After the wet winter, farmers in most areas have been struggling to build up a feed surplus for calving and lambing as soil temperatures were slow to rise up into the teens which starts pastures to grow. Far too many folk have confined stock to small areas, pugging them into mud with devastating effects on soil structure.
Remember the old saying that ‘grass grows grass’ – in other words, the leaves are the factory to grow feed to send to the roots, again to produce more shoots. Unless you leave a ‘residual’ of at least 1100kg DM/ha or 50mm long, regrowth will be very slow. Cattle can’t eat below this level. Only horses can (and will) graze down to the soil – which does serious pasture damage, as the plant’s growing point is totally removed.
It’s important to remember that spring pasture is by no means a ‘balanced feed’. It has very low Dry Matter (DM), massively high protein, which is not compensated by the carbohydrate (sugar) levels, and it’s extremely low in fibre which is important for good rumen digestion. So much of what goes into the front end of a ruminant in spring comes out the other end and is wasted, especially protein as urea which is the big nasty of environmental degradation.
Learn to identify the main grass species in the early vegetative stage, as barley grass and bristle grass needs to be sprayed early before they ever gets near to seeding. It’s of little use spraying when the flowering heads are shedding seeds.
It’s too early to see much growth in the semi-tropical grasses like paspalum and summer grass, as they need a 10cm soil temperature above 12°C. Everyone in the north of the North Island knows Kikuyu and how hard it is to manage as it smothers all other plants. It’s spreading south now too, especially along highways.
Bristle grass seeds are being blown along highways by passing traffic and then spread into paddocks. Check your roadside verge and learn to identify it long before it seeds. Check the Internet for information.
Clover is so important in a pasture, as apart from being highly nutritious, the bacteria that live in the tiny white nodules found on its deep roots provide free nitrogen from the air. The ideal pasture is 30% clover and 70% ryegrass, but this is very hard to maintain and seems to have failed in most dairy pastures these days, with the recommended use of large amounts of Nitrogen fertiliser to boost grass growth. This excess nitrogen can also have major problems for the environment.
Clover plants need light and are easily shaded out by long overgrown plants and weeds with large leaves like docks. Healthy clover wont’ grown on low fertility soils – so again, fix the soil fertility status by getting a soil test done fairly soon.
The key concern this month is how fast pastures will recover from winter to provide enough feed for all the extra mouths now grazing and competing with their parents You cannot afford to waste one blade of grass when growth takes off, as it doesn’t come free of charge.
It’s a good exercise to make a 1 square meter frame, and throw it at random over the paddock. Then get down and estimate how much is actually grass (especially ryegrass) and clover, how much of the area is weeds, and how much is bare soil and dung patches. You only get good feed from the grasses and clovers. Keep doing this through the season to see how things change – for better or worse.
Learn to recognise Cocksfoot, which will keep on getting rank if it’s not cleaned right off. Stock will only keep trimming the outer leaves and the inner tuft just keeps getting bigger. This really needs slashing off to get it into a more palatable stage, and then kept well grazed. Cocksfoot is a good pasture plant but must be carefully managed.
If pastures are really devoid of grass and clover, you can’t do much about resowing pastures right now. But see what the weed population is going to be like, and make plans to deal with it. This should be to spray thistles when in the young rosette stage, as well as seedling ragwort and docks.
If a spring flush doesn’t arrive, then it’s likely that you are wintering too many stock, and hopefully you will still have enough good silage left over from winter to fill the gap. Hay may save an emergency if it’s decent quality, and not more than one year old, as stock will not be keen to eat hay older than that unless they are desperately hungry. Always use the oldest hay first when stock will eat it, otherwise leave it till the weather is really cold and stock are very hungry and there is no pasture to eat.
The other reason for slow spring growth is low soil fertility, so you need to get a soil test done, and put some fertiliser on in autumn – and especially some lime. The pH of the soil (which measures acidity) needs to be around 6.5 for pasture.
If soil nutrients are dangerously low and off the chart, put some fertiliser on as soon as you can, but don’t do the entire farm in one go as you need rain to wash it in before grazing. If stock ingest too much superphosphate for example, it can be toxic.
