Farming Diary for January

january farming diaryJanuary can be a crazy month and is supposed to be a time to holiday and get rid of the past year’s stress. On a small block with livestock it can be just the opposite, and rain is the regular cause of concern. Questions like - will it rain to make the grass keep on growing, and will it be a fine spell when the hay contractor is booked? Or will it be a very dry month with plenty of worrying consequences?

It’s surprising how few folk on small blocks know their neighbours, especially after new subdivisions have been completed, and new houses seem to appear overnight in paddocks next door. Pay your neighbours a visit, and introduce them into a farming support network. Many will be new block owners and will really appreciate contacts for when they need help.

Pastures

Weather predictions often seem to be guesswork, despite all the technology available to meteorologists these days. So there’s a temptation to ignore the TV weather forecast ‘show’. The constant predictions of ‘showers’ seems to be to indicate that they have little idea what an approaching front will do – if it ever arrives at your place at the time predicted. Many of the so-called showers provide little soil moisture, as most of what comes down is evaporated at the rate of 3-5mm of evapotranspiration each 24 hours. This is going on whether it rains or not, so you can see how bare pastures that let the sun in are dry things up and kill growth very quickly.

What pastures need is a decent downpour, which the Met Service ‘showers’ never provides. And they never explain why their forecast was wrong for the previous day! But NIWA seems fairly sure about El Nino’s pending arrival again so it will pay to take this seriously from now on with feed planning.
Keep checking the 24-hour evapotranspiration rate in your local newspaper Met Service column, as this is almost more important than the rainfall.

January is all about soil moisture levels. We can’t get enough rain this month to get pastures to grow well into February. But don’t tell the holiday makers or hay contractors.

It’s vital to understand the importance of ‘pasture residual’, which is what is left after grazing, as leaf area is the factory for future growth from photosynthesis. It’s a pity photosynthesis was made so boring in school biology – as understanding it is the basis of pasture management to feed stock. It’s a simple enough concept – you manage stock to control pasture growth, which then feeds the stock. It’s all about balance, which often seems to be more art than science.

So January is not about growing more pasture – it’s more about saving and using what you have in an efficient way, and then hopefully preventing it burning off. Dry pasture has very little nutritional value so for important stock that you want to keep growing like calves and yearlings, feeding supplements is essential. It’s no good leaving stock to starve assuming that it’s going to rain – as even if it does, pastures will not really recover and product meaningful feed till autumn.

If you run out of pasture, silage has the best feed value, but hungry stock will always eat hay even thought they’ll waste a lot of it. A good option is to feed willow and poplar prunings, which are claimed to be high in minerals. But check the list of toxic trees and shrubs on the property, as they are always more palatable when wilted. Yew and tutu are the real killers so learn to recognise these.

If your farm is grossly under stocked and pastures get totally out of control, and you don’t want to cut them for hay, just speed up the grazing rotation, and let the stock chew off the tops of this standing hay, or ‘deferred grazing’ and accept the amount of waste that will result. And remember this dry pasture can be a fire hazard so be prepared, especially if near the road. Fire will even travel across closely grazed paddocks.

Only big hungry mature cattle can chew off this mass of dry feed, and most of it will be wasted leaving a thick ‘thatch’ that will delay the growth of fresh green quality feed, both for the rest of the summer and into autumn. And it’s also ideal cover for growth of Facial Eczema spores.

But a good thing about this deferred grazing is that it will provide seed that will fall into the pasture, and add to the years of un-germinated seed (called hard seed) in the ground already.

Do a financial budget to see if it’s worthwhile to cash some stock now, and make hay of any surplus feed to sell now or later. If pastures continue to dry up, then getting rid of stock is a wise option and accept the financial loss – which could increase if you keep them on.

Keep the slasher in the shed as shaving off paddocks does more harm than good, and any dry litter left is an ideal base for Facial Eczema fungi to grow. When it rains, this dry dead thatch rots away in only a few days, leaving large areas of bare ground for weeds to germinate with the extra light and moisture.

Sheep

Sheep don’t like hot weather, so make sure they’ve all been shorn and they can get shade and plenty good clean water from a trough and not a creek. Flies are a constant annoyance in the shade as well as out in the sun.

The most important job is to get rid of all ewes that are not going to add value to the business next season – and don’t delay this decision. It’s far better to quit them now and reduce the stocking rate for when pastures really dry up and when the sale yards of full of skinny sheep.

Be ruthless when selecting ewes going to the ram next season, and only keep those that are in good body condition, have two good undamaged teats, and no hard lumps in their udders. Only keep ewes that reared a lamb or lambs to weaning and don’t keep any that you know had mastitis. They should also have a full set of teeth that are not worn down to the gum or have grown too long and are loose, have large gaps between them that chewing off grass has made wider, and teeth worn right down to the gum, especially on pumice country. These ewes should be culled.

