Funder and dates: Scottish Government (RESAS RD 2.2.8), 2016-2021
In beef production, spring-calving suckler cows are managed to lose body fat (indicated by body condition score) over the winter. This is because feeding cattle over the winter is expensive, and because fat cows can have difficult calvings. Earlier SRUC work on commercial farms found that condition score for some cows falls below acceptable levels, with 12% of cows classed as ‘very lean’. Farmers primarily judge the success of their winter feeding strategy on whether a live calf of healthy weight is produced without a difficult calving, and then on the subsequent fertility of the cow. Our previous research has highlighted the impact of maternal stress on offspring, and effects of maternal nutritional stress in later life are known from other species, but the relationship between maternal nutrition and progeny welfare has not been investigated before in cattle. If present, such prenatal effects could offset the financial benefits gained from restricted feeding of pregnant cows. This project involves visiting 25+ commercial suckler beef farms twice each to record body condition of pregnant spring-calving cows (once in early and once in late pregnancy). Work will investigate how body condition changes in these cows affect progeny from birth to slaughter. Specifically it will address (1) whether current targets for winter body condition change are appropriate for optimal farm performance (when calf growth to slaughter is included) and for animal welfare; and (2) the implications for profitability of having cows that are under target. This would inform decisions on the trade-off between spending on winter feed versus animal welfare outcomes, and expected return from animals at slaughter. The project runs from 2016 until 2021 and has two phases. In phase one basic calf productivity and welfare indicators will be collected from the 25+ farms. In phase 2, a smaller cohort of farms that demonstrated diverse body condition values in phase 1 will be re-visited in a later year and more detailed measures of welfare will be recorded. Initial results from phase 1 confirm that there is large variation between and within farms in body condition with a significant percentage of cows that are too fat or thin with respect to current guidelines.