Running out of feed is a regular event in spring, and it can be very expensive if cash for emergencies is not in the budget. Supplementary feed when the supply is short is usually at crazy prices. It’s so often in the ‘second grazing round’ when trouble strikes and pastures don’t regrow quickly after the initial grazing.
You may be advised to apply some Nitrogen fertiliser like Urea to give the late-growing pasture a boost. For example 25kg of N/ha, but this will be disappointing if the other major soil nutrients like Phosphate and Potash are low, and especially if the farm needs lime. If you do nothing else, put some lime on as soon as you can.
Weeds love spring, especially thistles and ragwort, so learn to identify them correctly and get advice on what should be done in the young leaf stage. Don’t leave them till they have built up massive root reserves and have seeded in mid summer to spread around the district like so many folk do.
So much pasture is wasted in wet spells by cattle pugging the when pasture is pushed into the soil with their hooves. These holes then fill with water and with more trampling, the soil damage gets worse, as the delicate soil crumb structure is turned into slime. Farms of now need more standoff pads if the soil has to be protected.
By now this season’s lambs will be growing fast and eating large amounts of pasture in competition with their mothers, whose milk supply will have peaked. People forget that ewes reach peak lactation as soon as week 4 after lambing and you can see this by the way they don’t stand for long to let lambs suckle. They move away quickly after their lambs arrive to bunt them up off the ground as they grow!
Docking should be over but there is still a welfare problem with lambs having their tails docked too short. Stud breeders are some of the worst offenders when you see their rams at sales – they have no tail dock at all to highlight their rear ends!
See the Sheep Code of Welfare available on the MPI website which says that the tail dock should cover the vulva of a ewe lamb, and the equivalent in the male. This allows lambs to ‘wag’ their docks and helps when passing faeces and keeps them cleaner, as close docking damages the peritoneum-anal sphincter muscles.
Some farmers are claiming that there are growth benefits from not docking, especially for lambs sold before Christmas, but there is still some doubt about this and it would be wise to dock correctly until there is more information.
Work out your flock’s ‘lambing percentage’. There are many ways to do this, some of which fudge important issues like how many dry/dry (barren), and wet/dry ewes (lambed and lost lambs), there were. These poor-performing sheep must be included in the reckoning, as you want to see where any problems were for future improvement. Ewes that were dry or didn’t rear a lamb to weaning without a good excuse need to be culled.
The best figure is ‘lambs docked/100 ewes to the ram’ and should be well over 120% these days regardless of the breed of sheep. Most lamb losses are at birth and in the first 4 days after birth. But high fertility is not the only target, as you could be much better off with fewer lambs that were all ready for sale before Christmas and the summer drought which is being predicted. This avoids a lot of work and cost on the farm over holiday time with concern over blowfly and the cost of spraying/dipping.
It can be very disappointing to find large lambs suddenly dead in the paddock from now on, and the chances are it’s one of the Clostridial diseases such as pulpy kidney and tetanus. Talk to your vet about the flock vaccination policy as despite what the ewes may have been given before lambing, the lambs could benefit from an emergency booster shot.
Also check with your vet about mineral levels, as lack of selenium is sometimes found and can be the cause of ‘sudden death syndrome’. There may be mineral deficiencies because of the farm’s soil type.
The advertising pressure for farmers to drench sheep is endless (accompanied by attractive promotions), and there is little notice being taken for advice from the ‘Wormwise’ programme. Check the Wormwise details on the Internet. Do not drench lambs at docking as they don’t need it. Only start considering drenching lambs at weaning - if they need it. The standard rule now is not to drench any sheep before some definitive evidence of internal parasite infection from a Faecal Egg Count (FEC).
And don’t drench mature ewes, as their immunity levels should solve their worm problems. If ewes are really skinny, the problem is more likely to be lack of feed prior to lambing. Because of the concern over increasing worm resistance to anthelmintics, and even with egg counts of above 500 eggs/g of faeces (epg), if the animals are thriving and not looking ‘wormy’ or anaemic, then don’t drench. Five hundred epg is the level vets often use to recommend drenching but it’s too low and you often end up drenching the whole mob.
The big move now is exploit the concept of ‘Refugia’ where you leave the best 20% of a mob of sheep undrenched, so you leave some worms alive that are susceptible to drench. These then mate with the resistant worms, to delay total drench resistance. Not may farmers realise that once all the worms on their properties are resistant to the drenches available, that’s the end of sheep farming and the value of the property could be badly affected.
