Autumn is always a challenge, as you never know what kind of winter is on the way. Long-term weather forecasts can be anybody’s guess. Rain has been so variable that in some areas it will take all winter to get soil moisture levels back to normal.
When you check rainfall, also check the evapotranspiration rate and realise the net difference.
Even on warm autumn days, 2-4mm/24 hours is a normal loss, so what rain fell in many places in March was evaporated in only a few days. So in many places the ‘autumn flush’ is yet to arrive although pastures may look green. It’s really just a ‘green drought’ with certainly not enough feed for cattle. Even ewes may be struggling to get a good bite.
After 3-4 dry years in some places, there must be lessons to learn about changes to farming systems. New Zealand farming recognised world wide as a low-cost pasture system is now part of history. We have got into a high-cost system by forgetting that things are cyclical and high prices don’t last for ever when costs are allowed to skyrocket.
Right now it’s all about getting some feed built up for winter. This can only happen if pastures were not killed off by drought, as weeds don’t grow good feed for stock. So the first priority is to get down close and see what’s growing. You need to be able to identify the main grass species (especially ryegrass), clovers and weeds.
Weeds are the main problem, as they won’t look like much when first germinated after autumn rain, but grow twice as fast as the grasses and in no time have smothered everything. Californian thistles are the classical example, and they form great beds that stock are loath to enter to feed.
Firms selling seed are keen to promote ‘pasture renovation’ in autumn, but it’s costly depending on what options you take. Just drilling in seed is the simplest, but you really need to spray out what’s there beforehand otherwise the new tender plants never get a chance. Full cultivation before sowing is too expensive and takes the paddock out of action for too long.
There is always a mass of old seed (called hard seed) in the soil, which has dropped out of seed heads over the years. If you take a sample of soil from the top 50mm and shake it up with water, note what grass and clover seeds float to the top.
These will grow although it may take a bit longer to germinate than any new seed applied. During this slow germination period, weeds of all kinds will grow like mad and you may never see any new grass. These must be controlled – by hand or by spray if there are not too many and you want to win the battle.
The really old method of pasture establishment was to use high stocking rates with sheep to get their hooves to press seed broadcast by hand into the ground.
It’s best to add a general fertiliser at the time of seeding, and maybe a light dressing (25kg N/ha) of Nitrogen fertiliser (Urea) when the new grass plants are about 500mm high if they turn yellow and stop growing. But be careful when spreading it to avoid drains and creeks.
When looking at what to sow, ask about grass species which are more drought tolerant than perennial ryegrass. These are cocksfoot, timothy and tall fescue, and there’s a lot of promotion at present of chicory and plantain. But be aware that whatever the advertising says, these herbs are not long-lasting species and cannot be permanently hard grazed like the grasses.
The way dry seasons are repeating themselves in many part of the country, means that you can never have enough hay and silage on hand, as supplements are needed in summer and autumn now and not just for winter. Hay and silage are not cheap feed any more as their quality can be so variable depending on the crops conserved, the wrapping and way it was stored.
Large bales of hay and silage are a hazard on small farms, and fewer contractors are making small conventional balers as spare parts are getting hard to find. Manufacturers are not currently making new small balers as the market is too limited.
The other problem is that silage bales only last at most a couple of years, and the bales are prone to damage from rats and birds, letting in air and causing mould. Hay will keep for many more years although it’s quality declines too.
A good option is to buy in good quality baled silage early in the season, and plan to use it all up that year. If you buy too much, then you can easily sell it later in the winter rather than keep it for a second year with the risk of bale damage and mould.
At the end of autumn, there’s always a lot of dead litter on pastures (on which fungal spores can grow) but note with the first autumn rains, how quickly it rots and disappears resulting in large areas of bare ground between the struggling and recovering grass, and which are ideal spots for weeds to germinate.
Also when it rains and the soil eventually regains moisture, this bare ground will pug very easily if you have large cattle. One of the main reasons for so much bare ground is that frosts kill off all the semitropical grasses like paspalum, summer grass, crowfoot and Indian dobe. Learn to recognise these.
