Pasture and feed management
Pastures should be starting to grow in the North Island as the 10cm soil temperature gets at least 10-12°C but soils won’t warm up if they are waterlogged. There are still a lot of cold snaps to come, and a lot of bare paddocks that will take a long time to respond, especially if the farm wintered too many stock. Now’s the time of year to realise this and keep the supplementary feed going.
In many years, when you think things are coming right and the grass is starting to take off, along comes a cold snap which stops things in its tracks – called a classical ‘pinch period’ which can last a few days to a week or more. This is another reason why you need some good supplementary feed ready.
Plan to use up any hay or silage that is two years old, as it deteriorates in feed value if kept for longer. The chances are high that it may grow mouldy and and is only good for compost. It’s very dangerous to feed mouldy hay or silage to stock – and breathing in any dust from it is bad for human health too.
The way weather patterns change, it’s a good idea to record when the first signs of a spring flush appears on your farm, as this is the key to deciding when lambing and calving should start. Running out of feed for lactating animals suckling their offspring, and causing a nutritional check at this critical stage can be disastrous. This is when young animals need all the milk they can get and they are also building up their immunity from their dam’s milk.
So many highly stocked dairy farms illustrate poor pasture management where cows are almost made to eat the soil, while the farm tries to build up a bank of feed in front of them for calving. They eat their feed allocation of pasture and silage in a couple of hours, and have to spend 22 hours looking at each other! This practice does great pugging damage to the soil especially after heavy rain. It look as if the cows have ploughed the paddock.
Applying nitrogen to give spring pastures a boost has been a standard recommendation for many years. But now with more concern over N in the environment, any N applied should be done with care, especially to avoid waterways and drains, and only applied in small applications of no more than 25kg N/ha at a time.
Nitrogen fertiliser will only work well if soil temperatures have warmed up above 6 C, the soils not waterlogged, and the sun is shining most days. Then you can get a good 10:1 response or better which is 10kg of pasture Dry Matter for every 1kg of N in the fertiliser applied. This could happen in a couple of weeks or less, but if it’s cold and miserable, it may take three weeks or more and the response could be lower.
But remember that a response to nitrogen will only be worth the cost if the other main nutrients in the soil (P and K) are at optimal levels. So it would be a good idea to check when the last soil test was taken and what may need to be fixed. The pH of the soil is the first one to check and put right with lime.
In these mild winters that most parts have been having in recent years, weeds have never stopped growing, especially Californian thistles and ragwort, so make sure you can identify them and treat them now with the correct product, and not when they have flowered and seeded the district. They also take up space in the pasture, which cuts down the available grazing area. Check Growsafe to learn about safe use of chemicals.
Lambing is well on the way in many areas, but there will still be plenty of ewes to lamb, and it’s important to give all ewes carrying multiples (if this has been confirmed by scanning) plenty of care, as their appetites drop close to lambing so feeding some concentrates is a good idea.
If not scanned, you can usually pick ewes carrying multiple lambs close to lambing as they have very large bellies and walk very slowly if driven quietly around the paddock and will be last in the mob.
Keep a close eye on them in case they go down with metabolic diseases – especially calcium deficiency and ketosis (twin lamb disease). Make sure you have the correct treatments well before lambing and you know how to use them.
Today’s sheep breeds are all capable of lambing twins and triplets, and these create a massive demand for milk so as lactation reaches a peak at about 4 weeks of age you need to make sure milking ewes are really going into good feed and not grazing bare pastures like the lawn.
Triplets can be a problem if milk is short, though many farmers now leave them on the ewe if she has plenty of milk and don’t foster one off. Fostering a lamb on to another ewe can be a challenge and it’s best done at birth when you can cover it in plenty of birth fluids, and you give it to the ewe to lick first. Get some temporary shelter organised for newly born ewes and lambs. Lamb covers are also a very good option.
Many farmers graze their triplet ewes them ewes with twins (and never singles) so a stray lamb can always get a feed somewhere in the confusion of multiple lambs. But this is not guaranteed, and close watch is needed all the time to make sure all lambs are feeding by checking they have full bellies. A ewe with a single lamb will never be confused and let another lamb sneak a feed.