All dirty ewes need to be dagged, as when it warms up and even before that, the Aussie green blowfly will be active early in the season. Be aware that when you yard sheep, dirty ewes can spread their dags to their lambs, which can then get flystruck too. So don’t pack ewes and lambs up too tight in pens if they are dirty, especially over night waiting for the shearer.
Be constantly on the watch for flyblown lambs. You may only see wet oily looking areas on their wool and they are clearly stressed trying to nibble the blown areas. They can die a horrible death in only a few days and may never be seen lying under a hedge in the shade.
Ewes and growing lambs need plenty of good clean water. Young lambs at this stage do a lot of playing and race around, especially in the evenings. So cover open troughs with mesh or put some large rocks in them to prevent drownings. Tomos on farms are great hazards for lambs (and children) so fence them off.
Check the length of the wool on all sheep, and if it’s at least 100 mm, book the shearer to get it off to hopefully get the best price – which won’t be much. The processor does not want longer wool now.
At shearing, you will need to remove all dirty and stained wool, along with any contaminated by vegetable matter. So only send the body wool to the merchant, or better still, let the shearer take it all off your hands. In large flocks shearers do not dag sheep as it’s a health hazard, but they may agree to dag any small numbers of sheep for you. You need to check this.
The saleyards are overflowing with 4-day-old and spring-born ‘feeder’ calves, and there’s always plenty of demand by both old and new rearers. But don’t be fooled that it’s profitable as this is not always true, as few do a full budget including their own labour costs before they start off – especially first-time rearers. Decide if it’s a commercial enterprise or treat the exercise as a hobby. So often profits can be killed by a problems like scours and deaths, which are common. Even vets’ bills can ruin the job before treatment costs.
Early calves are often expensive and the cheaper calves are plentiful later in the month. If you want really good beef animals to grow on, consider buying weaners that somebody else has reared, and which at the main dairy weaner sales are sold on a weight basis. So you can do a good estimate of what can be made from them on $/kg when sold.
Bull calves grow fastest and find a ready market as dairy weaners, but never rear bulls to market weights on a small block for mature beef. They pose far too many hazards.
See our website for information for first-time calf rearers, advising folk not to start with too many, and to buy them in one batch from a single farm and not in the saleyards. Pay the farmer you buy them form a premium, and he/she will make sure they’ve had 2-3 days of colostrum before you pick them up. This is the key to all calf rearing success.
Saleyard operators deny that calf diseases (especially scours) can be spread at calf sales, but apart from that risk, two transport trips in a day, being shaken about and stressed in crowded conditions, should be avoided where possible. Calves may stand or lie down in outside pens at saleyards on cold concrete in cold weather, which is not good for their health and welfare.
Never buy small calves that appear cheap, or calves with a lot of Jersey genes in them to rear for beef, as you’ll have them far too long and they’ll rarely grow into profit. Calves should do at least 1kg/day when in the shed on milk, meal and hay. There is a mass of information on calf rearing put out each spring, much of it from commercial sources pushing their own products.
At weaning off milk, calves need to go out on to good clean pasture to keep costs down, so they’ll grow without the need for more meal. It’s vital that calves at pasture have good shelter and shade, and especially clean water. They should not need to be treated for any internal or external parasite problems before consultation with a veterinarian. Worms may only be a problem after being on pasture for a long time.
All calves need to be dehorned (or disbudded) before six weeks old, and this now requires pain relief. The hot cauterising iron does the best job. Don’t use caustic paste, as the finished job is unpredictable and the paste can keep on spreading and burning the skin, often making a painful messy end result.
Age of dehorning depends on the size of the horn bud, as some Holstein Friesians will have large buds at birth and can be dehorned very early. Small Jerseys will need to be left much longer. There needs to be a complete cauterised ring around the horn bud as this is where growth takes place.
If you buy dairy weaners in the saleyards, check they have been properly dehorned, or it will mean more expense later, as after 9 months of age, a veterinarian will have to do the job using anaesthetic. If you send large cattle to the works and they have horns, this will cost you a financial penalty for slaughtering them. Horns cost the industry large amounts through meat bruising and hide damage, which you never see until the hide is removed. Horns are also a danger to other animals, stock handlers and meat works equipment.
