduce this stress and to reduce the incidence of sick weanlings, best practice suggests that calves are weaned from their cows while out doors and over a gradual period of time.

cows and calves on o connors farm

The use of a creep wire may be one way to gradually break the bond between the cow and calf and research has show that calves are less likely to become agitated after weanling once the can see and hear their dams.

Veterinary procedures such as castration and dis-budding should also be avoided in the lead up to the housing period, as both can be major causes of stress for the animal.

3. Ensure an adequate feed space

To get the most live-weight gain from your cattle over the winter months, it is advisable to group animals in accordance with weight.

This will stop heavier animals bullying lighter animals for space at the feed face. Significant gains can be made in finishing enterprises when all of the animals in a group are the one size.

Meanwhile, looking at suckler cow enterprises, separating first calvers from older cows has also been show to reduce the incidence of bullying.

This is especially important in systems operating 24 month old calving, as it allows smaller cow-heifers to be given preferential treatment where necessary.

The recommended feed face allowance for these animals is 600mm.

beef cattle

In spring calving enterprises, dry cows should be grouped on the basis of Body Condition Score (BCS), this allows for each cow’s intake to be monitored and to reduce the incidences of difficult calvings next spring.

Along with an adequate feed space, cattle should always have access to fresh clean water.


4. Assess fodder quality and don’t make sudden dietary changes

Before cattle are housed, it may be worth assessing the fodder quantity and quality available on you farm.

Research shows that the majority of silage made on Irish farms is of poorer quality than necessary to support performance on finishing and autumn-calving enterprises.

By assessing the quality and quantity of silage available, you will be able to determine the level of concentrate supplementation needed to maximise animal performance over the winter months.

In some cases, where silage quality is poor, it may be necessary to supplement animals with bought in feeds such as concentrates.

By knowing this in advance, it will allow you to put a plan in place to ensure that your animals achieve their maximum daily weight gains over the winter months.


5. Control parasites with a pre housing dose programme

As always, best practice says that farmers should seek veterinary advice before undertaking any dosing or worm strategy.

Farmers are advised to dose calves or weanlings for lung or stomach worms approximately four weeks prior to housing as part of a pre housing dosing programme (PHD). This will allow for a sufficient amount of time for the lungs to heal.

A product that persists for four-to-five weeks or longer after treatment would be ideal for use as this reduces the need to dose animals again at housing.

This will allow cattle to utilse grass better in the weeks leading up towards the winter housing period, while also achieving the maximum amount of performance from grass.

6. Vaccinate as part of a pre housing dose programme

On many farms, winter housing will be the first time that groups of animals are mixed, and as a result the chances of a disease outbreak occurring increase.

Veterinary advice recommends using a PHD programme and vaccinating your calves prior to weaning or housing to have the animal’s immune system working before the animal faces the main challenge.

Vaccinations take anywhere from five days to six weeks to become effective (depending on product prescribed) , so it is important to plan the potential housing or weaning date in advance of the procedure.

It is also important to vaccinate every animal in the herd, as the effectiveness of the product reduces when animals are left naive to a potential disease outbreak.

Farmers are also advised to follow the vaccination instructions carefully, as failing to follow the instructions could result in the vaccination programme failing.

Key points on taking the stress out off winter dosing:
  1. Check your winter housing – minor adjustments could have a big impact on animal performance.
  2. Reduce the stress to your animals at housing time
  3. Ensure you animals have enough space to access fresh food and water
  4. Assess the quality of forage available and put a plan in place
  5. Develop a pre housing dose (PHD) programme and vaccinate your cattle before they come under stress from housing or weaning
  6. Follow your PHD programme to ensure your animals perform over the winter months

The winter housing period is also an opportune time to treat animals for liver fluke and lice.

Research shows that 90% of Irish farmers have some form of a liver fluke problem, and treating infected animals will reduce the negative impacts of the disease and lead to an increase in animal performance.

Under best practice, it is recommended to treat cattle with a flukicide that kills all stages of the liver fluke infection.

Farmers are advised to check the product they are using prior to dosing to ensure that it kills fluke at each stage of development.

If the product used does not treat immature fluke, the cattle may become susceptible to infection as the fluke larvae develop, thus reducing the animals performance.

Winter housing is also an excellent time to treat cattle for parasites such as lice.

These parasites can cause quite a substantial amount of discomfort to cattle and the use of a pour-on treatment can reduce some of this discomfort.

Treating lice and sucking parasites at housing ensures that your animals perform to their maximum over the winter months.

All in all a good pre housing dosing programme (PHD) can ensure the best performance for your animals over the winter period.