March is the start of the breeding season for many farm stock, and it has to be it needs plenty of good greed fresh feed in an ‘autumn flush’. But things don’t always work out the way the textbook says, depending on what happened before Christmas. It’s all about rain – did you get any, and was it enough to kick start pastures after what’s been a record dry summer in many places.
Skinny stock due to shortage of feed will have major breeding problems, and you can’t put lost weight back on them in a hurry.
The trouble is that the mainstay or good pastures are perennial ryegrass and white clover, and it’s now becoming abundantly clear that they were not designed for droughts. What’s flourishing (appearing as an autumn flush) and has lasted longest are the semi tropical grasses like paspalum and summer grass, which will disappear fast once soil temperatures drop.
The 10cm soil depth temperature is critical as this is grass root level. It’s always high (in the 20sC) over summer and how quickly it falls depends on a run of cold nights and frosts which hopefully won’t arrive before May. But keep watching this temperature in the Met reports as funny things can happen.
But we can’t rely on this any more and the safest plan these days is to keep stock in good body condition all season, which means overstocking must be avoided.
Don’t take much notice of average pasture growth rates published on websites for your area as these are based on long-term averages. I really don’t know why they publish them, as if you want to know pasture growth rates for your farm to do a feed budget – you’ll need to get a plate meter and measure them yourself. Or learn how to score pasture by eye from an experienced person, as it can be a tricky skill to learn. The easy-to-use pasture stick or ruler is even more inaccurate and needs to be used with care too, as it’s easy to be over generous.
The key point is that it’s important before autumn and winter to know how much pasture is growing, and will grow and how many stock it will feed, and when you will need to start feeding winter supplements. This is a ‘feed budget’ so get help if needed. You cannot afford to farm skinny unproductive stock – and in any case it’s against the law.
Don’t delay in feeding out supplements rather than grazing pastures down to soil level, as this will make their recovery even slower, and provides bare ground for weeds to germinate. Leaves are the factories for the plant to produce more leaf and food stores in the roots – to make more leaf growth.
Once the temperatures drop, the semi-tropical grasses disappear rapidly leaving bare ground for weeds to germinate. The dead thatch that lies on the soil surface building up through summer will also rot away in a few days of warm autumn rains, again exposing bare patches for more weeds to germinate.
Far too many small blocks have weed problems – especially Californian thistles which because of their underground root system are hard to kill. Their massive rhizome root stores joining up below ground. You have to keep at them all the time.
The best and cheapest way to weaken weeds is to keep cutting off their food factory – their stems and leaves, otherwise they just manufacture more food to feed the roots which get bigger and better for next season.
Spraying flowering weeds is a waste of time and money. Try to keep chemical weed control to a minimum, and used when weeds are most vulnerable in the young leafy stage, as there’s increasing evidence around the world of more chemical resistance developing in plants.
Silage fed out to stock in large lumps can burn the pasture and cattle will pug the area too standing around eating it. So don’t feed out more supplements than stock can clean up at any one time. Hay doesn’t cause pasture damage to the same extent as silage, though it may leave behind weed seeds especially docks. Cattle love to lie on uneaten hay and the leftovers soon rot and smother the pasture.
If you ever have to you buy hay, check what’s in it before bringing it on to your farm otherwise you could import docks, ragwort and thistles as well as the new threat of the bristle grasses and spear grass.
If you have left silage bales in the paddock, make sure they are well protected from stock, rats and inquisitive birds like magpies and pukekos. Silage is a source of nice moist feed for vermin, and even the tiniest hole will let in enough air for mould to grow over a large area. Moulds are a danger to stock and not good if breathed in by humans either. Keep checking stacked bales for holes and only stack silage two bales high. Never try to save money on silage wrap.
Old sheds are a great source of wasted hay, as roofs leak and spout downpipes get full of rubbish and overflow, so bales get wet and quickly rot and you may not discover this till feeding out time. Mouldy hay should never be fed to stock – and don’t breathe in the dust either as it’s a health hazard.
A lot of pastures may need renewal after a drought when the plants seem dead, and there’s plenty of advertising pressure to encourage farmers to spend money. But it’s an expensive business for a small block so get some independent advice – and not necessarily from those selling the seed! There’s always a lot of seed (called hard seed) in the pasture which has accumulated over years, and it will eventually germinate, but there’s no guarantee what you may end up with – or if weeds will beat the long dormant grass and clover seeds.
If you have reseeded, be very careful not to damage any newly sown pastures, and do the ‘pull test’ before grazing with some light stock such as sheep or calves – never large heavy animals. This test is where you grab a handful of pasture and rip it off like a cow would do – to see if the roots stay firmly anchored in the soil before grazing.
Your block will never grow decent pasture if there’s no fertility in the soil. So get a soil test done to see what nutrients are needed. If you can’t understand what’s on a soil test report, get some independent advice, as there’s far too much fertiliser of the wrong kind being used when and where it’s not needed. Fertiliser is not cheap and there are now nutrient limits imposed by councils.
Be wary of fertilisers on the market where there’s little real information from independent trials. Find a local farmer on the same soil type and check what they use and get their advice. Be especially careful to avoid spreading any fertiliser near drains, dams, creeks or wetlands.
