The long warm autumn days have been good for urban folk, but rural folk have been hoping for a decent rain (not so-called showers) to fill tanks, ponds and restore ground water. The showers we had didn’t do much, and there are still plenty areas that will be suffering the effects of serious drought for a long time. The comments of the TV weather forecasters show their massive ignorance of farmers’ needs, and whoever writes their scripts should get out more!
June is planning time for next season, and surprisingly in these last few years, spring has arrived early with few frosts like we used to get. But don’t rely on this pattern repeating itself, and be prepared to feed out plenty of supplements as breeding stock are in mid pregnancy, where feeding them well is the major priority.
Hopefully, you’ll have your own supplement and don’t need to buy it in, as prices are at their highest from June with conventional hay bales costing anything from $8-12 if purchased in small numbers, and large bales being very hard to handle. Why doesn’t somebody invent a cheap tool to cut up silage and hay in large bales?
June is an ideal time to work out if you have too many animals, especially if you don’t have enough hay or silage to make up the pasture deficit. Pasture plants need time to produce leaf, which is their food factory, so this means ‘rotational grazing’ rather than the usual ‘set stocking’ where plants never get a chance to recover. But for rotational grazing you need many fenced grazing blocks or paddocks, which many don’t have.
Pasture has to be long enough for stock to graze, and for cattle who use their tongues to crop the herbage, this means at least 10cm high. Horses with both top and bottom teeth can nibble down to the soil, but cattle are unable to do that, and if they are forced to try, they end up wearing away their bottom teeth and eating large amounts of soil which is bad for digestion.
Good pasture and stock management means knowing the total pasture growing on the farm at any one time – called the ‘pasture cover’ (expressed as total DM/ha). Around 2500kg DM/ha is minimal for cattle and 1200kg DM/ha for sheep. You can measure this with a plate meter, or you can learn to do it by eye.
Beef+LambNZ produce a pasture ruler or a scale to stick on your gumboots to give a general guide. This is a very crude guide but better than nothing. If you have a dairy farmer neighbour, he/she will show you now to measure pasture and use one of the many computer packages now available to see from a feed budget if you have a pasture surplus or a defecit.
An important issue with late autumn and early winter pasture is feed ‘quality’ and not just feed ‘quantity’. Lush green pasture is low in Dry Matter (DM) so has a high water content, it’s high in protein and energy, but very low in fibre which is important for good rumen digestion otherwise stock scour and most of the nutrients go too quickly through the digestive system. So winter pasture is a very unbalanced feed hence the need for supplements.
Normal winter growth rates for the North Island are 15kg DM/ha/day, but after 2-3 frosts when soil temperatures start to drop below the critical 6°C for ryegrass growth, they will be less. With hard frosts in the South Island, growth rates per day can be zero. So this means the deficit has to be made up totally with good quality supplements, so the ‘condition’ of your stock is the best guide to their health and future performance.
But different stock on the farm have different feeding needs, and these will vary over time as they grow, get pregnant and lactate. There are tables to provide these data (see the website), or talk to a consultant or farmer who does regular feed budgets.
Farm advisers and fertiliser companies regularly recommend the ‘strategic use’ of Nitrogen to boost pasture production, as it’s cheap to buy and easy to apply in granulated form. But you need to have a good ryegrass content in the pasture and the 10cm soil temperature needs to be above 6°C, and the ground is not waterlogged.
When conditions are right you can get a 10:1 response or better, which is 10kg of pasture Dry Matter for every 1kg of N in the fertiliser applied. This could happen in a couple of weeks or less, but if it’s cold and miserable, it may take three weeks or more and the response could be lower, and it could be leached before the plant roots take it up. But mid winter is not the time to apply any fertilisers.
Now, with so much concern for the environment, be careful to keep the spreader well clear of creeks and wet parts of the paddock, and it’s also better to apply a number of small dressings of under 20kg N/ha rather than in one large dollop.
If there is a mild spell and pastures really take off, then don’t let them get too
long (e/g half way up your short gumboots or over 4000kg DM/ha). What happens then is that the long ryegrass leaves fall over and shade the other plants, especially clover, so the base of the plants go yellow and start to rot.
If you get down and part the grass leaves, you’ll see large areas of bare soil around the individual ryegrass plants. The answer is to put stock on to eat off the top and let some light into the bottom of the pasture.
The biggest sin in winter is to damage the delicate soil crumb structure of the soil in wet spells. It’s interesting to dig a few spade spits across the paddock and examine the soil carefully, seeing how deep the tiny root filaments go down, and how many worms there are. You should get at least 3-5 worms per spit. Smell the soil too which should be a very pleasant aroma.
