May is all about having enough feed available for the different classes of stock on the farm, and make sure they are well fed and have reached their required Body Condition Score and target weights for the upcoming lambing, kidding and calving. This is what the textbook says!
But the problem is that when you see stock every day, you often don’t notice that they are losing weight and looking skinny, and visitors dare not point this out to you. It’s rarely practical to weigh stock regularly on a small block, but scales show changes faster than eyes can. Some vet clinics have scales for hire but you have to have yards organised to fit them in, which is often a lot of hassle. Girth tapes are not accurate enough for feed planning.
So keep thinking about feed plans for spring and if things don’t look as if they will work out, then get some help. How much feed is available depends on how much of it had to be used up during summer and autumn to keep stock moving ahead.
Rarely on small blocks do you see part of the farm shut off from to build up a block of feed to be strip grazed for lactating stock in spring as there are rarely enough paddocks.
This is the core of so-called ‘all-grass farming’, which is being talked a lot about right now by dairy farmers trying to cut the costs and reduce supplements to survive. Farmers from around the world came to see our pasture-based system – but it went out of fashion when farmers wanted more production so started adding in more and more supplements like Palm Kernal – and added greatly to the costs of production.
So try to build up as much feed as possible for spring, by feeding out more supplements, especially silage if you can handle the bales. And while doing this, make sure the stock don’t pug the pastures in wet spells. Get them off to a prepared dry area or holding pad.
Hay can be a very variable product and can spread weed seeds around the farm. So if you have to buy any, check what’s in a sample of bales first.
This is not the time to be buying silage and hay, and certainly be careful with ‘balage’ which may be hay that got wet and was wrapped to try and save it. It’s often hard to get all the air out, and moulds grow which can be harmful for both stock and humans handling it.
So again in future, avoid this situation by making more silage and hay in the spring, or buy it in off the paddock then when it is cheapest. It could be cheaper not to make hay or silage at all, and buy it all in when prices are competitive.
Always keep looking at what’s growing on the pasture and learn to recognise all the different grasses and weeds. It’s no good just being happy about the ‘pastures’ having gone green again, as they could be covered with poor quality grasses like browntop and paspalum and with no clover present. With clover plants so small and weak, they will never grow to produce decent feed. In fact they are more likely to die off.
Perennial ryegrass, which is the main pasture species stores most feed in the growing point above ground, so if this has been damaged by drought or over grazing, then there’s little chance of decent late autumn/winter recovery from the plant.
By May, all the subtropical ‘summer grasses’ (paspalum, summer grass and crowfoot) which stayed green in the summer dry spells will all be gone once temperatures drop leaving large areas of bare ground where weeds will germinate.
It’s generally too cold in May to sow new seed to renovate pastures, so you’ll just have to live with what regenerates naturally from the ‘hard seed’ left over from past years of natural seeding. Ryegrass should be the main survivor and will grow well if soil fertility is adequate. Check this with a soil test and get someone reliable to interpret it for you. Be wary of the many sources of fertiliser that seem too good to be true!
If you did sow and new grass, it needs special care to make sure it has established well, so the new plants will have tillered well. Tillering is the process where the plant puts up new shoots from the growing point just below the ground surface. Ryegrass is the classic tillering grass and grazing off the tillers well off the ground encourages more to grow. But grazing too early, treading or pugging the soil can damage these delicate structures.
To see if new plants are ready to graze, use ‘the pull test’. Grab a handful of plant leaves and tug to tear them off as an animal would do when grazing. If they pull out of the ground, it’s too early to graze.
New grass needs a very light grazing with stock such as sheep, calves or small heifers. A quick on-and-off grazing with young stock is best, at a very light stocking rate.
Don’t use heavy cattle and avoid stock stampeding across the paddock or hanging around gateways or troughs as they’ll end up ploughing it up.
If the young grass plants look yellow, then a light dressing of Nitrogen (25kg/ha) will help to get them going again but this won’t work if soil temperatures have dropped below 6C and the ground is very wet.
Weeds regularly beat new autumn/winter pasture growth, especially thistles of all kinds, docks and ragwort and you’ll need to recognise these in the early rosette stage and deal to them then. Get out and chip thistles, ragwort and docks before spending money on spray.
Avoid soil pugging at all costs, as this does major damage to the delicate crumb structure, which holds air and water, and it may not repair for months. Some soil damage can be permanent. It really is time to build a standoff pad for cattle for winter, but make sure it meets local environmental standards.
Sheep in the North Island are well into their pregnancy with South Island sheep a month later. Sheep can handle feed too short for cattle to graze, but this doesn’t mean they can be underfed. A pregnant ewe at this stage needs at least 1kg of Dry Matter per day to maintain her body functions, and about as much again if she’s carrying twins and needs to build up body reserves to produce milk. This is a large amount of green pasture and will take the animal a long time to harvest if the paddocks are like your lawn.
