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Farming Diary for December

Although December is the end of the calendar year and summer holiday time, it’s by no means the end of the farming year, and there’s much to do and plan for the next three months at least. So it’s a good time for a bit of a review, and especially to ask, was all the hard work and money spent worth it? Can this be balanced by the rural ‘lifestyle’, and does everybody in the family agree with the conclusion.

The end of the year can be pandemonium with end of school, pre-Christmas preparations and family holidays. And with pastures going mad, or in short supply, it’s also time for some serious hard yakka!

Pastures

Conserving any feed surplus is the main priority, and although silage should be the first choice, it has major problems when handling and feeding out – which could be in the promised summer drought or next winter. It’s a tricky question as big round silage bales are the main option for contractors who don’t like small paddocks, as their gear gets bigger and pressure on their time and costs increases.

Very few contractors make small bales using small conventional hay balers. And in any case these small bales are still too heavy for one person to lift.

If big bales are your only option to deal with a spring surplus, you can always sell them in the drought or in winter or late spring when large farmers are getting short of supplements. This could easily be the case this year.

The problem with hay is that so much of the original feeding value in the original pasture is lost, as by the time the crop is mature enough to make good hay, plants have lost their leaves and gone to seed, and it’s a high Dry Matter (86%) fibrous feed with little energy and protein left. But hay is easy to store and easy to feed out in conventional sized bale of around 20kg.

In times of feed surplus, don’t panic into buying more stock to eat off surplus feed, as there could be little profit in them the way the current meat schedule fluctuates. A possible option is to borrow some big hungry cattle such as boner or ‘carry-over’ dairy cows, and rotate these around to knock off the seed heads and let the light into the bottom of the pasture to encourage new growth. Younger stock won’t graze this type of feed with any enthusiasm, especially if it has been trampled and dunged on.

You could also just let pastures to go to seed. This is often called ‘deferred grazing’ or ‘standing hay’ which can then be strip-grazed when the drought hits and into winter. It has the added key benefit of preventing the soil from drying out in the summer sun when soil evaporation rates can exceed 3-4mm per 24 hours.

This standing hay is poor quality feed but has also the advantage that a lot of seed will fall to the soil surface, which can then germinate next spring. But it also allows weeds to mature and go to seed too, especially docks, thistles and ragwort, so it’s a good idea to either pull or cut these before they seed and blow across the district.

So-called ‘balage’ can be a problem, so be very wary when people start talking about enthusing it. In theory it’s made from a silage crop that got too mature (above 15% seed heads when cut), and if true to label, should be around 40% Dry Matter.

But balage can also be hay that got wet, so if you are offered any, make sure you open enough bales to check what it was made from and that it’s not mouldy. Check especially for docks, which have seeded, so only buy ‘baleage’ as a very last resort.

Assess silage quality by the ‘twist test’. Take a good handful and squeeze it hard, and if liquid comes out between your clenched fingers, then it’s above 20% DM and really too wet to be top feeding value.

It’s always a good idea to use up or get rid of hay more than one season old, and the start of a drought is a good time to do this. Although it will keep much longer, the feeding value is very poor and the bales will be full of dust and could be mouldy too, which is bad for stock and humans. It’s only ‘fill belly’ and a lot will be left lying around the paddock – which the stock will love to lie on.

Also use up any old wrapped silage, as it does not really keep well after a second season, even with extra wrap. Silage in a good sealed pit will keep for over 10 years, but is not an option any more, with wrapped bales being so easy to make. Never feed old mouldy silage - use it as mulch around trees.

The last thing a busy stressed silage/hay contractors wants is to be held up. so before they arrive, make sure your property is ‘contractor-friendly’ with wide gates that swing easily or lift off, no rubbish left around, and no metal electric fence standards and chain harrows left buried in the grass. Use a white plastic electric fence standard to mark and protect any water pipes on the surface, and check that water troughs have not been leaking and causing a bog in which the tractor can easily get stuck.

Check the contractor is on target and that you give them plenty of notice - and remember they don’t control the weather. They probably haven’t eaten all day when they arrive, so have a cold drink and a snack ready. And pay them soon after they leave. Keep all pets, children and interested visitors form town away from all moving machinery operating in the paddock.

Sheep

There are far too many young lambs running about on blocks in December, due to late mating of ewes as the rams are running with the ewes all year round. These lambs never grow and fatten in the summer dry, which also stops their mothers coming on heat. So this system repeats itself, and it stops any profit being made from the enterprise, as no lambs will reach market weight till mid winter. And you’ll have all the animal health costs to add too.

The only real way to make money is to have as many prime lambs as possible for sale before Christmas – and have no tail-enders hanging around all through summer.