To avoid confusion, mark multiple lambs at birth with similar raddle spots and check they are always mothered up correctly, especially before they settle for the night. Any lamb with an empty tummy needs a feed of some extra good quality milk or colostrum replacer, as it’s obviously not getting enough milk from its dam.
There’s always a danger that late lambing ewes are forgotten about and overfed, as which can lead to large lambs and difficult births (dystocia) or bearings- where the vagina or uterus is pushed out. Don’t try to fix bearings yourself as it risks the death of both ewe and lambs.
Watch for early-born lambs getting bunged up with sticky yellow faeces, especially in windy weather when the faeces dry quickly. And don’t skimp on the iodine on the navels of newborn lambs, especially as lambing progresses and as the favourite lambing spots get dirty. If overused lambing spots get too muddy, fence them off so ewes have to find other cleaner spots to lamb.
Docking will have started in many areas, and should be done before lambs are 4-6 weeks old. Too many lambs have tails docked too short so read the Sheep Code of Welfare (on MPI website). You’ll see that the correct length is where the dock is left long enough to cover the vulva on a female, and a similar length in the male. The dock should be long enough to wag, which then doesn’t damage the muscle around the anus which helps the lamb to pass faeces without soiling its rear end.
Check with your vet about the flock’s vaccination programme, so if you didn’t vaccinate ewes pre-lambing, check what vaccines lambs will need on your particular property at docking. Pulpy Kidney vaccine is an important one. Vaccinating ewes before lambing is one less chore to do in the lambing paddock. Remember it takes about three weeks before vaccines start to work.
Ewes should not need a worm drench before lambing despite what all the advertising in the farming press says with around 45 different products on the market at the moment. Lambs should never be drenched at docking as they still have enough immunity from their mothers’ milk.
If you are selling all the male lambs, don’t bother to castrate the big ones as the market pays more for ram lambs, which grow faster than wethers. But castrate the small multiples as they won’t be ready for the early market and could hang around for a long time after Christmas causing a nuisance as autumn approaches as they can get ewes pregnant.
Lactating ewes need plenty of good clean water, so make sure that the troughs are clean, and that the lambs cannot drown in them when they race around. Put some large rocks in the troughs or cover them with reinforcing mesh.
If you are going to give an orphan lamb away to be reared and get it back, make sure the new carers know how to feed it, and warn them about toxic shrubs in their garden. Also make sure it get’s all its vaccinations, especially scabby mouth which can be picked up by humans. A big danger is bloat from overfeeding, so tell them to keep some yoghurt handy if digestion problems occur.
Calves and calf rearing are the main priority at this time of year.
If you are going to rear calves, especially for the first time, see our website for good advice. It’s essential that every calf gets a minimum of 2 litres of their dam’s colostrum in the first 6 hours – and then carry on giving them as much as you can to keep boosting their immune systems.
Because of the great work load in large herds these days, unwanted calves are not getting enough colostrum before ending up at the sale yards after a cold rocking journey to start their day, and then stand on hard concrete for up to 4 hours.
So rather than buy these 4-day old ‘feeder’ calves from different sources at the local saleyard buy your calves directly from a limited number of farms, as this limits all the stress on them which will certainly affect their settling in when you get them home.
Young calves are very delicate animals and are not just small cows. From then on, they need plenty of milk or high quality milk replacer, well supplemented with good hay, meal and clean water.
If you are planning to buy calves to sell as 4-month-old dairy weaners, do your costs and don’t ignore including your own labour. It costs around $240-$260 to rear a calf plus purchase price and transport, so don’t be tempted to pay silly prices for calves at the early sales which always seems to happen. August is soon enough to buy calves.
Dehorn and castrate calves as soon as their horn buds are big enough to fit into the hollow in the cauterising iron – which is usually from 4-6 weeks old depending on breed. Holstein Friesians will have buds big enough long before small Jerseys of Jersey crossbreds.