Walk the farm with a spade and dig a spit depth to check plant root depth, and see how many earth worms you can find (10-15 is good), and maybe pasture pests such as the larvae of grass grub, black beetle and porina.
March is a good month to feed any tree prunings to stock before the leaves start to die. Poplars and willows are rich in minerals and very palatable, but be careful as stock relish all prunings (especially when wilted) from the garden, so check our website for a list of plants that can be toxic if enough are eaten.
March is the traditional time to turn rams out starting in the North Island for a July/August lambing, but more farmers are putting their meat breed rams out in January to get early lambs to market before Christmas. This is a good idea if you can get it to work, as it allows the flock to be tidied up before the summer holidays and the dry weather.
But the main challenge is to work out a joining date so ewes end up lambing when there’s enough spring pasture on your farm to feed lactating ewes well. Otherwise they’ll have to milk off their backs and get skinny before weaning, and then you have to put all their lost weight back for the next breeding season. This is a slippery management slope it’s hard to avoid.
There is nothing worse on small farms than to see lambs and hoggets of all sizes around December, covered in dags and being pestered by flies, and needing constant work and money to keep them alive.
The key is to join the ram with the ewes for only two cycles, and then keep him away from the ewes after that. This is often not possible as there are not enough paddocks or other sheep to act as companions for a single ram. If you don’t need the ram for another season, then send him to the sale yards.
The declining daylight pattern is the trigger for ewes to start cycling, but this depends a lot on their body condition and the presence of the ram which can stimulate cycling, especially if he has developed a good strong ‘Billy goat’ smell which the male pheromones which stimulates ovulation.
When a ram is joined with ewes, especially if they have been isolated beforehand, nothing may happen for at least 7-10 days when ‘silent heats’ occur. This is when ewes ovulate but don’t show outward signs of heat like seeking out the ram, tail fanning and standing for him to trial mount.
When ewes are cycling make sure the ram doing the job properly. This is especially the case with ram lambs, which are bursting with libido, but may lack a bit in technique. They very soon learn.
When using more than one ram in a mob, watch for fighting for dominance, as this can cause shoulder injuries affecting performance. Footrot or foot abscesses are the other major hazards at mating time.
A mature ram will easily cover 50 ewes and a good big ram lamb will cover 20 with ease. In some commercial flocks a top ram will be given 100 ewes or more for one cycle to maximise his genetic influence.
Fitting a harness and crayon on a ram is good to show which ewes have been mated and any that have not returned. It’s best to do this after the ram has been out for one cycle of 17 days (range of 14 -21) so if there are no ewes marked, you have time to check the ram and change him if necessary.
Use red or green crayon to start with for clarity, and learn to distinguish between a proper service mark, and a false mount mark, which will be lighter. Make sure the harness fits well, and keep checking it for chafing. An active ram loses weight fast and the harness will need regular adjustment.
Also check that the crayon is covered with trash or soil when the ram lies down, as it won’t rub off and leave a clear mark on the ewe.
If you want to put ewe hoggets to the ram, they must be at least 45kg to be able to keep them growing and produce a decent lamb. Again many blocks end up with small hoggets mated as they cannot keep them separate from the ram and they end up as stunted mature sheep with high lamb mortality and poor lambs at weaning.
Don’t dip ewes or rams for a month before mating and for 6 weeks after mating, as I have known cases of poor embryo survival, which could only have been the dip chemicals. Chemical manufacturers will not agree with this comment.
Get rid of all sheep of all ages that will not earn their keep next season or grow into good replacement stock. Check especially for sound teeth that meet the gum properly and are all present. If teeth are worn down evenly, as often seen in ewes older than 5 years of age, a ewe will be good enough to keep for another lambing provided you can provide plenty of long feed over winter to keep up body condition.
Checking udders can be a bit more difficult, as there won’t be much to feel at this time of year. Just make sure each teat looks normal, with no shearing cuts, and that there are no really hard lumps in the body of each vessel. Don’t keep any ewe for another lambing that has had mastitis, as the chances are the udder tissue will be permanently damaged.
The wool market only wants wool around 100 mm long, so shear ewes before the rams go out, and shear the rams too, as you don’t want them to be put off their work by overheating! Wool is worth little this season but it’s still worth preparing properly, otherwise you’ll get nothing for it. Talk to your shearer about preparing it and the best option may be to let the shearer take the wool.
If young sheep (lambs/hoggets) start to scour, don’t assume its worms and drench them before checking with your vet using a Faecal Egg Count to diagnose the cause. There are many causes. It’s important that the correct worm drench is used as internal parasites are showing resistance to all the different types of drench chemicals, and some flocks are now totally resistant to current drenches. Google ‘Wormwise’ to get the full details of the national programme to prevent build up of drench resistance in sheep and cattle.
Mature ewes should not need drenching despite all the advertising hype and marketing promotions to persuade you otherwise. If ewes are in good body condition and thriving, don’t be scared off by high FECs and end up wasting money on drench that sheep don’t need. The trouble with drenching is that the farmer always feels better after drenching the sheep, and so does the shop that sold the product, but the sheep have not benefitted at all, and the drench resistant worms will have had the main benefit!