If teeth have been evenly worn and are all present (8 incisors), then that ewe will be worth keeping for another year as she’ll be able to harvest grass effectively. You’ll also see teeth that are being replaced by permanent incisors at 1.5. 2.5 and 3.5 years so will look half pushed out. After five years old you cannot age sheep by their teeth.

The best lambs should have been weaned in December so what to do with the ‘rats and mice’ is always a problem on a small block, especially if it gets very dry. Too many flocks have the rams running with the flock all year ending up with small lambs in the heat of summer. It’s best to get rid of them and cut your losses, as they’ll never grow and will only eat autumn feed needed to build up the ewes for mating. The will never grow into decent sheep anyway and will cost you time and money later on preventing flystrike and dagging.

Rams will be active from now on so keep them away from the ewes if you don’t want winter lambs next season. So it’s vital that mating is managed on small blocks and that your date for the start of lambing suits next spring’s pasture growth and your workload. This may not be easy to work out.

If you want to put hoggets to the ram, they must be above 45 kg, and remember they will need extra feed for their next season as they are still growing. You don’t want permanently stunted sheep as the basis of the flock for the next five years.

Get the shearing out of the way, and if you kept the wool and before you take it to the merchant, make sure it’s properly sorted. The only wool of real value is the main body wool (and that will be low this season), so throw the fleece on a clean area and remove any short and stained bits around the edges and keep the bellies separate.

You may think that you’ve thrown half the fleece away after this exercise but if you throw everything in, then you’ll get the lowest price for the lot. Be prepared to get very little for these oddments. Put the dags around fruit trees.

Shearing lambs may not be very profitable, but shearing is necessary as woolly lambs are more prone to flystrike even when clean. Giving them an fly spray around the britch and along the back is very effective, but talk to your vet to use the right product and follow the instructions completely. You don’t want to breath in any of the chemical or let it touch your bare skin. Take special note of the ‘withholding’ time on the product as you won’t be able to sell them for meat, and a buyer may not take them either.

Also watch for flystrike on shorn ewes if any get dirty, as it doesn’t need much to attract the Aussie green blowfly, which starts early and is active late in the season. A small shearing cut is all it takes to start an attack, although these usually heal up quickly.

Any ewes that have not improved after weaning and are still skinny could have health problems, so check with your vet. Don’t immediately assume they need a worm drench. They could be better cashed in now.

Don’t drench any lambs that you are keeping until you have talked to your vet and actions are based on Faecal Egg Counts (FECs) and not drench promotional gimmicks like left-over Christmas hams! Any scouring or poor growth problems may not be worms. There has been some recent scary evidence of how many drench families are failing and how triple combinations are the best option, till they run into problems too. So check the ‘Wormwise’ website for the latest advice on flock management to prevent drench resistant problems.

There are far too many rams kept on small blocks for too long and they should be culled after two seasons when they are likely to mate with their daughters. All rams kept from last year will need vet checking and newly purchased rams will need shearing a few weeks before joining with the ewes. They need about 25mm of wool growth to stop a mating harness sliding around and giving false markings on ewes’ rumps. Don’t apply any chemical treatment for fly or lice to rams (or ewes) before mating, as you don’t know what affect this may have on fertility.

Fit healthy rams in January in the North Island will start to ‘pink up’, start to smell strongly and be keen to get to ewes. This smell from the male pheromone in the wool grease can bring ewes into season, so keep rams away from the ewes if you don’t want early lambs.

If you want early lambs, the ewes need to be in top body condition and gaining weight (called flushing) to encourage ovulation and oestrus. The first round of cycles may have silent heats so don’t be surprised if there is no action after joining for a week or so. It’s a good idea to let the ewes smell the ram though a fence before opening the gate to get these silent heats out of the way.

Start Facial Eczema (FE) precautions. The only practical way to treat sheep with zinc is with a bolus, which lasts around a month. Don’t give them more than three boluses in a season as it can risk zinc toxicity. So deciding when to start precautions is a concern, knowing that FE can dangerous right up to May in ever-increasing areas of New Zealand as the climate heats up.

Talk to your vet about doing spore counting from pasture samples or faecal samples, to see when pastures are ‘hot’ and hence dangerous. Paddocks vary greatly within a farm, depending on aspect and shelter. Faecal sampling for spores is becoming more popular as at least you know that the sheep has eaten them. Ask your vet about this.

If you are serious about your sheep breeding programme in the long term, and the way the climate is warming up, consider buying FE tolerant rams to breed resistance into your sheep. Contact Sheep Improvement Ltd (SIL) for details of breeders and you needn’t pay big money for a top ram. Get the breeder to pick you one down the selection list, which will be a guaranteed improver for your flock. Breeders do all their culling before they offer rams for sale – they don’t offer culls to clients.

