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Spring Calving Nutrition and Management

27 March 2024

Feeding a suckler cow throughout the year is the most expensive part of her production. Her progeny, the calf, is the only annual output generated, therefore it is vital to ensure that productivity is maximised.

Managing and tailoring the suckler cow’s nutrition to her condition and stage of production is essential in maximising her efficiency and productivity, while keeping an eye on profitability.

Cow licking newborn calf

Cow Condition

Understanding the condition score of cows is an excellent tool to understand if the ration being offered is sufficient for her nutritional requirements. Condition scoring allows for an assessment of how much fat the cow is carrying at any point in time and is based on a scale of 1-5, where 1 is very thin and 5 is fat. Table 1 describes the differences between the condition scores.

Table 1: Description of cow condition scores 1-5



Condition scoring is carried out through handling the cow to assess fat cover over both the loin and the tail head as shown in Figure 1. These two excellent QMS videos walk you through how to condition score a cow:

Making the best use of the available forage on farm and keeping the cow in the right condition for her stage of production is crucial to her productivity.  For more information refer to this technical note.


Figure 1. Where to assess condition scoring on a cow.

A cow in the appropriate body condition, helps to give calves the best start in life.

Condition scoring top tips:

  • Aim for fit and not fat.
  • Body condition score 2.5-3.5 for calving.
  • Avoid sudden, rapid changes in condition.
  • Cows in poor body condition pre-calving take longer to get back in calf.
  • Monitor condition throughout year.

Cow Nutritional Requirements

Depending on the stage of production, the suckler cow has different energy and protein requirements. These are shown in Table 2.


Table 2: Example nutritional requirements for a 700 kg housed mature cow.

Energy requirements vary, depending on the cow’s size, condition and stage of production. The amount of forage fed also depends on its dry matter and energy and protein content. Always seek advice on rationing suckler cows.

Common Issues with Condition at Calving Time

If you find you have cows that are too lean, or too fat, speak to a nutritionist and with them, create a ration plan to ensure the best outcome possible at calving time.

Lean cows pre-calving

First of all, rule out any health reasons for being lean, i.e. liver fluke, and investigate why the cows may be thin.

Keep them on ad-lib good (10.5 ME) forage and ensure access to feed is good. If good forage is not available, they will need supplemented to ensure their energy and protein requirements are being met. This is essential for good colostrum and milk production.

Fat cows pre-calving

These can still lose a little weight as they approach calving; however they still need sufficient energy, protein and minerals for calving successfully. It is often too late by this stage to alter condition drastically and restricting cows too much, can cause more issues than it solves with poor colostrum production and difficulty calving.

It is an idea to plan for next year based on your findings this year, e.g. if cows are too fat pre-calving, condition score them at housing and Christmas time and split and manage the ration appropriately.

beef cow and newborn calf

Common Nutritional Problems at Calving

There are several problems that can occur at calving time, relating to nutrition. Some of the common ones are:

Poor quantity and quality colostrum

Colostrum quantity is easy to see, however the quality is not so visually obvious.  A brix refractometer can be used, which requires a small drop of milk onto the refractometer and then the scale can be read.  This should only be done if it is safe to do so.  Good quality colostrum would be above 22% on the scale.  If the reading is below 22%, this can be related to poor energy and protein supply in the cow’s diet or lean cows that lack resources to produce good colostrum.

If this is identified early in calving, speak to a nutritionist to ensure there is adequate energy and protein in the ration.

Calving difficulties due to cows being too lean or too fat

Cows can also have difficulties at calving due to genetics.

Condition scores of cattle should be monitored throughout the year to ensure she is in the correct condition for calving to mitigate calving difficulties.

Slow Calving Syndrome

This is where cows appear to start calving normally, with the calf being presented correctly, but the cow doesn’t progress with the calving process. This can be related to a mineral imbalance (potassium, calcium and magnesium).  In this case speak to a nutritionist and your local vet.

ACTION: if you experience calving problems discuss with your vet and nutritionist as soon as possible.

Post Calving Recovery

Nutrition is as important post-calving as it is pre-calving.  A target of a 365-day calving interval should be aimed for, which means that the cow has a period of around 80 days from calving before she conceives her next calf.  In this period the cow will have various processes that require excellent nutrition including:

  • Milk production for her calf.
  • Uterine repair after calving.
  • Potential gain in body condition score.
  • Ovulation.

Turning Cows and Calves out to Grass

Depending on the farming system and the timing of calving, some herds will calve indoors and some outdoors.

When turning cows and calves onto their grass fields for the summer, they require at least 6cm of grass.

If you are turning cows and calves out earlier and growth is slow, reduce the stocking rate, so cattle do not overgraze what is there. In this scenario supplementation of additional forage will be required, seek advice from a nutritionist.

Poor weather and inadequate grazing will put cows under stress and increase their risk of grass staggers (magnesium tetany).  In addition, the cows could be in a negative energy balance which will delay cows cycling again as they prioritise milk production, affecting the calving interval of the herd.

Delayed Turnout

If turnout is delayed, for example due to poor weather or poor grass growth in the spring, this can cause additional pressure to the farm system.

  • Check quantity of forage and feeds available. If a shortage is expected then ensure no sudden diet changes are made that will have a negative impact on calving or lactating cows. Seek advice on alternative rations.


  • The longer cattle are housed the greater the build-up of pathogens and disease, increasing risk to newborn calves due to increased stocking density with dung building up. Keep straw bedding as clean as possible, providing refuge areas for calves only to have a clean, dry lie. Muck out straw, if possible, to avoid large build-up of dirty material.


  • Ensure bedding is kept clean and stocking densities are kept within allowances, as shown below.

Table 3: RSPCA floor space allowance for cattle, August 2023


Karen Stewart, SAC Consulting

beef cow and newborn calf

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