What should you be feeding spring-calving suckler cows over the winter?

The inclement weather, that some parts of Ireland have experienced in recent weeks, has seen suckler cows housed earlier than expected.

However, farmers that are lucky enough to still be cleaning off paddocks are beginning to house stock for the winter period.

Calving may seem like a long way away for spring-calving suckler herds, but winter management is key to the success of the calving period next spring.

According to Teagasc, feeding the cow is the greatest single expense in suckler-beef production systems. Feed costs need to be minimised, especially during the indoor winter period – where 55-65% of the feed costs occur.

At this time of year, the key area that suckler farmers need to look at is the body condition score (BCS) of their cows.

The herd should be body condition scored at housing and cows penned according to BCS. If possible, cows should be split into three groups. These are: thin (BCS 2.0-2.5); target (BCS 3.0-3.5); and fat ( BCS >3.5).

According to Teagasc, cows with a BCS >3 can afford to lose between 0.5 and 1.0 BCS through restricting the allowance of good-quality silage. Essentially, this is a silage of 70-75% dry matter digestibility (DMD).


Farmers can feed moderate quality (65-68% DMD) silage ad-lib or dilute the energy of the diet by incorporating straw. In addition, Teagasc says, good-quality straw plus 2-3kg of concentrates (including minerals and vitamins) is also suitable for dry cows in good body condition.

Important BCS targets for spring-calving suckler cows:
  • Housing: 3.0-3.5;
  • At calving: 2.5;
  • At turnout: 2.0+;
  • Breeding: 2.0-2.5.

Prioritising thin cows

Thin cows need to be prioritised and allowed free access to good-quality silage and/or supplemented with concentrate, where good quality silage is not readily available.

A clean supply of water should always be made available to the cows.

Research from Teagasc shows that as BCS increases above moderate levels calving difficulty can increase. This occurs as over-conditioned cows have increased calving difficulty due to fat being deposited in the pelvic area.


It also shows that very thin cows have increased calving problems. This is due to insufficient strength to withstand the birth process and giving birth to weak, non-vigorous calves.

Winter feeding management of replacement heifers is critical in order for breeding heifers to calve at 24-months-of-age.

Looking ahead to next spring, as calving approaches, cows should be offered an appropriate dry-cow mineral for at least six weeks prior to calving.

In terms of cost, keeping the wintering period as short as possible (weather depending) will maximise the time at grass and increase liveweight gains; it will also reduce costs by lowering the silage and meal requirements.