Keeping your calving season compact is key

Herd Immunity column

Sean Deere

Calving has slowed to a trickle here at Deere Manor. I have slightly over 80pc calved at present but after taking a run through the remaining cows, I fear the last 20pc may drag out.

Now, I can’t really complain as the reason the calving season is going to drag out a bit is because I extended the breeding season last spring by three weeks. In hindsight, it was the wrong decision. A

You may recall the long, dry spell last April and May. In fact, the fine weather started shortly after St Patrick’s Day and stayed for around three months. It was glorious and helped people get by in the first lockdown, too.

Back then, I had a slight issue with fertility among my herd which I thought was a big issue. In fact, it turned out that most cows served in the first six weeks were actually in calf. I had seen a few repeats but so instead of stopping breeding after 10 weeks, I left the bull in for the extra three weeks.

As the saying goes, if I knew then what I know now I’d have continued with my usual 10-week breeding season. I may have ended up with a few extra empty cows but I’d rather replace these late calvers than run my calving season into May – or, God forbid, June.

Then again, it’s a case of ‘different blokes, different strokes’ as they say because a lot of farmers differ on when to calve or for how long.

“A calf any day is still a calf” is a phrase I often heard. This, of course, is true but calving season really has to suit your intended system. If you’re going selling weanlings in September or October, then a calf born in June or July is not going to cut the mustard.

Here at Deere Manor, we calve in early spring (January-March) and a small group in autumn (August/September). The autumn calvers are there to produce heifers for serving at 20 months, to calve down at roughly 30 months of age in the Spring herd. A small portion of Spring-born heifers are kept to do the same for the autumn herd.

We keep our breeding season relatively short (10 weeks) for a few reasons. Firstly and probably most importantly in terms of how it impacts the day-to-day work practices on the farm, we feel that when the calves are due in that short window, we are ‘in the zone’ for calving.

What I mean by this is that we get into a good routine for the duration. It’s a matter of digging in and getting through it and when it’s something you are repeating daily, you become faster and more efficient at it essentially, no different to anything else.

It’s a tough slog for the ten weeks but at least then when you’re done, you’re done. Also, when calves are born close together you have a very even bunch of stock for management purposes.

How do you go about this? Well, it’s not rocket science. The only way to keep your calving season compact is to keep your breeding compact - simple as that.

Needless to say, the bulls will be removed after 10 weeks this year. A good friend of mine went to this system a few years back. After a few hard calvings and a Caesarean section or two in April/May, he said he was done with his drawn-out calving season.

He lives over the west and has his cows housed in mid-October generally. His feeling was that because they were eating silage from October till calving in the late Spring - essentially six months - that his cows were sluggish and unfit and generally had bigger calves at birth.

The first year he went to an 11-week breeding season and while he ended up with a couple of extra empty cows, he was pleasantly surprised with his conception rate. In year two he went to 10 weeks and is now actually using a nine-week breeding window. He rang me last week to catch up.

“You’re not finished calving yet, Sean?” He laughed “and you giving out to me the other year about my calving spread!”

Incidentally, I recently read an article which published the percentage of marginal land in every county. In Leitrim, for example, 98pc of land was classed as marginal.

In reality, a farmer in Co Meath or Cork would probably fence off a small piece of this kind of ground and let nature take its course! Not in Leitrim, however, where they farm this sort of ground with great enthusiasm.

All you need to do is look at the quality of the weanling calves that these guys sell every year. They are excellent stockmen and just watching these guys judge and assess an animal’s merits is fascinating.

I remember being at a special heifer sale at a famous mart in the west a few years back. My buddy had come with me for kind of a day out, to see good stock and have a bit of craic round the ring with other potential buyers.

I was in the market for a couple and we took up a prime position beside the ring, directly in front of the auctioneer. After an hour or two I had a couple bought but I was a long way off filling the trailer. In comes a heifer to the ring that my buddy Mickey had seen earlier.

“To hell with this!” he muttered and dropped his hand in the ring, opening the bidding in the process.

After a minute of toing and froing, the hammer dropped and the animal was sold.

“I didn’t think you were buying any?” I asked, slightly confused.

“I’m not. She’s for you,” he replied, “ I couldn’t look at you pussy-footing around anymore. When you see a good one, buy her.”

I laughed and accepted his criticism. And you know what? She was the best heifer bought that day.

His advice was simple and sage and while farming becomes ever-more scientific, those lessons still ring true. There is no point creating hardship for yourself or over-complicating things, be it in buying or breeding.

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