So pugging the soil is the big no-no. There’s no point in seeing the long-awaited, highly-nutritious spring pasture having grown at considerable expense, being pushed down into the soil by cattle. Sheep are generally not a problem. So if it’s going to be a wet night, take cattle off pastures and put them on a pad, and use a back fence when grazing and a mobile water trough. Just leaving stock to stand in a race where they cannot lie down in comfort is not now acceptable on both environmental and welfare grounds.
The need for a simple stand off pad is becoming an essential for large cattle when it’s very wet. But contact your local authority for design details to avoid pollution from effluent runoff. Bark and tree peelings are popular but can be expensive, but you can offset this by using it as valuable compost after keeping it for a year or so.
Grazing stock on the road verge when feed is short is now a highly dangerous practice, as an accident could lead to all sorts of trauma ending up with massive insurance issues. Don’t do it!
Get a soil test done if there hasn’t been one done for over a year but leave any fertiliser application till the end of winter. Lime is one product (not a fertiliser remember) that could go on in winter if soils were dry to avoid damage by vehicles.
Weeds never give up and they’ll keep growing in a mild winter (especially Californian thistles), so if you had a bad weed problem last season, start planning how to deal with it now to get the timing right. Timing of weed spraying is the key, so you have to be able to recognise weeds in the early vegetative stages, long before flowering or seed heads appear in summer.
In the North Island, the main job in June is to check if pregnant ewes are in top condition for lambing, as during a ewe’s peak lactation at about 4-6 weeks after lambing, she uses up a lot of her body reserves. So learn how to score a ewe’s body condition with your hands, as wool cover can confuse looking at sheep from a distance (see lifestyleblock.co.nz website).
Some North Island farmers time mating to lamb in June to catch the early Christmas premium market, but as pasture is short, extra feeding is essential – and it has to be high energy grain based and not just silage or hay. So be prepared for the extra expense and the extra work in providing shelter and care. It’s a combination of wet and cold which kills lambs, but in dry cold conditions if they are getting plenty of milk and shelter, they will do well.
Modern very-fertile breeds should never be allowed to get thin as they all produce plenty of lambs at birth. However multiple lambs have lower birth weights and more will die due to exposure and starvation. The optimal birth weight is around 4.7kg so smaller lambs are difficult to keep alive.
Skinny ewes will risk going down with metabolic diseases (milk fever, staggers and sleepy sickness) and die, and it’s a loss you cannot afford. If ewes are below their ideal Body Condition Score (see our website) at this stage, you’ll need some high energy concentrate feed to rescue them, as silage won’t have enough energy. Grain based feeds are always expensive so make sure they are not wasted. Hay is no good as an energy feed for ewes.
Make sure the replacement ewe hoggets are not neglected over winter, as they need to keep growing to make decent ewes later in life, and be productive to at least 6-year- olds. If you have any cull any hoggets to sell as meat, remember to get them off before they show their first pair of permanent teeth to qualify as ‘lamb’. And also note the withholding period on any drench you may give them which will affect when you can sell them for meat.
If sheep start scouring over winter, especially young sheep, don’t assume they have worms and need a drench. The wet feed intake could be the reason. Due to the rising build up of drench resistant internal parasites, only drench on the basis of a Faecal Egg Count (FEC) and with vet advice.
Even if they have a high FEC (over 500 eggs/g of faeces) and are looking healthy – avoid drenching them as this is using the new concept of ‘refugia’. This ensures some worms susceptible to the drench are left, which will mate with the resistant ones and so slow up progress towards total resistance. Total drench resistance on a farm, means that you cannot run sheep on the property any more which can affect the capital value.
Mature ewes should not need to be drenched, especially before lambing, so be wary of advertising hype and sales promotions, which says this is needed to stop the worms from the ewes infecting the lambs. Lambs sucking their mothers and getting a high dose of immunity in the colostrum should be protected from any parasite damage until they are older, and start eating large amounts of grass and competing with their mothers for feed.
If rams were harnessed at joining, you‘ll have a good idea of which ewes will be first to lamb to give them priority feed. Late lambing ewes can be given lower priority feed and if any ewes didn’t cycle at all they could be cashed.
If you were able to get the ewes scanned, then this accurate information can be used to determine feeding preferences – the best feed going to any bearing multiples.
If you need to shear in June, make sure there is shelter or a shed if the weather gets wet and cold as chilled sheep off shears can die fast. And remember a 60-day chemical-free period is needed before any wool is shorn and can be sold.
To decide when to shear, the wool needs to be 100mm long and take care to prepare the wool properly by removing all dags, belly wool and all short stained and raddled pieces. It’s often best to let the shearer take the wool as part of the price as it can then make a bigger consignment.
Don’t expect to make a profit from wool once costs have been deducted. With well-prepared wool you will break even and pay for the shearing, but badly prepared wool will cost you money.
Keep a look out for sheep rubbing on fence wires and posts incase they have lice. Check for them around the neck and spine, and get vet advice on what product to use and note the withholding period for meat. Lice are also getting resistant to chemicals so follow the instructions carefully.