So keep checking body condition (see our website for details). It’s no good just looking at sheep from a distance, as their wool cover will fool you. You have to feel the spine and the back muscles around it.
At this stage of pregnancy, skinny ewes will need emergency feeding with concentrates as pasture will not provide enough energy for them. Concentrate feed is expensive, so make sure they all get a fair allocation which means troughs with plenty of feeding space, otherwise the shy ones that need it most won’t get any.
A month before lambing the lambs start to grow fast in utero, and udders get ready for lactation. Ewes carrying multiples (if you know which they are) will need extra special care. Scanning is the way to find out but you can also see ewes with enormous bellies and are reluctant to hurry. Watch these ewes carefully in case they prolapse with all the pressure inside from the uterus and rumen both competing for space.
Lush green pasture in late autumn and winter will always cause sheep to scour, as its high in moisture, high in protein, and high in energy but low in fibre. Don’t rush and buy drench, promoted by outrageous advertising and specials, promoting that the sheep have worms when the problem is feed quality.
The annual survey of drenches published in the farming papers for pre-lamb drenching shows that there are over 40 different products on the market, and it can be very confusing knowing what drench to use. The worst worms are Barber’s Pole in the North Island and Nematodirus in the South, so ask your vet about these, but the colder weather in May restricts their activity a lot.
Don’t drench any sheep until you get a Faecal Egg Count (FEC) done through your vet clinic, and if it is internal parasites, get vet advice to make sure you use the appropriate drench to avoid build up of drench resistance. Do not use long acting anthelmintic capsules. Worm resistance in sheep is increasing on many properties with the risk that not too far into the future, sheep and goats will not be able to be farmed.
In young sheep, internal parasites is a concern, as the build up of their natural immunity isn’t complete until they are 9-10 months old. Old ewes should not need drenching, as their immunity will protect them. It’s when they get skinny that they are at risk of other afflictions such as worms.
If you just keep on drenching indiscriminately, then the drench kills the susceptible worms and leaves the resistant ones, which then build up in numbers. Then, there’s a greater chance of resistant worms mating with other resistant worms, and so it goes on till the whole worm population is resistant to the drench chemicals.
So best practice now is not to drench the best 15-20% of a mob that look in good order, to maintain a population of worms that can be killed by drench – they are kept in ‘refugia’.
If any hoggets were big enough to put to the ram and got pregnant, they will need extra high energy feed during the next few months in the form of concentrates. Hopefully they won’t be carrying twins, as these lambs are always small and hard to keep alive. But hogget twinning is increasing in today’s breeds, which is far too big a strain on them and causing high death rates among the lambs. So generally, don’t put hoggets to the ram –if you are able to run them separately at mating time.
Lice can be a problem in winter if sheep have not been pre-winter shorn. If you see sheep rubbing on fences, then have a good look around their neck and back line for lice. They will need treating, and again with over 20 products on the market, take your vet’s advice as lice too are on the way to developing resistance to chemicals.
Don’t spend time treating sheep with chronic footrot. Culling them is the best long-term solution as they are hard to cure and remain a reservoir of infection for the rest of the flock.
If you shear about now (wool needs to be a minimum of 100mm long), make sure you are prepared for bad weather by having feed saved up for any ewes off-shears along with some shelter. Good preparation of the wool clip is important and justified no matter what the wool price is.
Thistles in wool had become a major problem in the recent dry years, as sheep have been working hard to find feed. So take time to remove all dead plant material from the wool and get advice from your shearer about wool preparation. The price has improved this season but it may still be a good idea to let the shearer take the wool as part of the cost.
Cattle need long feed, as they have no top teeth to nibble short grass like a horse. So during dry conditions, they can lose a lot of body condition and weight when pastures fail. This is a serious problem with crossbreds with dairy genes that have high growth rates and big appetites.
The old British dual-purpose breeds once fat keep their condition better, regardless of feed supply. They also produce less milk so don’t suffer the nutrient drag of lactation.
Pregnant cows need to be at Body Condition Score (BCS) of 5 for calving – i.e. they must have rounded well-covered hipbones. So if you score a cow BCS 5 as a BCS 4.5, then you have done her out of 180kg of Dry Matter to get her into calving condition as it takes this amount of DM to put on one score – over and above the feed needed to maintain the cow. See our website for an easy way to learn to assess a cow’s BCS. The DairyNZ system is too complicated.
The real worry is cows under CS 3, which under the Dairy Cow Code of Welfare are officially ‘emaciated’ and need urgent attention to rescue them before calving. To do this, you need to feed these cows what they would be getting in full lactation – and that may not be possible this winter with little green feed and only supplements of varying quality available.
It’s worth the cost of getting cows pregnancy tested, and vets will do small numbers. Then you can cull any empties if feed is short, as they will cost you a lot of feed carrying them over (called carry-over cows) until they get pregnant and calve again for the following season. Culling very late calvers is also worth considering, as they will always be late calving unless you miss a season to allow them to catch up.
