Most farmers think they know how to manage pastures by moving stock around the paddocks, but there’s more to it than that. Pasture is the cheapest livestock feed - when it’s grazed. Silage and hay are more costly as they take time and machinery to produce, and the most costly feed is bought-in supplements.
The best way to learn to manage pastures is to lie down on your front, stick your face in a pasture, study it, and understand how it grows. Read up a lot and PLAN YOUR FEED SUPPLY WELL AHEAD!
The following sections are intended to help you understand your pastures and how to make the most of them, so you’ll keep your livestock well fed, healthy and productive.
Let’s begin with some pasture problems:
Problem 1 - poor spring feed
It’s early spring, but the season is late and your pastures offer little feed for livestock about to lamb or calve.
Problem 2 - excess spring feed
It’s a warm spring, pastures are bolting away and you are buried in feed. They’ll be growing at over 100kg DM/ha/day and you haven’t got enough stock to eat it. In addition, stock prices are high so you cannot afford to buy any extra mouths.
Problem 3 - sudden drought
It’s now early summer and your stock and pastures look marvellous. It rains regularly and the grass is still growing well. All the spring-born calves and lambs are growing like mushrooms and the milk is flowing. Suddenly, before Christmas, it starts to dry out.
Problem 4 - dealing with drought
Summer heat has turned the farm to desert and no substantial rain looks likely for weeks. The farm pastures are bare.
Suggestions to solve these problems
When spring pasture growth is poor:
- Accept that your stock will not achieve their potential for most of the season.
- Accept you have blown it by poor management decisions that should have been made months ago.
- Applying nitrogen fertiliser won’t help! It won’t produce feed for 6-8 weeks, even if the weather improves and the soil warms up.
- The law says that farm livestock must be adequately fed, watered and sheltered - so buy supplement feed - silage, hay or concentrates and feed your stock.
- Give any stock in late pregnancy some good quality feed - to boost their energy.
- Analyse how the situation developed - decide firmly that you’ll avoid this situation again.
- You only make a mistake like this once in farming!
Dealing with excess spring feed
- Panic slowly!
- Take as much of the farm’s pasture area as you think appropriate (guess if you can’t calculate it) out of the grazing rotation, and make balage as first choice, or silage.
- For top quality silage, cut it when you think there are 10-15% seed heads showing in the grasses.
- Book a good contractor and treat him/her well!
- Consider applying some nitrogen fertiliser on the silage pastures for fresh, highly nutritious regrowth.
When drought sets in quickly
- You shouldn’t have relaxed! Even when pastures look good you should be planning ahead for a post-Christmas dry spell.
- Drought can easily come early! When rains stop, the December heat soon slows up pasture growth and dries out the soil.
- Apply some nitrogen fertiliser in October - to build up a feed bank that carries you through into January/February.
- Take an early hay crop - those paddocks can be grazed again before they burn off.
- Don’t delay haymaking until the pasture plants are dried off.
- Shut up some paddocks - for deferred grazing.
- Force mature stock to graze off paddocks that have headed - these pastures will become leafy before the summer dry spell.
- Paddocks that cannot be topped (they may be too steep) should be grazed off with mature stock. If you don’t have your own - beg or borrow them, but don’t steal them!
- Top paddocks with surplus growth (to encourage leafy regrowth) before drought begins, but avoid mowing them too low.
Dealing with drought
- Sell all stock and use the money for a holiday! However, the bank manager will want to see you when you return…
- Make sure all stock have access to ample good clean water, and feed out supplements - silage, balage or hay.
- Feed supplements when the livestock need it - this avoids trouble with the law. (Current dairy advice is to delay feeding out supplements until after rain, when all the dry litter rots away. Ignore this advice.).
- If all these supplements are used up:
- Buy more supplements.
- Sell some stock.
- Graze stock off the farm.
- Nitrogen fertiliser won’t save the day - it needs rain to work.
- Avoid applying nitrogen fertiliser in hot weather - it will be lost by volatilising.