Don’t waste time treating sheep with chronic footrot – cull them if you can’t cure them after a couple of treatments. They can be a source of permanent infection on the farm. Make sure you know the difference between footrot and foot scald, which is less serious and can be cured easily and usually goes when pastures dry up.
If you have breeding cows on the block, the main job is to get them into good body condition for calving. Generally cows of traditional British breeds that have only suckled one calf never get too thin, but any with Holstein Friesian that have been used to suckle many calves will be thin and probably will be late to calve themselves due to coming on heat late.
If cows calve when emaciated (below BCS 3), there will be on-going problems in spring and they’ll be slow to cycle and get in calf again. Having cows calving at Christmas is not a good idea.
All the official advice is that cows should calve at BCS 5, which is when they have rounded hips. But just notice how many cows you will see on dairy farms coming up to calving like that. A main reason for this is that the scoring method used by DairyNZ is too complicated to learn. See lifestyleblock.co.nz website for how to BCS cattle using an easier method.
A cow needs 180kg of DM to replace one condition score on top of the basic maintenance needs of the cow. This could equal a cow’s feed requirements at peak lactation, so plenty of supplements are needed, and it could take at least a month or more to see its effect if cows are skinny.
Young stock are a greater priority than older cows as they need to keep growing all the time. But in winter if feed is short, all you may achieve is to stop them losing weight. If they stop growing, it takes a lot of extra feed and time to catch up and reach their target weights for mating in October. Their lifetime production may be affected and you will certainly have them on the farm for much longer which is not good for making profits.
Poorly growing young stock are prone to internal parasites, but before you dive in with drench assuming they have worms (and aided by TV advertising), consult your vet about the actual cause and using a Faecal Egg Count. If it is worms then it’s essential to use the correct drench to avoid drench resistance, which is building up in cattle too, with frequent use of pourons. Do not drench mature cows.
Lice are a regular winter problem, so again consult your vet about which product to use and the withholding times for meat and milk. There are over 40 products on the market and cattle lice too are becoming resistant to chemicals.
Mineral deficiencies always get a lot of publicity and if young stock are not thriving, then check with your veterinarian about getting blood profiles done. Building up mineral reserves in the liver takes time – it’s like charging up a battery.
Facial eczema fungal spores should have gone, but watch for long-term effects of FE on stock. Long-term zinc treatment can strip the copper reserves from the liver, so copper supplementation may be recommended. (Check with your vet). Copper deficiency shows up in black cattle when their hair turns ginger coloured.
If there has been one beast affected by FE, others may have livers damaged by the toxins, so be on the lookout for milk fever at calving.
Abortions over winter are always a worry as often the aborted foetus is very small and is hard to find. Talk to your vet as soon as you see trouble, as you never know if it’s a one-off or the start of an abortion storm.
Only winter bulls on the property that you want to use next year. Any surplus bulls are a hazard and also eat feed that would be better used by productive females. Never put bulls out on the road verge to graze.
Don’t be tempted to buy calves in June to rear for sale as dairy weaners or for finishing. It’s far too early, as you’ll run into pasture shortage problems after weaning them at 8 weeks old and you’ll have to keep them inside on meal far too long to make a profit, especially if the weather is bad. Do a full budget before assuming that there’s good money in rearing dairy weaners for sale – there isn’t!
Late July or August is early enough to start rearing calves. Buying direct from the farm avoids the risks of disease risks from saleyards and the calves have minimal stress moving from their farm to yours. If you pay a little bit above the going rate, the farmer will make sure you get a good deal and will offer good advice and support.
Regularly monitor cash flow and keep books and farm diary up to date.Seek help early if needed over feed or stocking problems, as things can get quickly get worse. There’s plenty of help around, especially from neighbours or on our website. The drought has taught a lot of people about how vulnerable their water supply and reticulation systems are. June is a good time to get some help sort out what you need for future dry seasons.Tidy up trees on the farm, and make sure large vehicles (and fire engines) can access your entrances and driveway. Remember that if trees on your property overhang a public road, you’ll be liable for any damage caused if branches fall off in winter gales, so check your public liability insurance.You may get one free tree trimming from authorities if power lines are threatened, but that’s all. If you want the power cut off to trim your own trees, depending on the time taken this will cost you money.It’s also a good time to plant trees for shade and shelter. Get advice on suitable species from the Farm Forestry Association or Tree Crops Association.Remember your animal welfare responsibilities under the law, especially if your animals get into an emaciated state. Phones have cameras these days and you don’t want a legal bill on top of your feed bills.Be constantly aware of home and farm security. Burglars and stock rustlers are out in force and don’t take a winter break. The early dark nights of winter are to their advantage. Too many rural folk leave their house door keys in the most obvious places when they go out – and they leave their gate open to confirm they have gone!Keep your farm diary up to date – it’s a very useful bit of farm equipment.