Improving management and profitability of suckler cows

Artie Birt, left, has a chat with Dr Francis Lively on a visit to AFBI Hillsborough.
Artie Birt, left, has a chat with Dr Francis Lively on a visit to AFBI Hillsborough.

Using proven genetics, heat synchronisation, fixed time AI, calving heifers at two years old and monitoring management in order to make improvements.

This sums up the farming policy of Artie Birt who runs a suckler herd near Portaferry on the shores of Strangford Lough.

Artie highlights the importance of suitable handling facilities when using Fixed Time AI

Artie highlights the importance of suitable handling facilities when using Fixed Time AI

Speaking at a conference at AFBI Hillsborough, Artie said that one of the management aspects that has had a large impact is the use of breeding protocols in conjunction with Fixed Time Artificial Insemination (FTAI). Indeed Artie goes as far as saying that for AI to work effectively in his herd breeding protocols are essential.

Artie’s spring calving herd, counting 160 cows and 50 replacement heifers, is stocked at three livestock units per hectare and grazes from February to early November. Fifty per cent of the Simmental x Limousin cows are bred to maternal Simmental and Limousin sires with the other fifty per cent to a Charolais terminal sire. The current calving interval is 370 days.

In 2015 and 2016, synchronisation and FTAI were used for first service on all cows and heifers, with second and third service to observed heats with a terminal sire, and stock bulls for the remainder.

Pregnancy scanning is carried out one month after the end of the breeding season with 93% of cows in calf after three cycles.

Artie Birt's farm on the shores of Strangford Lough

Artie Birt's farm on the shores of Strangford Lough

Considerations when selecting cows suitable for synchronisation include previous calving difficulties, body condition score and a minimum of 42 days from last calving. All cows are scanned by the vet before the CIDR ® is inserted. The culling policy includes functionality of the cow, performance and temperament.

For heat detection of repeats tail chalk/paint is used and topped up daily. Before FTAI took place in this herd cows were observed three times daily, which was very labour intensive.

Artie outlines synchronisation benefits as the use of top quality maternal and terminal sires; reduced heat detection which saves time and labour; problem cows identified before synchronisation and a reduction in the number of bulls on the farm from seven to two.

He points out that farmers often ignore the cost of keeping a bull when they are calculating costs - costs associated with feeding and depreciation of stock bulls on suckler farms can be considerable never mind the safety aspects of keeping bulls.

An additional benefit of synchronisation includes a more compact calving period which in turn assists management e.g. tagging calves, dehorning and weaning.

Artie pays close attention to cow management - before calving cows receive 20 kg of silage (70% DMD), 2 kg of straw and pre-calving minerals. Cows coming up to calving are fed in the evening in between 7 and 8 pm, increasing their chances of calving during the day time. Body condition score is monitored at calving, breeding and weaning and cows are grouped accordingly at weaning and housing.

All cattle on the farm are also weighed regularly to monitor performance. When grazing, cows are on rotational two- to three-day paddocks and occupy one close to the yard for synchronisation, gradually returning close to the yard at 16 to 17 days post AI for heat detection and AI-ing of repeats, reducing stress on both farmer and stock at gathering! Cows are tail chalked and observed at least twice daily – early morning and late evening.

Good facilities are vital – Artie has a collecting yard and crush for drafting cows for AI. Facilities for an intensive calving system are also important with the correct number and hygiene of calving pens. Contingency plans for adverse weather are also crucial in Northern Ireland.

Regarding heifer management all heifers are calved by 24 months of age with a minimum weight at breeding of 380 kg (13-15 months) and weight at first calving of 540 kg (87% of mature body weight). Average mature cow weight is 620 kg.

Artie’s last word of advice on FTAI - “Stick to the protocol! Don’t panic if animals show heat before fixed time AI is due.”