21 May 2001
Despite welcome rain over the past few days, many areas of the country remain in the grip of what has been described as the worst drought ever. Because of the extremely dry conditions, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry is advising small farm owners to seek help and advice if they have any problems with the condition of their animals.
Dr Wayne Ricketts of MAF's Animal Welfare Group says there are concerns that some owners of smallholdings may not have the experience or knowledge to maintain their stock in such difficult conditions. And Dr Ricketts says the answer is for those farmers to seek out the information that is readily available. "It's really important that those with little experience with stock seek advice, because help is out there - whether it's from vets, from MAF, from farm advisers, from local councils or from stock and station agents. They could simply ask their neighbour to give them a hand.
Dave Barbour from the MAF Enforcement Unit in Rangiora says he's never seen it so dry for so long, and agrees that information is what's needed. "We know because of the prevailing dry conditions that there must be problems out there," he says. "What we don't want is for people to sit back and wait for these things to get worse, and then have to go in and deal with it. It's important that people get information and advice sooner rather than later."
Dr Julie Wagner, of the Malvern Farmers Vet Club in Darfield encourages small holding farmers to get some first hand experience of what an animal in reasonable condition looks and feels like, so as to be better able to assess the condition of their own animals. "They need to get a look at animals in the yards," she says. "With cattle, it's easier to see them getting thinner, but with sheep, it's a good idea to get your hands on them - feel down their backs, making allowances for the fleece."
In terms of drought feeding, Dr Wagner's approach is twofold. "I advise ad lib feeding of hay and I give out a leaflet on grain feeding," she says. With hay, people should make sure there's always a little bit left when the animals have finished," she says. It's important that the hay be of reasonable quality. "Once again, if they're not sure what 'reasonable quality' is, they should ask someone," she says.
Grant McFadden of MAF Policy in Christchurch agrees that hay alone is not enough in the absence of good pasture. "It's difficult to get sheep to eat enough hay to maintain their body weight," he says. "As a rule of thumb, a ewe needs 1kg of dry matter a day to maintain her weight, so that's about one bale of hay per 25 sheep. They just stop eating at that level," he says.
But the crunch time is the last four to six weeks of pregnancy, he says. "If you don't have quality feed going into that last month, you can be in trouble, particularly if you've got bad weather as well," he says. "And at this stage, it certainly doesn't look as if there is going to be green feed around for that last month - it will have to be a grain ration of some sort."
Feeding concentrates is, however, not without risk, according to Dr Wagner. She says that the safest grain to feed is oats, followed by barley, ryecorn and wheat. She warns that grain should be gradually introduced over a ten-day period - longer for wheat. "Even then, stock need to be watched," she says. "Some sheep are reluctant feeders and perhaps won't eat until the tenth day." With the higher levels of feeding at that stage, she says, an animal may gorge and subsequently die, which is particularly distressing when owners only have a small number of sheep to start with. "Gorging on grain can be reduced by feeding the hay part of the ration first," she says.
For a group of 10 sheep, for instance, Dr Wagner suggests beginning with 450gm of grain plus 9kg (1/3rd of a bale) of good hay, gradually increasing the grain to 1.3kg while halving the hay. In late pregnancy the grain can be increased to 4kg plus 7kg of hay plus meagre pasture pickings.
Dr Wagner says there's still plenty of hay available, especially if you only need a few bales. Grant McFadden agrees. "If people watch the papers - and they're prepared to pay for it - it's surprising what you can find," he says. "There's still feed being traded around Christchurch city, for instance, and a lot of it comes from smallholders - people selling 50 to 100 bales of hay through the local papers - amounts that are too small for farmers to go chasing after. It's the same for grain too." Commercial sheep nuts are another useful source of nutrition.
Finally, Dr Wagner stresses the importance of having an adequate supply of fresh water, particularly when stock are being fed concentrates. The Service Manager for the Waimakariri District Council, Ken Fox, says that the race system that serves a large proportion of the district is still providing water for stock, but none for irrigation at this point because of the low flow level in the Waimakariri. "Even so, earlier in the year we had to apply for a variation to the consent because the maximum volume that we were permitted to take [for stock] was being exceeded," he says. "But everyone appreciates the importance of having water for animals."
Ken Fox adds that there are also a lot of private wells within the district that people use for stock water instead of, or as well as, what they already get through the system that is provided by Council.
MAF's David Barbour does, however, say he's heard that even some of the well levels are critically low. Ultimately, he says, the onus is on the stock owner to provide water, even if it means bringing it in by tanker.
MAF has a pamphlet available called "MEETING THE CHALLENGE - Lessons from previous droughts" which is available on MAF's website:
Position Papers, or in hard copy from Federated Farmers. The pamphlet provides some useful information to farmers affected by drought conditions.