How much will this summer cost you?
The secrets to surviving the big dry
After what seemed to be a long winter and slow spring, summer can’t come soon enough. But on lifestyle blocks, where most folk have a full-time job off the farm, there’s a lot of planning to do during summer for school holidays, plus silage and hay making, weaning, sorting of livestock and much more.
Adding to the stress are nerves about what can happen if it doesn’t rain for a few weeks and all the green feed disappears in another drought, which according to NIWA is highly likely in many areas (see page 24 for specific tips on how to survive a drought).
We need rain in November to set the farm up for January and February, when it’s normal for things to dry off. Recent droughts should be a warning to make as much early silage as possible and then hay later, as you will need it for both a summer drought and a lack of feed through autumn and winter as pastures recover.
short term gain only as the essential soil fertility components of phosphate, potash and sulphur will not be high enough. A soil test is needed first to check soil acidity (ph) and then P, K and S levels to see what fertiliser is needed to get them into the ideal range. There may also be serious trace element problems too.
Pasture does not grow for free so any surplus should be saved as silage for the first option, because it preserves about 80-90% of the nutrients that were in the original pasture. Hay contains around 15-20%.
Silage is really pickled pasture, using lactic and acetic acid as the natural preservatives, and it’s the best option for the first surplus pasture. The best time to cut silage is when about 10-15% seed heads are showing. This can happen quickly after only a few warm days, so have your contractor organised months beforehand, and get regular updates on how things are going for them. November is too early to think about making hay, as pastures need to be more mature so that’s an after-christmas option in most areas.
But silage is a problem for block owners because most of today’s contractors can only offer large wrapped bales which are difficult to move and feed out. If bales are left in a paddock for stock to feed from ad lib, the result is a burned and pugged area of grass, which is slow to recover, and often a lot of wasted silage too.
A few contractors will wrap small bales, which inevitably are more expensive and still a two-person lift. Machines that make small bales are getting old and are kept going by parts from other old balers so eventually this won’t be an option anyway.
But whatever size bales are made, they need to be well wrapped to keep out air, protected from damage by birds and rats, and well fenced from stock. Even the smallest puncture will let in enough air to cause mould, and mouldy silage (or hay) should never be fed to livestock. Mould is also a human health hazard so be careful not to breathe it in.
Be wary about ‘balage’ as it can either be silage made from pasture gone to seed, and therefore lacking in nutrition, or wrapped hay that got wet (again lacking in nutrition), it’s hard to compress, and it could be full of weeds and mould.
In theory, balage is about 40% Dry Matter (DM), whereas good silage is around 20% and hay is 80%. Remember that it’s not the DM, which is a measure of feed quality, but the nutrients (protein and energy) in the DM which is important. You will see this expressed as ‘Metabolisable Energy’ or ME and in good quality feeds it’s around 11-12.
Good hay should be green and leafy, smell sweet, and not have been rained on. Hay made from pasture that has ‘died on its feet’ before cutting is of little nutritional value. The chances are that it’s mainly Yorkshire fog or browntop which are low quality grasses.
If grass has really got out of control and gone to seed, and making supplements is too difficult or expensive, a simple option is to buy or borrow some big mature cattle and keep them moving around the farm to eat off the tops as fast as possible which should stimulate some new green re-growth. They’ll tend to be quieter and more respectful of fences. Sell them again as soon as they have done their job.
YOUNG STOCK are not suitable to chew off rank pasture, as it’s important not to leave clumps which will keep on growing into bigger clumps. A big problem can be cocksfoot in pasture which becomes more unpalatable as it ages. There will always be long grass around dung patches, but these should be grazed next time around which big cattle will do.
You have to be tough when using cattle as grazing machines to clean up rank feed, as they’ll expect a fence shift every time they see you. Keep out of sight so you don’t set them off mooing, and move them tomorrow.