This then allows you in December to have a good sort-out of the ewes you want to keep for breeding next year. Check their udders and teeth and get rid of any with physical defects. However if they are physically sound and in good body condition, they’ll easily last another year regardless of age. If you have a surplus of good ewe hoggets (last year’s lambs) to bring into the flock and they are big enough to be mated (above 45kg), then you can cull deeper and get rid of more of the older ewes. These are making good money this season.

Ewes being kept need good feed to build up their body condition so they’ll come on heat in the first cycle when the ram goes out in the New Year. This joining date should be planned on when there is good spring grass on your block, as young lambs need milk to grow, and if there is little of it, then the ewes will milk it off their backs and lose condition rapidly. Lactation is a much greater strain on an animal than pregnancy.

Get rid of all surplus stock before the Christmas holidays and when pastures will start to dry off (which will be about a month later for South Island sheep). Another reason for a good clean-up is that you can bet on prices falling in the New Year, and especially if it gets dry. And you have minimal stock numbers on the farm over the holiday period.

Think of all the costs involved in keeping small store lambs – assuming and hoping that they will grow and fatten over the summer. There’s worm drenching, crutching, shearing, spraying for fly – and they will be eating feed that would be better left for the ewes to put on condition on them after weaning.

So get rid of as many lambs as possible before Christmas so there’s less work and worry for the family going away on holiday. Also, get rid of the small ‘rats and mice’ and take the loss rather than trying to put weight on them, which will add to the cost. There’s always somebody who will buy them thinking they are a bargain.

Ewes get daggy with all the fresh feed and will need to be cleaned up before shearing, unless you can do a deal with the shearer to dag while shearing. This is a bad practice for many reasons as the dags dirty clean wool, and the shearing profession considers dags to be a health and safety issue – which they certainly are.

Crossbred wool from breeds like Romney, Coopworth and Perendale is currently making disaster prices, which will not pay for shearing. But to get any price for it at all, it has to be a maximum of100mm long as modern machinery cannot handle longer staples. So with short-wooled breeds like the English Down breeds, once-a-year shearing is best. But with strong-wooled breeds you need to shear twice, once in winter and once before the rams go out in March (in the North Island) – again aiming for that 100mm staple length.

It’s only the clean ‘body wool’ that’s worth anything, so keep it separate from all other bits and pieces, dags and especially raddle marked wool. Talk to your shearer about how to do this - and let him/her take it as part of their charge.

Wool merchants are complaining about thistles and plant material in wool so be aware of that if weeds are dominant and sheep lie under shelter belts or hedges in the shade.

It’s hardly worth shearing lambs, but unshorn lambs are prone to flystrike even if they are not dirty, so it’s wise to get their wool off when the ewes are shorn. Don’t dip or treat any sheep for lice for 60 days before shearing, and talk to your vet about the correct product to use as lice are now developing resistance to chemicals.

There is always a massive promotion of worm drench and lice treatments in December using free Christmas hams and other goodies. This is completely irresponsible, with the clear evidence now about the rapid increase of resistance of internal and external parasites to chemicals. Worm drenching should only be done on the basis of a Faecal Egg Count (FEC) and veterinary advice about which is the best product to use.

Ewes should not need drenching, despite what the ads say, as their natural immunity should have been developed after the yearling stage. There is no major immune development in sheep after 10-12 months of age. But again check with your vet using a FEC if concerned about parasites.

To help build up ewes’ condition; apart from good green feed (which is hard to find when it gets dry), they need plenty of clean water and shade. Sheep relish willow or poplar prunings which are also mineral rich, so plan to feed these as part of a summer pruning programme, and maybe plant more next autumn to future proof your property against more droughts.

Have the rams organised in good time for mating, and if you really want early lambs, then if ewes are in good order and fit, rams can be joined late December or in January in the North Island. But if you don’t want early lambs, keep all rams well away from the ewes. Double check that there are no ram lambs still around that have been missed at docking and culling, as they can cause problems and are always keen to mate ewes.

Facial Eczema (FE) is being found in more areas of the North Island and even in the South Island, as summers get earlier, longer and drier. This causes more dead litter to accumulate on pastures on which the fungus grows and produces toxic spores when rains start and humidity rises.

In the North Island, Facial Eczema precautions should start in January, so decide what you are going to use as a prevention method. Zinc boluses are very popular and easy to apply, but discuss this with your vet.

If you are into sheep farming for the long term, the best deal is to buy rams from a breeder who has been selecting for FE resistance over a number of years. There are plenty of these rams available these days. Contact the SIL website for details.