It’s now recommended practice to use an anaesthetic for disbudding (dehorning), and to do this you will have to consult your vet about the services offered. They also offer full sedation for the calf. Prices will depend on numbers and time involved. Avoid using caustic paste as it continues to burn the skin after treatment and does not leave a nice clean result.
Check with your vet what vaccinations your calves need, especially bought-in ones. Blackleg is an important issue as is Leptospirosis (which can affect humans). Many calf meals include a coccidiostats, so check with your vet that your calves will need this.
Young calves should not need treating for internal parasites, and before any anthelmintic product is used, check with your vet to see if it’s necessary. There is too much use made of pouron treatments (for both internal and external parasites) on young animals as it’s easy to apply, and this is leading to resistance to the chemicals used.
The key issue with beef cows is the Body Condition Score (BCS) which should be at least 5 for calving where the animal has rounded hips. Check our website to learn how to score cows.
A cow suckling a calf, and especially if she’s suckling more than one is producing as much milk as a cow in a dairy herd when milked twice a day. She will certainly benefit from concentrate feeding too if you expect to trigger her to start cycling in a reasonable time after calving. Often calves have to be temporarily removed to try to trigger oestrus but this does not always work and causes a lot of stress with both cows and calves.
Cows with beef genes rarely get skinny, and don’t produce so much milk so cannot suckle as many calves. Some beef breeds have large teats too, which can be a problem for a newborn calf. Whatever the breed type, check their teats regularly to make sure they are not getting cut by sharp teeth and chafed by being constantly wet from suckling.
Cows vary in their mothering ability with suckling calves. Some will only take their own calf, and don’t like calves of different colours. So don’t waste time on any cow that’s problem mothering calves – put her on next year’s cull list.
Keep cows that will let any calf suck it and so avoid ending up with wide variation in calf weaning weights. Also keep the calves multiple suckling a cow the same size, and keep taking off the big ones as they grow.
Initially a cow with a large udder will have too much milk for a small calf and will need to be stripped out at least once a day to avoid mastitis. When being suckled, make sure all quarters are being emptied and check regularly for swollen, red, and painful quarters, as they need urgent treatment for mastitis.
Regardless of how many cattle you have, it’s important to have a good safe yard for handling, and especially for a vet to examine and treat them. The longer the vet is on the farm – the bigger the bill!
Basic needs are a good solid narrow race with access to a cow’s udder, and a safe headbail to restrain the cow to get behind it for calving problems. Many small block owners try to avoid buying a headbail as are very expensive. But there are some basic ones on the market (and check our website for ideas). You see a lot of old rusty head bails, which are falling apart and never get repaired which are accidents waiting to happen.
- Rural criminals never sleep so be constantly on the look out for any suspicious activity in your area and report it to the police. Don’t confront criminals directly – record descriptions and number plates and take photos.
- Young lambs and calves are worth stealing this year, so try to keep them out of sight from the road.
- Fuel and machinery are always in demand but in spring, calfeterias are high on the shopping list too. Keep your chest freezer in a locked shed when out and always keep your entrance gate closed.
- Reverse the top gudgeon so the gate cannot be lifted off.
- Check farm supplies regularly so things are done on time, and you don’t have to waste time and fuel going to town for small items needed in emergencies.
- Check the farm financial budgets, pay accounts on time and keep farm records up to date.
- Check on water pumps, troughs, fencing and vehicle servicing. Farms are lethal places with animals, chemicals and machinery and visitors can always be at high risk – especially their children.
- Road boundary fences and gates are of special concern to avoid escaping stock resulting in serious accidents. Cattle can lick gate catches open so fit stock- proof ones.
- Do not risk grazing the roadside verge any more –it’s far too dangerous with modern traffic and the consequences could be serious. Remember to warn any contractors who come on to your place of any hazards. Have a list of them and make them sign a copy to show they were informed. You don’t want arguments over insurance later.
- Check out your need for public liability insurance, especially if you farm near a main road with trees and vehicles likely to break through fences and stock escaping.