When pasture gets really long and falls over, cattle will trample a lot of it into the ground. This is an awful waste but you’ll have to accept this and wait until it rots and the new grass grows up through it. At least this retains soil moisture, although it looks awful. However, it’s a bad situation for clover plants which need space and light to grow, so it’s best to avoid this situation in future by taking action earlier.
When things get really dry, don’t get on the tractor or ride-on mower to slash off any surplus dead pasture, just to have a ‘tidy up’. This will just expose more soil area to the sun and it will dry out even quicker, plus you risk encouraging the growth of the spores that will cause facial eczema (FE) from January-may.
a big problem is cocksfoot which becomes unpalatable as
IT’S TIME to start tidying up the flock, and your main priority is to wean lambs before it gets dry as their mothers will have stopped milking and lambs will now be competing for the same feed.
Lambs need the best feed on the farm, but when it gets scarce it’s time to sell as many as possible while prices for prime lambs are good before Christmas. Also, if the prime trade is good, the chances are that the store trade will follow for a while before buying stops when everyone sees pastures drying up. You can’t grow lambs on dead grass.
It might be tempting to keep late-born small lambs (which inevitably are twins or triplets) with the idea that they will grow and catch up over summer. But research shows that generally they won’t: they may be permanently stunted, you will need to spend more on drench and fly treatments, and they will need more of your precious feed reserves. It’s been proven to be economically better to sell them early and accept the first loss before putting more money into them.
Once the surplus lambs are off the place, and only the replacement ewe lambs are left, it’s time to go through them to check teeth, udders and body condition. If a ewe didn’t rear a lamb to weaning, they should be first off to the saleyards.
Normally ewes are ‘cast for age’ at the age of five, but if they pass inspection, then they will be good for another season and should produce twins at least.
Another priority is to get the wool off ewes (and lambs) for the sake of their welfare. Don’t expect to make money off this wool. Wool prices have improved this season so you may think it’s worth putting effort into its preparation for sale if you want to sell it yourself, but for most people, it’s usually less hassle to let the shearer take the wool for nothing.
The Sheep Welfare Code says that sheep
sell early – you will only lose if you keep extra
must be shorn once a year. Wool needs to be shorn when it’s no longer than 100mm, which means shearing twice a year for strong wool breeds like Romneys and Coopworths.
Sheep in the North Island are now usually shorn pre-mating in autumn and then mid-late winter before lambing. No chemicals should be applied to sheep in the 50 days before shearing.
All dirty sheep need to be dagged before shearing, and you’ll have to come to some arrangement with the shearer as their union rules consider dags a health hazard. Ask about dagging when you book the shearer as hard dags blunt combs and cutters, and is done with separate gear.
If you’re selling your wool, make sure it’s properly sorted as the best price is for the main body wool. It needs to be free from short bits and dung-stains, and there should be no raddled wool or vegetable rubbish in it. A major problem in recent seasons has been the increase in thistle heads in wool, a major problem when the wool is carded.
Lambs only produce about 1kg of wool but this season it has increased in price. But even if you’re not selling it, it’s still worth getting their wool off as it helps prevent blowfly
attacks, especially if you also apply a preventative product around the crutch and along their back.
You need to be constantly on the lookout for dirty oily patches on the wool and lambs trying to nibble these areas to stop the itch of them being eaten alive. The Aussie green blowfly is active very early in the season, as soon as things warm up, and stays active late into autumn. Lambs can get dirty from rubbing against their daggy mothers when they are yarded so be aware of that.
THE ADVERTISING and promotional pressure to drench ewes and lambs so you can claim ‘specials’ like Christmas hams is relentless. Always talk to your vet about drenching and base any decision on a Faecal Egg Count (FEC) so you know what the worm load is. There will be a wide range of eggs per gram of faeces (epg) in a mob, and vets take 500epg as a trigger to drench the mob. But unless the whole mob is up in the thousands, and the sheep are not thriving, don’t drench them. Ewes should not need drenching because their natural immunity protects them.