Applying lime has also been shown to reduce spores as well as trace elements to encourage earthworms and the microclimate in the bottom of the pasture where the spores reside.

Today’s sheep are getting heavier, so trying to catch and handle them without decent facilities is a hazard for you and the kids, as well as for your vet and the shearer. You don’t want to spend Christmas, or visit family in hospital with broken limbs or ribs caused by a 80kg ewe or a 110kg ram that knocked you over when it went past in a hurry.

So think about taking some time during summer to sort out the sheep yards and see our website for ideas. Yards are not cheap to build, but are essential if you are keeping sheep over the long term. The key features are a narrow crush pen and a drafting gate on the end of it. And gates that swing!

Sheep measles is on the rise and Ovis management is working hard to get people to take notice and act. It’s caused by a parasite that infects both dogs and sheep, and the problem is that it produces cysts on the muscles of sheep meat, which are seen when the skin comes off. It severely downgrades the meat. The solution is to make sure your dogs are regularly doses for the various internal parasites they carry (check with your vet), and don’t let anyone bring a dog on to your property unless they have a recent treatment certificate. Town dogs are not exempt!

Cattle

Young stock like dairy-weaner calves are the highest priority and must be kept growing if at all possible. They’ll certainly stop growing as soon as it gets dry and the green feed matures or burns off. On good green leafy pasture they should be gaining at least 1kg/day, but if it gets dry 0.25kg/day or less would be more realistic.

Feeding out supplementary feed like silage rather than hay may be justified, but do a proper feed and financial budget if you have to buy any in. It would not be economic to buy in concentrate meals. Do not buy Palm Kernal Expeller (PKE) to feed to young stock. Plenty of good water and shade is important for these young stock.

Check with your vet about calf vaccinations against blackleg if they haven’t been done. Leptospirosis is on the increase so check with your vet about vaccinating calves and pay attention to personal hygiene after handling stock– especially for children.

Lepto is classed as a ‘zoonotic’ disease, which can be passed from animals to humans and there are a number of strains of bacteria involving pigs and rats with the end result being very debilitating. If anyone gets lepto twice – they must leave farming, as a third infection could be fatal.

Remember cattle FE prevention needs to start in January too, so talk to your vet about which method to use. Zinc oxide in the water trough is easy to apply but not reliable and the better deal may be to protect stock with a rumen bolus, which needs care when applying. Get someone experienced or your vet to do it for you and it’s best if you have a headbail.

If you have breeding cows, most of them in the North Island should have been mated by now, but there may still be some later calvers to come on heat over Christmas. You really need to decide whether these would be better culled to keep the calving period shorter, and not have bulls running around waiting for a cow to come on heat.

Bulls are a major liability on the farm, especially with strangers around over the holidays when the bulls don’t have enough cows still coming into heat to keep them occupied. Make sure they cannot visit your neighbour’s cattle or get out on the highway looking for work.

Never graze bulls in the roadside verge – and in fact with the way modern traffic is these days, don’t put any stock on the roadside to graze as the costs of an accident could bankrupt you.

As soon as a bull has finished his work, and if he’s not needed again, get him on the truck to the works. And get rid of all surplus cattle before Christmas and before it gets dry in the New Year. This may mean quitting some as stores that you intended to fatten, and make you more money by early sale when potential buyers will have grass about. The market dies when it gets dry.

Wean as many calves from beef cows as possible and give them the best feed. This is what the text book says, but on small blocks there are few separate paddocks to allow feed to build up, so the best deal maybe to sell calves straight off their mothers.

Use their dams to clean up any rough feed on the farm while they build up their condition again over summer. But again on most small blocks that are overstocked, there isn’t any rough pasture feed around so it may mean feeding out old hay to get rid of it first. Mature cows can handle dry conditions as long as they have good water and shade.

Business

  • Update the farm diary and keep all records up to date.
  • Pay accounts regularly and if you have financial problems, get help sooner rather than later.
  • Bankers hate surprises, especially at Christmas.
  • Leave a present (definitely non-alcoholic) in your mailbox for your RD person. They are very important part of the rural environment.

Christmas security

Rural crime gets worse every year, and the crims are more sophisticated stealing to order, and getting rid of their haul has never been easier. As times get tougher, sadly more people (both urban and rural) are prepared to buy (especially on the Internet) what must clearly be ‘hot’ property. Drugs now are a major part of modern life which fuels crime, and criminals are getting younger and more professional and are travelling in groups from one city or town to rural areas using night-vision gear.

Here’s the annual checklist.