Calves sucking cows should be growing well so keep their mothers on good feed, with good quality supplements if feed gets short to keep the cows milking. Cows that are multiple suckling calves will be slow to come on heat. A trick to try is to remove the calves for 24 hours to see if it triggers oestrus in the cow, but it’s not very reliable. Hormone treatment is often needed with two vet visits needed, so can be expensive.
Rising yearlings going to the bull next month should be approaching their target weights (see our website) and showing plenty of oestrous activity. Watch the neighbour’s bull doesn’t pay a visit, so put an extra hot wire on the boundary fence anticipating his arrival.
If you are going to use a bull for natural mating, it’s time to sort out what you will need, and where to get him. If you have kept bulls from the previous season, it may pay to get the vet to check them for any problems with their working parts.
Well-grown dairy calves of Holstein Friesian origin (and even some Jerseys) will come on heat, and may get mated when suckling their mothers with the bull running with them. If rising yearlings get pregnant, they must be aborted as early as possible, which is a job for the vet. Never let these calves calve, as they’ll never grow into decent animals later in life, and the calves born will be too small to rear and need to be euthanased.
If you lease a bull, check with your vet what tests are needed and that the bull supplier can provide a certificate to prove they have had all the appropriate tests.
If you intend using AI on the herd, then contact your vet or AI service provider now, as there are a lot of issues to sort out. The main one is whether you are going to synchronise a cow with hormone treatment (which involves hormone treatment and vet visits), or whether you are going to let the cow cycle naturally and you call the AI service.
Check our website on the important points of an AI programme. The key for a successful AI programme is to be able to recognise when a cow is in ‘standing heat’ and to know when to inseminate her. Cows ovulate after their oestrus behaviour (mounting others and standing to be mounted) has ended, so the ideal time to inseminate is when they have just gone off standing heat.
Cattle of all ages must always have a good supply of clean good quality water - so keep troughs clean all year around. A mature dairy cow drinks 70 litres a day, and more in hot weather and when she’s suckling calves.
Stock of all ages will scour in the spring, mainly because of the large amounts of water in the pasture. Spring is also the time when worm larvae hatch (called the spring rise) and crawl up the wet pasture to be eaten to re-infect the animal and start the cycle again. A heavy parasite load can cause scouring, but do not treat any cattle for worms before talking to your vet about a Faecal Egg Count (FEC) and the correct product to be used – to make sure the problem is worms. Mature cattle should not need a drench.
The excessive use of pourons in the past (being easy to apply) has caused a major drench resistance problem with mainly Cooperia worm species. If oral drenches are recommended, then you’ll need some good facilities to drench them safely as they get bigger. So this supports the decision to only drench on good evidence that internal parasites are indeed the problem. Most often on small blocks, when cattle are not thriving, it’s a feed shortage caused by overstocking and not worms.
- Check the financial budget.
- Update financial records and pay accounts regularly.
- Check that all cattle on the farm comply with NAIT regulations.
- Get a soil test done and get someone to interpret it to find out what fertiliser is needed. Do not believe companies who say they can treat the whole farm with their special mix (often in liquid form) for a very low cost.
- Knowing the basic nutrient levels of the soil in each paddock is essential so that you can keep them within the recommended range for optimal pasture growth.
- Make sure you have a hazard policy – for both your family and visitors to your property. OSH may want to see it if there are problems.
- Bulls can be killers – and especially the over-friendly ones that are not afraid of humans. So get rid of them the day they have finished their work.
- There will be children around the farm at lambing and calving, and they’ll want to play in sheds where there are scores of things that can fall down. Buttons on machines are just asking to be pressed and keys left in vehicles turned!
- Insist on personal hygiene after children have been with livestock.
- Get rid of all old chemical containers correctly, and make sure there’s a clearly written name on the outside of all containers to show what’s inside. It’s best to tie a luggage label on them.
- Criminals are very busy in spring, and lambs and calves are so easy to steal.
- Record any suspicious activity you see on the website . It’s an online map designed for farmers to anonymously report and track suspected stock theft.
- Double check your personal liability insurance if you have paddocks or trees near a highway, as you may be deemed responsible for accidents or damage to people and their property.
- Never graze the road verge with stock any more.