You need to get very serious about Facial Eczema (FE) and precautions should have started in January as it takes three weeks for zinc supplementation to build up in the liver, which is where the FE spore toxin does the damage.
There are a few options about ways to supply zinc to stock, so talk you your vet about these, as some are not very effective. If you have been using zinc boluses, don’t use a third one as this can risk zinc toxicity. Talk to your vet about this.
If there’s a lot of stalky dead pasture around, watch for ryegrass staggers, which is caused by another fungal toxin like FE. The standard advice is to ‘move stock on to ryegrass-free pasture’ but usually there isn’t any! The key thing is if you see a few wobbly sheep around, don’t stress them and hopefully the problem will only be short lived till the rains come and some fresh green feed appears.
Never go into autumn and winter with more cattle than the farm can carry, so get rid of any that will not earn future income. Late born small skinny calves are examples. Destocking will allow any feed on the farm to go to stock that need building up again for next season. Feeding good quality supplements to young stock has got to be the highest priority.
Replacing body condition on a cow can take much longer than you think. It takes 280kg of Dry Matter to replace one condition score on a mature cow, over and above its daily maintenance requirement, so you have to start rebuilding condition after calves are weaned and not a month before calving.
If you don’t have the feed required on the farm, you’ll have to face the cost of providing it or quitting stock. It’s better to get rid of stock if you see a crisis coming and can’t afford to buy feed, rather than end up causing animal welfare problems with the risk of prosecution for skinny underfed and unhealthy stock.
Young stock such as weaned calves and yearlings are the major concern after a dry summer when the farm has been cleaned out of feed. Weaners should be kept growing at not less than of 0.5kg /day if possible, but this will require plenty of green feed and lower growth rates may have to be accepted and you may have to accept a period when they just maintain weight. Feed as much supplement as you can to prevent them losing weight, as this may stunt them for life and they will need to be culled and accepting the loss.
Young stock often start scouring even when on dry feed, but don’t drench them without checking first with your vet (using Faecal Egg Counts) as to the cause and the best treatment. It may not be worms as there are many causes of young stock not thriving and often fading away in autumn. It’s called ‘autumn ill thrift’ and can be due to salmonella, copper deficiency, and more.
Indiscriminate use of ‘endectocide’ pourons (to kill internal and external parasites both at the same time) seems a great idea, and excess advertising with marketing promotions encourage it. It has led to an ever-increasing rise in worms that are resistant to some of the main chemical drench families with the Cooperia family of drench resistant worms being a classic cattle example.
Older cattle should not need a drench, as the cause of their scouring is most likely to be something else, such as the flush autumn feed. They will certainly produce loose dung on autumn green feed and their water intake increases.
Keep up Facial Eczema precautions, and don’t be talked into stopping because spore counts may be dropping. Spores can rise quickly at any time to trigger risks, especially as stock will have been sensitised during the season by many small rises in spore counts over a long season. Young stock are a special priority for FE protection as the resulting liver damage can have long-lasting effects. It’s now accepted that affected livers never return to full health after toxin damage.
Also watch for ryegrass staggers in cattle (and horses) as being larger animals falling down when moving can damage themselves much more than sheep and goats can.
There’s also plenty of advertising promoting mineral and trace element supplements for cattle, especially in autumn. Talk to your vet about this, as checks can be made from blood, liver biopsies and sampling livers from stock killed at the works, which is the most accurate. Cattle love mineral licks but they may not be needed.
Pregnancy test any cows if you are not sure of their status – you can’t afford to pour feed into empty ones.
- Keep checking the water supply especially for leaks, as ground water will need building up over winter and it may take a long time.
- Clean troughs on a regular basis.
- Do a feed budget to see how you are placed for winter feed and if you are not sure how to do this, then get some help.
- Check financial budgets and cash flows and pay accounts monthly.
- Keep checking your home and farm security – thieves never sleep and rustling small mobs of stock on lifestyle blocks is on the rise. Thieves also target the contents of freezers – especially the beer one.
- Activate a neighbourhood support group – do you know who your neighbour’s are?
- Always keep your road gate shut, even when you are at home as you could be out on the block or in the shed and not hear an unwelcome visitor. Thieves don’t like closed gates. Fit a bleeper at your gate to provide an alert when a car drives past. Thieves don’t like those so make it obvious!
- Thieves also steal gates, so always reverse the top gudgeon.
- Be highly suspicious of farm equipment offered for sale at super low prices. It’s highly likely to be ‘hot’ so take the vendor’s details and inform the police.
- Also be suspicious of arborists who suggest you need trees trimmed for super low quotes. Ask to see their business card and details of qualifications and insurance, and don’t pay anything in advance.
- Check any trees overhanging the road or power lines, as you will be liable for any damage caused by falling branches in autumn or winter storms.
- These days NEVER graze stock on the road verge – the legal implications from possible accidents are just too great. And remove all post and fence standards from the verge too.
- If you bring your laptop home from work – back it up every day before leaving as it may not get home, or disappear from home!