There is also a lot more farmers using lime on their pastures, which they claim changes the environment to discourage fungal and spore growth. It’s well worth trying.

Cattle

It’s the young growing stock, especially dairy weaners that are the main concern through January when it gets hot, pastures go to seed, and pasture covers disappear as the soil dries out.

Young stock need the best pasture to keep growing at least around 0.5 to 0.6 kg/day, but if feed quality drops, then 0.4kg/day or less may have to be accepted. In severe dry situations without supplements they’ll stop growing or even lose weight unless you provide good quality supplements like silage. Concentrate meal has the highest feeding value but it’s the most expensive.

Weight loss will stunt young growing calves and yearlings, which then has serious long-term effects. Stunted stock may catch up when well fed again, but it will take more feed and more time, and both of these have a cost, as you’ll have them on the farm for longer.

All calves sucking on cows need to be weaned, and again in theory fed the best feed on the farm if it’s available. The cows can then clean up any rough drying pastures. With plenty of good water and shade, beef cows of the traditional breeds take no hurt from dry conditions, but you don’t want any young stock like calves (especially with dairy crossbred genes) to slip back in condition.

If young stock start to get thin and scour, don’t assume worms are the cause. At this time of year there are still the leftover drench promotions like Christmas hams to temp folk to buy drench their stock don’t need. Check with your vet to find the cause of any problems and then the correct product can be given. Check young stock for lice too and get vet advice on what products to use, as they are getting resistant to chemicals as well as worms. The widespread use of pourons has hastened resistance problems in cattle. Older cattle should not need treating for worms.

Do not now put cattle out on the road verge to clean up feed, as the risks are too great to safety and your legal responsibilities if they cause accidents. With the increasing speed of traffic these days, the best advice is to buy some silage to feed them, as you could end up bankrupt if you are judged the cause of an accident.

Older store cattle in good condition can handle dry spells, and if feed gets short, their main priority is good water and shade. Bulls not needed for next season should be in the sale yards or meat works.

Watch for biting flies on cattle in hot weather, and get vet advice for a pouron treatment if they become a serious nuisance. These look like houseflies but bite and are a different species.

FE protection should be well underway. Don’t rely on general spore counts published in the local paper or on websites, as they may not apply to your farm or different paddocks within the farm. Talk to your vet about what to do about FE prevention. If you want to use zinc boluses, don’t use more than three in a season. Zinc sulphate in the water trough is not palatable, so how much each animal gets can be vary greatly and hence may not be effective. Note – for oral drenching you use Zinc Oxide, never Zinc Sulphate (for the trough) as the sulphate will damage the rumen lining. Check our website for more information.

Management

  • If you are to get away for a break before school starts, double check farm and home security as more burglars are on the beat due to the ever-expanding drug trade. Inform your neighbours of your movements.
  • Keep your entry gates closed at all times and reverse the top gudgeon so the gate cannot be taken off. Burglars love easy access to your property so they can drive in to check if you are home, and drive out fast with the loot.
  • Take the number (and a sneaky photo) of anyone arriving looking for a lost dog, or John Smith!
  • Try to keep young stock away from roadside paddocks in clear view of rustlers when you are away.
  • Keep checking the water supply, as you cannot afford to waste any. Put a tap on each trough to turn off the supply when the paddock is not in use. This will also save water being lost from evaporation, which can be amazingly high in the heat of summer.
  • Keep checking all power fences and especially the earth pegs which dry out fast and reduce voltage. Hopefully you got a new model tester for your power fences for Christmas!
  • If hay has to be cut - keep in regular touch with the contractor.
  • Make access easy and remove all paddock hazards or mark them clearly.
  • You don’t want to be the cause of mechanical disasters to hold them up with all their massive modern and expensive gear.
  • Have a cold drink ready for them and a chocolate bar, and pay them as they leave!
  • Keep farm records up to date and pay accounts on time.
  • Your new farm diary is a vital bit of equipment to record events from year to year.
  • You’ll still be having visitors with children around the farm this month so keep the kids well away from all working farm machinery.
  • Be brutal and banish small children from the motorbikes and ATVs. Don’t add to the appalling rural statistics and have a permanent injury or death on your conscience forever!
  • Check and prune trees that are overgrowing any roads on your boundary, as you will be liable for accidents they may cause if they fall on to the road. Check your insurance!
  • Make sure your gateway is clear of trees so fire engines can get in.
  • Start a programme of fencing off creeks and drains, even from sheep as well as cattle, and organise some riparian planting. There is plenty of good advice available these days on this subject.
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