Current best practice is to delay drench resistance by always leaving 20% of good lambs in a mob undrenched so that they breed worms that are killed by drench. These worms are said to be ‘in refugia’ which allows non-resistant worms to mate with resistant ones, hopefully slowing up the advance to total resistance when your farm can’t run sheep.
Rams may go out in autumn but now is the time to sort out what rams will be needed. Remember, the ram is half the flock so money spent on good rams is an investment. If you want to keep a ram for many seasons, make sure he does not mate any of his own daughters, which means keeping them separate after they are 3-4 months in age; a well-grown hogget (around 45kg) will come on heat. Get rid of all lambs with testicles before Christmas as they will mate ewes too.
In the North Island, ewes will start cycling in December if they (and the rams) are in good body condition, so keep rams separate if you don’t want winter lambs when feed is short. Rams in January (especially Poll Dorset) will start to ‘pink up’ and smell strongly, which stimulates oestrus in the ewes through their pheromones in the wool grease.
Rams are best shorn well before mating, and any kept from last year will need a thorough examination by a vet. They should have no abnormalities in their testicles, prepuce or penis.
Don’t use chemicals on ewes or rams for six weeks either side of joining with the ewes, as it could affect fertility.
When pastures dry off, it’s Facial Eczema (FE) time again and the problem is spreading to wider areas. Prevention with zinc needs to start on January 1 and continue well into May. Check with your vet about the best method for your flock.
A zinc bolus (which lasts a month) is an easy way to treat sheep, but check spore counts from local vet clinics as extra oral drenching may be needed. Don’t give sheep more than three boluses over a season as this can risk zinc toxicity.
If you are serious about keeping sheep long term, find a breeder with Fe-tolerant rams for sale. It’s another good investment.
THE MAIN PRIORITY over summer is for this season’s calves and yearlings, as they need to keep growing. Hand-raised weaners will be more at risk than calves that have been suckling off their mother for 3-4 months as these animals will be much heavier and in better condition.
Years of research have shown that stunting young stock has lifetime effects. Yearling cattle should be well fed if they are to be mated, but bulls can also mate well-grown calves which can cycle. If young heifers do get pregnant, they need to be aborted as early as possible.
The ideal growth target of 1kg/head/ day is only achievable on good quality pasture, and won’t be possible when it gets dry. Good quality supplements need to be kept for any drought period, and this means you need silage as hay has little feeding value. Concentrates may be needed too, and these are expensive.
Surplus fruit and vegetables may be available, and feeding tree prunings is a good option too, but only after checking which may be toxic. Yew, macrocarpa, rhododendron and oleander are particularly dangerous.
Mature beef cows do well on dry summer pasture, as long as they have plenty of clean water and shade. However, cows of dairy breed origin that have suckled more than one calf will be thin, and may need supplements to prevent more loss of body condition. If drought conditions prevail, get rid of any old cows.
Young stock may start scouring, even on dry pasture, but don’t assume it’s worms and automatically treat them with a pour-on or an oral drench. Always check with your vet first, as there can be many causes. Our persistent use of easy-to-apply pour-ons over the last 30 years means cooperia worms are now highly resistant to anthelmintics.
Bulls are a major hazard, especially over
the ideal growth rate of 1kg a day is only achieveable on good quality
the holiday period with strangers around. Get rid of any bulls you don’t need for next season. Never trust a bull, especially a friendly one, as the day he wants to play with you could be your last.
Water is a top priority for all cattle in summer, so keep troughs clean and make sure there are no leaks. A lactating cow will drink 70 litres a day, or more if she cannot find shade. Shade is very important.
FE is spreading to more areas and is a real concern in young stock, so discuss prevention with your vet and what product to use. Zinc boluses are available for cattle, but they may need extra zinc orally if spore numbers spike.
January 1 is the time to start as it takes around three weeks for zinc to build up in the liver for protection.
Mature beef cattle
do well on dry summer pasture, as long as they have plenty of clean water