Profitable suckler cow production

To cover her costs, a suckler cow needs to calve on practically the same day every year of her breeding life – and the 80-day period from calving to conception is crucial to maintaining a tight calving pattern.

Good grass
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Good grass swards will allow a cow to provide milk for her calf and gain enough body condition to get back in calf.

That is the message from Eblex scientist Dr Liz Genever, who said current figures showed that for every 100 cows/heifers put to the bull in the UK suckler herd only 88 calves were born alive – a drain on profits resulting from embryonic losses, abortion, still births and, above all, poor conception.

Achieving 97 per cent calves born for each cow/heifer bulled over a 12-week period required a 60 per cent conception rate per service, she said.

Slipping back to 50 per cent conception would leave six cows not pregnant three months after calving. Achieving just 40 per cent would leave 14 cows empty after this time – see graph 1 (below).

Graph 1
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“Fertility is the key to profitable suckler cow production,” said Dr Genever. “Producers have got to get as many of their cows back in calf as possible around the optimal conception date, 11 to 12 weeks after calving. Achieving this relies on carefully managed body condition and appropriate feeding throughout the year.”


She said a newly-calved cow faced competing demands to:

• Produce milk for the calf and increase the supply as the calf grew.

• Recover from giving birth.

• Restart her oestrus cycle.

• Regain some body condition.

If feed supply was limited, milk production to the new calf was the cow’s highest priority – uterine repair, ovulation and increasing body condition would all take a back seat.


“Well-managed young, leafy swards will supply all the nutrients a spring calving cow needs to produce milk and initiate pregnancy,” said Dr Genever.

“This type of grass will also allow her to increase her body reserves before weaning, which she can then mobilise during the winter so she will require less feeding.

“A cow weaned with a body condition score between three and four, some five months before the next calving, can mobilise 0.5kg per day body condition over three months.” – see graph 2 ( below).

Graph 2
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“This equates to half a big bale of good, dry silage saved from the winter feed budget for each cow. Essentially, it is far more economic to let the cow preserve the grass as body fat for winter than to make and feed silage.”

Where a herd was set-stocked, she said, sward height across the pasture would need to be 6-9cm to ensure adequate intake per cow.

If the height fell below 4cm, the herd would need to access additional grazing (or supplementation with forage) to reduce the grazing pressure and allow the grass to re-grow.

Where herds rotationally grazed via a paddock system, swards would need to be 15-20cm high when the cattle went into the field, and be grazed down to 6-8cm before they were moved onto the next area.


Creep feeding could be introduced any time after calving, but should be fed for at least three weeks before weaning to reduce any drop in performance, said Dr Genever.

Dr Liz Genever
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Creep feeds were vital for rumen development. They would need to be palatable and fresh, high in digestible fibre, relatively low in starch, with between 14 and 16 per cent protein, with a high proportion of undegradable protein.

Rumen-friendly feeds, such as oats, sugar beet pulp and maize gluten, could form the basis of diets. Adding molasses would help bind the mix together and make it more palatable, she said.

By the time the calf was four months old, half its requirement should be met by grass, silage and creep feed, rather than milk.

At that stage, a calf would be converting feed to bodyweight more efficiently than at any other time in its life. Regardless of production system, maximising its 200-day weight would be cost-effective, she said.

• For more information on this topic, English levy payers can request a free copy of the Beef Better Returns Programme manual ‘Feeding suckler cows and calves for better returns’. Call Eblex on 08702 418829 or email

Better returns
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