With winter rationing well underway and calving just a couple of months away for some, between now and the New Year is a good time to check cow condition and make ration adjustments if necessary, depending on when cows start calving.

Effective feeding management of suckler cows however, can only be achieved if the starting points of cow condition score and forage analysis to manage feeding, are known. Without either of these, there are a lot of unknowns which makes management of condition difficult.

The ideal body condition score (BCS) at calving for a spring-calving suckler is 2.5 -3.0. This has been shown to improve fertility as cows tend to have a shorter interval to first heat, therefore get in calf sooner.

It has also been shown to minimise calving difficulties – there are problems at both ends of the scale. Thin cows (BCS <2) can suffer with slower calving, poor colostrum yields and weak calves. Conversely overfat cows (BCS >4) lay down fat at the birth canal and can have metabolic issues at calving time if not managed well.

Condition scoring by eye is a good start but the best way to assess condition is by handling a proportion of the herd. This is easy to do if you are doing routine work through the race anyway. Two excellent sources to look at to get a guide of how to condition score can be found on QMS MooTube: The benefits of cow condition scoring part 1 and 2. www.youtube.com/watch?v=i_vIJ39ZARs.

Practical advice – If cows are too lean:

• Keep them on ration to put on condition

• Give them the best forage available

• Avoid overloading with concentrates close to calving

• Could she be carrying twins? Cows carrying twins need 25% more energy

• Are there other feed issues such as bullying and feed access issues?

• Consider other veterinary issues – consult your vet for guidance

If cows are too fat:

• They can still be losing a bit of weight up to calving – speak to a nutritionist for advice on rationing safely

• Always ensure protein and mineral requirements are met when losing weight

• Avoid ‘starvation’ diets for over fat cows. They only cause more problems at calving time with metabolic disorders and poor colostrum production

• Ideally take condition off fat cows gradually, starting earlier in pregnancy

We are often asked for rations to slim down spring calvers to avoid calving difficulties quite late on in pregnancy. Unfortunately, when cows are just one or two months from calving it is impossible to alter their condition much for a few reasons:

• It takes time to lose weight safely

• The cow’s health and fitness on the run-up to calving is a priority

• The cow needs sufficient nutrients to produce and build up a good supply of high-quality colostrum

A critical factor is the very high rates of liveweight loss needed to mobilise a large amount of body condition. This is clearly shown in the following table for a range of cow liveweights to achieve a loss of 1 unit of condition score (which is around 13% of the animal’s mature weight).

Daily liveweight gain/loss needed to change condition by 1 unit

Cow weight (kg) 500 600 700 800

Weight 1 unit condition (kg) 65 78 91 104

Period (kg/day)

1 month 2.16 2.60 3.03 3.46

3 months 0.72 0.87 1.01 1.15

5 months 0.43 0.52 0.61 0.69

To lose 1 unit of condition in a month requires liveweight loses of between 2-3.5 kg/day, depending on cow size, which is not a healthy rate of loss. Taking three months to lose 1 condition score in larger cows can be more than 1kg/day weight loss.

This is why we always emphasise the importance of checking cow condition at housing in the autumn for spring calvers and most importantly to manage cows in fatness groups for a more even condition score across the herd at calving time.

If possible, take out over lean or over fat cows for separate management. This can be as simple as putting lean cows in with heifers or youngstock for extra feeding.

Always seek guidance from a nutritionist and your vet if you have concerns about cow condition.