Protection of wet soils is a major priority on small paddocks during autumn and winter and to avoid damage to the delicate soil structure, consider making a very stand off pad using wood bark. Get some advice, as there is now concern over effluent runoff. The bark makes good compost after being removed and heaped up for a year.
It’s no good throwing grass seed on to pugged bog holes and expecting it to grow prime pasture. You’ll be lucky if anything germinates unless you put work into letting the soil dry and lightly cultivating it with hand tools before sowing seed.
Pasture supplements this year will be precious, so avoiding waste when feeding out. Stock can be very picky, so make them clean up before you feed the next lot. With hay, it’s often a good idea to feed it in a hayrack so it can be moved and the leftovers cleaned up for compost. It’s a good time to see what weeds are in the hay and remove things like docks, ragwort and thistles and burn them so their seeds don’t spread. The plants may look dead but the seeds will germinate.
As concentrate meal or pellets are expensive, feed them in troughs and only feed what stock can clean up in one go. You don’t want it to get wet and all the sparrows in the district helping themselves, and risking the spread of salmonella. Don’t buy Palm Kernal Expeller (PKE), as you are contributing to the decimation of Indonesia native forests.
It’s a good time to prune willow and poplar trees before the leaves die off and feed them to stock. Also start planning where to plant more trees this winter, so you can coppice them in a rotation in the dry spells in years ahead. They provide good quality feed as well as shade and are also rich in minerals,.
Rams in the North Island should be well through their work. Leaving the ram out for longer hoping that more ewes will cycle is not a good idea, as you’ll end up with lambs right up till Christmas and they become a costly nuisance on the farm.
Fitting a mating harness to the ram is the only way of finding out which ewes have returned to the ram, and any that never cycled. The latter should be sold to save feed as they’ll never end up as highly productive ewes over a long lifetime.
But make sure the harness and crayons were working OK before deciding what the marks mating marks meant, as not all marks are clear, especially if a ram doesn’t mount the ewe more than once to serve properly.
The main thing is to feed ewes well and treat any skinny ewes as an urgent priority to get them into good condition for lambing. They’ll need concentrates which are expensive, and if this is not an option they should be sold (at a loss) as you probably have too many on the farm. Lambing skinny ewes can lead to problems and losses of both ewes and lambs. Ewes can only milk well if they are in good order and are fed well.
With today’s high fertility ewes of all breeds, the aim is to keep them in good condition all year round. See our website to learn how to condition score sheep and find out what score is needed at each stage of the season. You need to feel the backs of the sheep as wool can cover up a lot of protruding bones.
Mating should be over with North Island ewes and if ewes haven’t cycled by now due to the dry conditions, they probably won’t this season and it’s better to cull them now.
One way of getting more output from a sheep flock is to put the hoggets to the ram, but this needs planning. They first need to be at least 45kg and in good body condition, and then kept well fed right through to their next two-tooth lambing. This is rarely possible on small blocks where there’s generally not enough paddocks or extra feed to achieve this. So they often end up lambing with very poor results. The answer is to keep them away from the ram if possible.
Don’t forget the rams after mating is over as they are the most neglected animals on the farm, despite the money spent on them. If you are keeping any rams, check their health and feed them well to recover condition.
If rams have broken down over mating, get rid of them immediately to save feed over winter. And phone the breeder you got them from to report what happened. Breeders will welcome the feedback and replace the ram or give you a discount next year.
Don’t dip or treat any ewes for external parasites for at least a month either before or after mating, no matter what your vet says about this not being a risk to ovulation or embryo survival. We don’t know enough about this so don’t take the risk.
Shearing decisions need to be made on the basis of wool length. Today’s market and modern machinery needs wool a minimum of 100mm in length, and with no break in the staple when pulled between fingers. And it’s only the main body wool that’s worth selling. A better option is to let the shearer have the wool and charge accordingly as he/she has a better chance of making up a line to get the best price. Wool prices have picked up a bit but the wool cheque may still not cover shearing costs.
