Farmers are doing themselves a disservice by calving at three years old, according to a newly appointed board member at The National Beef Association in Hexham.
Charlie Maclaren said that, while hill breeds such as Galloways, Highland and Welsh Black Cattle were slow maturing and therefore proved an exception to the rule, there was little room for the practice within the modern beef industry.
He pointed out that recently-born calves are solely reliant on their mothers for milk as a feed to grow.
When the female calf reaches four to five months old the mammary cells in the udder start to increase in size.
Between months five and 12, then, the mammary cells grow in number. This period is critical for determining the eventual level of milk production.
From 12 to 14 months onwards, the mammary cells in the heifer will increase in size and this will carry on until pre-calving for the first time.
Mr Maclaren said: “Many stockmen will have seen the udder in young heifers start to grow at about 15 months.
“If the mammary cells are not there in good numbers, fat will be deposited in their place and this will limit future milk production.
“Fat will also be deposited if there is not a hormone change in the heifer from not being in-calf to being in-calf.
“Why is it that so many beef farmers finish cattle at 18 to 20 months, yet are unsure about calving at two years? I don’t understand it. I do agree that the management of a heifer calving at two is one not to be taken lightly; she will need your help until at least the second calf is born but if you can leave her until the calf is weaned this would be even better.
“With this little bit of help she will work as well as any cow in the herd.”
He added that there were a number of key areas to watch throughout the process:
- Heifers will be approximately 400 to 420kgs when going to the bull and will grow in stature once she has conceived. She will calf down at over 500 kgs. To make sure that she comes back in season and holds to the bull, it is worth noting that she may need assistance in terms of extra feeding through the first lactation.
- A cow will continue growing until she is five years old. She will be keen to milk, but to give her more of a rest period and time to carry on growing, farmers can wean the calf a month or so earlier. By weaning these heifers earlier they can keep them separate through the coming winter and feed them accordingly.
- Farmers using calf creeps should put these out earlier as this will take the pressure off the newly calved heifers and keep them away from the rest of the herd. They can then get preferential treatment and the best of the new grass or creep nearby to supplement their feeding.
- Some calf their heifers a month before the cows to give them more attention and so they can slip them back an extra month. In addition, should anything go wrong - for example, if the heifer does not milk or struggles to come back into season - there is still time to sell her fat before she is 30 months.
“These are just a few ideas but you have to look at your own system,to see how to make it work for you and your farm, and it is best to always remember success is about attention to detail,” Mr Maclaren said.