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Feed, water and fertility

November 2018

Matthew Lieshcke, Senior Agriculture Advisor

Water, feed and getting light cows back in calf were the common concerns raised by cattle producers at the recent ‘Talking Cows and Calves’ workshops held across the Southern Tablelands.


In terms of water, many producers at the workshops indicated that average dam levels are down at least 1m from the full line. Given that the top metre of water represents over half the total capacity of a 3m dam, this statistic is cause for concern heading into summer!

It is important to remember that evaporation rates escalate substantially in the warmer months and during summer dams can lose over 1m purely due to evaporation. If water is a concern, doing a water budget will help identify if you have enough water to carry stock numbers through or if further destocking is required. For further information see NSW DPI Primefact 269 Stocktaking water supply for livestock.


Quantity and quality of paddock feed is highly variable across the region, with some areas faring much better than others. Unfortunately some areas will have very little carry-over feed heading into summer and significant feeding will be required. The big unknown is how long the feeding period might extend for and the associated impact on finances, livestock, pastures, soil and the health and wellbeing of you and your family.

At the workshops it was apparent that most cattle producers have already done some level of destocking. Given current feed prices and the weather outlook it’s likely that a further reduction of breeding females will take place.

Pregnancy testing at the earliest opportunity and selling dry cows is an obvious way to reduce numbers and feed requirements. Skilled operators can also determine the age of the foetus and which cows joined up late. Cows that joined late in the breeding period can be identified and sold if conditions remain tight. Drafting cows and managing according to fat score is another way to save feed costs.

Although fodder prices have eased with new season hay coming online, strong demand means hay is being snapped up quickly. While the concept of further feeding is daunting, doing a fodder budget is extremely valuable in identifying fodder requirements and cost between now and winter 2019. Based on current prices a full ration to maintain a dry cow costs around $2.50/hd/day.


One of the biggest concerns at present is getting cows back in calf, especially first calving heifers and cows in light condition. Assessing cow condition is really important as this determines the action taken (see example photos below). For example if your cows are:

  • Fat Score 2+ or above: aim to maintain cow condition/ slight weight loss
  • Fat Score 2- or below: wean calves and feed to achieve weight gain of 0.3-0.5kg/hd/day (cow) to increase conception rates.

Managing cows in poor condition (i.e. Fat Score 2- or below) is tricky due to the lack of time between calving and the bulls going out. There was quite a bit of discussion at the workshops in how to overcome this issue. One approach is to put the cows onto the best possible feed and wean the calves at the end of the first cycle (i.e. day 21 of the joining period). This way the majority of calves will be around 3 months of age/ 120kg liveweight, making post-weaning management much easier.

Is there any money in growing out calves? A gross margin analysis shows that growing out early weaned calves from 120kg to around 220kg liveweight is likely to return somewhere between $60 and $180/head. If you are considering early weaning and feeding young calves it's really important that you carefully assess what paddock feed is available as this has a major impact on the cost-effectiveness of the program.

Photo 1: Cows with calves at foot.  Cow A (foreground) is Fat Score 2+, while Cow B (first on left) is Fat Score 2-. On average this mob was sitting around Fat Score 2 (on average). Cows are about to be re-joined. (Photo: Matthew Lieschke)

In managing cows in this type of condition, the aim should be to provide adequate nutrition to hold condition during joining. If condition can’t be held, consider early weaning calves at the end of the first cycle.

Photo 2

Photo 2: Cow in Fat Score 1. Backbone is easily seen, but individual spines not prominent. Hip bone and long ribs are prominent. Rump muscle is slightly concave. (Photo: Jeff House)

Cows that are Fat Score 1 are considered to be ‘at risk’ and need to be carefully managed. Wean calves and provide good nutrition to achieve weight gain of 0.3-0.5kg/hd/day to increase conception rates.

Photo 3: Autumn 2018 drop calves. These calves were early weaned in late July/early August. Average age at weaning was 140 days. The youngest calf was 3 months /154kg.(Photo: Matthew Lieschke)

Following yard weaning, these calves grazed pasture and were supplemented with Dried Distillers Grain (2kg/hd/day) and hay up until early October. Weaners were weighed on 7 November and averaged 307kg. Average post-weaning growth rate was 1.25kg/hd/day. Interestingly, the youngest calf at weaning recorded the highest post-weaning growth rate.

This group demonstrates that early weaned calves can continue to grow and perform well providing they receive good nutrition, good animal health (e.g. drench, vaccination for clostridial diseases, fly prevention, AD&E injection etc.) and management.


Brett Littler, Senior Land Services Officer - Livestock with Central Tablelands Local Land Services has prepared a video on Early Weaning Calves which you can access here.