Sheep will scour on green autumn feed so don’t assume it is worms. Get a Faecal Egg Count (FEC) done through your vet to make sure the problem is internal parasites and not just diet. The chances are much higher that it’s lack of feed or poor feed quality that’s the problem.
The incidence of drench resistance in sheep is increasing all the time so don’t use long-term worm drenches on any sheep, especially on mature ewes despite what the advertising says, and don’t think you have to drench young sheep every 28 days through winter. Ewes should not need drenching as they should have developed a natural immunity, so if they are not thriving - they need feed and not drench.
Facial Eczema could still be an issue, despite the cooler nights and declining soil temperatures. If clinical cases appear at this stage, it’s most likely liver damage caused by spores weeks ago. A few clinical cases mean other sheep will have subclinical disease and liver damage, causing problems and deaths in late pregnancy and at lambing.
Calves and yearlings are always the main concern going into winter, as if they get down in condition and stop growing, their mature target weights are affected and they will never make top stock. You may hear about the theory of ‘compensatory growth’ where with good feeding after a period of low feeding, animals will catch up in weight and size.
They may do, but it will take more time so they’ll be on the farm longer, and during this time they will need more feed, which could have been fed to more productive stock. So they are all-round losers and are best culled to take the least financial loss on them. Keeping them on will only lose more.
Young stock often go down hill fast in autumn where they scour badly, their faeces are often light green and they go to skin and bone. It goes under the general name of ‘Autumn Ill Thrift’ which most folk assume is worms and they treat them with pourons at 3-weekly intervals. This may dry up the scour for a few days before it starts again so you need veterinary assistance.
Veterinary blood tests show that it’s a combination of mineral and trace element deficiencies, worms, yersiniosis and salmonella and excess protein and low Dry Matter in the grass. So get a correct veterinary diagnosis before spending money on worm drench that may not work. Affected stock will need some concentrate meal to increase the Dry Matter intake of the diet, but it may take some time to get them to improving.
In areas hit by drought, cattle will need a lot of supplementary feed from now on. Fortunately there seems to be plenty of feed for sale at this stage, so putting condition back on thin cows before calving is a priority but can take a couple of months even with top quality feed.
It takes 180kg of Dry Matter to replace one condition score over and above what a cow needs for maintenance. All that can add up to a lot of feed each day, and will need a number of weeks. So if your cows are at CS 3 with shoulders looking like a mountain ridge, they need to be at CS5 for calving in August, the arithmetic will tell you what’s needed in feed demand. It there is no real flush of pasture before calving, cash will be needed to invest in supplementary feed.
Talk to your veterinarian about feeding high energy products like molasses to any cattle that need a nutritional boost during winter and early spring. But remember this will have to be paid for.
If your farm has resident cattle ticks, and young stock and even mature cows are going down with anaemia, consult your vet promptly to see if it’s the newly arrived Theileria protozoan parasite which the ticks are spreading.
Facial eczema risks should be over but watch for stock not thriving over winter, as it could be liver damage from FE earlier in the season. Talk to your vet about treatment, and especially about copper supplementation after long periods of zinc treatment which strips copper from the liver.
- Check the financial budget for expenses appearing out of the blue, especially for supplementary feed.
- Check the water supply and reticulation before winter.
- Check power fences regularly.
- Keep farm records up to date and the farm accounts.
- It’s also a good time to get your soil tested to see if there’s a soil fertility problem, and until you fixt that, all other investment in fertilisers will be wasted. Start by looking at lime.
- Block security is ongoing – keep checking your systems and your neighbourhood watch group, especially if you go away for an autumn break.
- Buy a good quality lockable mailbox for your entrance and reverse the gudgeon on the top hinge on road gates.
- Check your property for fire protection and make sure fire engines can get to your house and buildings.