Remember though, that the costs of rearing a replacement heifer will be about twice what you will get for an empty boner. People forget to take account of what it costs to rear stock – budget for about $1000. Folk seem to assume that replacement are reared for free!
The only way you can make money from a beef cow is to spread her running costs over a long productive life, and she must wean a top calf each year. A dairy cow’s maximum yield is at age 8, but few live that long due to wastage (mainly, infertility, mastitis, bloat and lameness). Beef cows should last longer with less stress on them from suckling multiple calves. Don’t expect to get these cows in calf rapidly after calving, as the draw on their milk production will be too great.
Young stock need high priority feed, as they have both to grow and also develop, and in drought conditions this is hard to achieve without the cost of extra supplementary feeding which may mean added concentrates. Forages don’t have enough energy.
Stunted stock will eventually grow and catch up to reach their mature size, (called compensatory growth) but it will take more time on the farm and more feed because of it – and this means greater cost. They will always be smaller at maturity, which will affect their productive efficiency. The best idea is to sell them when prices pick up and when farmers want mouths to eat their surplus grass in spring.
Hay and silage cost money so when feeding out, don’t let stock waste it, and if necessary, feed out twice a day, especially in wet muddy conditions. A well-designed feed rack is a good investment (provided it’s moved regularly) and a stan-off pad should be built for large cattle. Check with local regulations re effluent disposal.
Young calves and rising yearlings about now can be prone to what is called ‘autumn ill thrift’ and it can happen when the late autumn/early winter green pasture starts to grow again. Vets often struggle to find a cause from blood tests. Cattle get thin and scour, and owners immediately think it is worms. Worms can be diagnosed and eliminated after doing a FEC, but various mineral deficiencies, yersiniosis and salmonella can also be involved. Lack of fibre in the feed is the main problem so good hay helps to dry them up which is the first priority.
If cattle have been on long-term zinc treatment to prevent FE, be on the watch for copper deficiency. Get some blood or liver profiles done to check copper levels, which may be low as zinc strips copper from the liver, and is especially important on peat farms. Ginger coloured hair on black cattle and scouring are signs of low copper. Talk to your vet about how to build up mineral status in cows over winter and some extra energy from feeding molasses may be justified.
Any stock that had subclinical FE (which you may not have noticed as there was no skin lesions) will have liver damage, and this can affect them coming up to calving when the pressure really comes on their systems. They can go down with metabolic diseases such as milk fever, staggers and acetonaemia, or even abort. Check with your vet to make sure you have emergency treatments on hand and always call for veterinary help.
Humans can pick up Leptospirosis from cattle (and also rats and pigs) which is classed as a ‘zoonotic’ diseases, so check if your young stock need Lepto vaccinations (they will need two). Also make sure that any purchased stock have been vaccinated.
If you get lepto, you can be ill for months or even longer with flu-like symptoms, muscle weakness and even depression, and you may have to give up keeping livestock. So insist on basic hygiene rules after handling stock. Kill all vermin in the farm.
Regularly check cattle for lice, especially in young stock, as they can prevent calves and yearlings from thriving even cause death in severe cases through the blood sucking parasites. Ask your vet for the best treatment, as these critters too are becoming resistant to current chemical treatments. Cattle lice bite humans too!
Keep reviewing the feed situation to see what feed you have, what’s going to grow, and what supplements will be needed to get through to spring with its high feed demand. If you don’t know how to do this, get some help.
Check the financial budget for unexpected winter costs. Keep accounts up to date and pay bills regularly.
Check and clean drains so they can take any extra rain during the coming months. Some extra tanks to store roof water for the garden would be a good idea.
Rural crime is on the increase and burglars are getting more professional and brazen, and are now travelling into rural areas as groups. They are after food, fuel, small machinery and firearms. They will take the entire firearm cabinet so check it cannot be removed. And never confront them with your firearms.
Monitored security systems have limited value, as by the time the security agents get to your property, the burglars will have long gone. So make it as difficult as possible for them, as they don’t like having to spend time on the property, as this increases the chances of them being seen or photographed. Install an electronic bleeper at the gate to record any vehicle arrivals.
Keeping your front gate closed at all times, even when you are home, is the first thing you can do. Crims don’t like getting out of vehicles to open gates as people or cameras may see them.
Sharpen up your neighbourhood watch group. It’s amazing how many people on small blocks don’t know their neighbours, as they seem to be too busy to meet. Neighbours are a major line of defence against rural crime.
Regular checking of power fences and water supplies should be on going. And farm motorbikes and machinery keep on killing and maiming people. So don’t give in – keep the kids off large bikes and out of the way of working machinery.
Trim those trees on your property that are overhanging the road, as if they drop branches, you will be liable for any damage. Check your insurance cover. Also make sure a fire engine can get through your gate.