  • Find out who are your neighbours and how reliable they are.
  • If happy with them, tell them when you are away, and that a ‘block minder’ will be around (part-time or full-time), and the car they will be driving.
  • Get your minder to meet your neighbours if possible.
  • Be vigilant for anything strange, like stock panicking or strange people or cars arriving at all times of day or night.
  • Beware of anyone driving in saying they are looking for Joe Brown, a lost dog or they’ve come to pick up the pig!
  • Always keep your road gate shut or locked when away. Reverse the top hinge to stop anyone lifting it off.
  • Burglars are opportunists – so don’t leave ‘starter kits’ like farm or garden tools, ladders etc around that can be used to enter your house.
  • Fuel, ATVs, ride-on mowers, chainsaws, sprays and drenches are popular for resale. If offered these items, get the vendor’s details and report them to police.
  • Put a lock on the freezer – it will only be cosmetic if real crims are after food, which is now a popular item.
  • When you go away, tape the plug on the freezer into the socket and put some rat poison down the back to prevent you coming home to floating contents!
  • Don’t rely on guard dogs. They are no problem to professionals – a bit of doped meat soon deals to the dog, and nasty guard dogs are a danger to friends and especially your own kids.
  • Double check the boundary fence if it is next to the road or highway, as you’ll be liable for any accidents caused by escaping stock. Check your personal liability insurance.
  • You are also liable for any damage to the highway or vehicles from falling tree branches and trees that have grown near power lines. Seek advice over any pruning you want to do near power lines.
  • Also check that trees around your gateway will not block access for fire engines.

Block watcher’s guide

If you get someone to check your block when you are away, make sure they know where to locate these items:

  • Farm map with the ‘grazing rotation’ clearly marked.
  • Main power fence control and earth peg(s).
  • Spare fencing gear (posts, standards, fencing pliers, wire joiners, spare wire, insulators, rammer, spade and a sledgehammer).
  • Small hand tools and power tools, nails and screws.
  • Fire extinguisher in house and farm shed.
  • Spare gate, gate fittings and some netting.
  • Main water control to turn supply off.
  • The water pump. Show them what each part of the pump does, and which is most likely to breakdown; the contact number of the fix-it person.
  • Treatment for bloat in cattle and blowfly in sheep.
  • Vet’s number – daytime and after hours.
  • Electrician’s number.
  • Phone number for silage or hay contractor and when are they expected to turn up, and if so, which paddocks are to be done.
  • Supply of baler twine and No 8 wire for all situations!
  • First aid kit.
  • Rat and possum bait.
  • Walk the property with the minder to cover the important issues, especially the farm hazards.

Christmas farm safety

From December on, there are always a lot of extra people around on a small block, and many of them are not ‘farm-wise’. Can they climb a barbed-wire fence or can they recognise the hot wire on an electric fence before accidentally making an earth contact!

  • View all these extra bodies on your property as ‘hazards’ both to you and themselves, as a farm is a dangerous place because of Machinery, Animals and Chemicals.
  • You need to decide how to deal with hazards when you are home, and especially when you go away.
  • Farm bikes (both two and four wheelers) are the main killers and maimers of people. There’s somebody hurt every day on an ATV.
  • Don’t blame the bikes - it’s the humans and the confusing law, which is doesn’t help. Look at the confused messages about roll bars on ATVs.
  • So you can either let the kids or visitors run riot on the farm bikes, and hope nothing will happen, or make the bikes OFF LIMITS.
  • You’ll be hated for this, but it’s a much easier option than visiting hospital daily for weeks or months, or making your house wheel chair friendly. You decide! You could so easily end up with only the memories. It’s just not worth the gamble.
  • To give the kids something interesting to do over the holidays, buy some traps for vermin and pests, and with information from the Internet, let them develop a trapping programme for the farm – and pay a bonus for their catches.
  • If firearms are an option for rabbits and possums, and especially for night shooting, take the opportunity to teach the strict rules of gun safety.
  • The other important option as it is firewood time, is never allow anyone to use a chainsaw without some instruction and leg and head protection. Expect trouble here too, with all sorts of reasons why they don’t want to bother – the main one being that it’s too hot! Tell them that the chain on a modern high revving saw moves at over 100km/hour and they can’t move the saw away from their legs that fast!
  • Guns. What young male doesn’t want to go shooting? Keep all firearms locked away according to the code of practice. And only allow shooting under close supervision.
  • Ponds and creeks. You can drown in an inch of water!
  • Offal holes. These are killers as if you fall in one; the carbon monoxide may kill you before you are found. Make sure there is a massive heavy concrete cover on every hole being used, and that old full ones are covered too as when the contents rots, holes can appear when the sides fall in.
  • Make sure all boxes of matches and cigarette lighters are well hidden away from children so they don’t become playthings.

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