IT’S ALWAYS A great relief to see paddocks greening up again, but don’t assume this is all good news. You need to know what has grown after the drought, which means learning to recognise perennial ryegrass, and the army of weeds racing ahead to beat the grasses. Californian thistles are the main enemy and need to be attacked in the young, leafy growing stage.
Preferably, you want to see perennial ryegrass, shiny on the upper surface of the leaf, dull on the lower side, with a clear rib up the middle. It has a pink sheath at the base when peeled back, and produces new shoots (tillers) from the basal (base) growing point.
Take a careful look at pastures to decide their fate. If there are areas of what looks like totally dead grass, you’ll have to think about oversowing with some new seed. To beat the weeds, you may have to spray the paddock first.
Cultivating the paddock before resowing is expensive and should be a last resort on small farms. Often, despite what is resown, poor management along with low fertility means people end up with the same problem.
Consider different pasture species such as tall fescue and red clover, which are more drought-tolerant than perennial ryegrass and white clover, plants like chicory and plantain which are currently being promoted as ‘drought-resistant’ but the problem is that they cannot be grazed like grasses and may only last 2-3 years, despite what their promoters say.
The outstanding feature of paddocks after a dry season is the amount of bare ground, where weed seeds love to germinate after the first moisture and light. Some of these areas are as big as dinner plates after the dead material covering them rots away after a couple of days of warm winter rain.
Hopefully there will be clover seed waiting to germinate, so check if you can see any young growing plants. The last thing these young plants need is to be damaged by heavy stocking and pugging when heavier rains come in winter.
It’s an interesting exercise to put some surface soil in a jar of water, shake it up, then let it settle and see what seeds float to the top. Ryegrass and round black clover seeds are easiest to see and these are ‘hard seed’ which will germinate eventually, but the weeds usually beat them. There will also be seeds of old cultivars which may be a good thing with all the concern about the poor persistence of modern varieties bred for high, shortterm production.
THE COST OF WINTER FEED
Planning how much of your supplements to feed out becomes an important part of winter pasture management and feed budgeting. Think of the cost of supplementary feed per kg of Dry Matter (DM), especially if you have to buy it in, and you’ll appreciate more the need to avoid waste when feeding out. Only feed what stock can clean up in about an hour to avoid them using it as a dry bed in a wet paddock. There’s an old and crude rule that what stock can clean up in an hour will provide maintenance, but it’s more important to keep a close eye on their body condition, which must be appropriate for stock approaching birth in a few months. Learn how to condition score as it’s not an exact science.
Winter pastures produce around 15kg Dm/ha/day. A single large cow will need at least 14kg DM to maintain her basic body functions, and more than that to start to gain condition coming up to calving. A ewe needs about 1kg Dm/day for maintenance.
This is the basis of a feed budget, to make sure the feed on the farm will meet the needs of the stock. It has to last until the critical date in spring when the pasture growth exceeds the stock’s feed demand, a date which will vary from year to year. Talk to a farmer who does regular feed budgets in your area.
Your main goal is to build up a ‘feed bank’ for spring, but this will not be possible if the farm is overstocked and you don’t have enough supplementary feed. Winter is the time you’ll find this out, so it’s important to take some action if you need to get rid of stock that the farm cannot carry. Running skinny half-starved stock is against the Animal Welfare Act.