The shortest day is history and we have the rest of winter to face so stock get through to spring in good order. Don’t be tempted to think spring has arrived when you see early lambs and calves – they could have been unplanned matings.
A lot of nasty weather is still to come, so be prepared with a plan to look after stock that may have been struggling in the wet and cold of winter.
The main priority on the farm is to build up as much pasture as possible for all the pregnant stock. Pasture will never be enough so this can only be done if you have plenty of good supplementary feed (hay and silage), so the pastures can be allowed to grow. You can’t just ‘set stock’ leaving stock in the same paddock and expect feed to grow. Cattle and sheep need long feed to be able to ‘crop’ it, as they have no top teeth like horses, which can nibble pastures down to the soil.
When stock are forced to eat bare pastures, they inevitably ingest a lot of soil which is bad for their teeth and digestion.
Supplements cost money to produce so make sure what you feed out, little is not wasted, and that large animals like cattle don’t pug the pasture around their feed. If you feed out from racks or troughs, move them regularly or better still have a special dry area of feed pad to protect the soil from damage. Damage from pugging smears the delicate soil crumb structure.
Only feed out hay that stock can clean up, or they’ll use it for bedding and won’t come back to eat it.
Silage fed out in large heaps will burn the pasture which may take months to recover, and weeds will grow faster on the bare patches than grass and clover.
With rising temperatures farmers are encouraged to use Nitrogen fertiliser to give spring pastures a boost. This will only work when the 10cm soil temperature is above 6C and soils are not waterlogged. The boost will be short lived if other nutrients in the soil, especially Phosphorous and pH are low.
A dressing of 25kg of N/ha would be plenty. Note this is not kg of fertiliser, but kg of N so work that out from the N content of the fertiliser whether you use Urea or Sulphate of Ammonia. Urea in pellet form is easier to spread. Keep any N fertiliser well clear of creeks and wet parts of the paddock, and apply a number of small dressings rather than one large dollop.
In wet weather, up to 80% of precious feed is wasted by cattle pugging it into the soil so slways use a back fence when grazing and a mobile water trough on the grazed strip. If strip grazing in wet weather, move stock across the long ungrazed pasture and not the grazed parts to avoid more pugging damage.
Make sure the electric fence is working well (buy a voltmeter), as you don’t want stock to break out on to saved pasture and cause more damage.
If your property was badly affected by a dry summer, then you may find growth of decent pasture species like ryegrass even slower to recover, and what looks green from a distance may be Browntop and flat weeds.
But the key point is that stock have to be well fed, and if you don’t have the feed and cannot afford the cost, then get rid of stock before spring.
And these days of increasingly heavy traffic, forget about grazing the road verge as the risks of accidents and possible legal proceedings are too great. If you have a property near a road, then it would be a very wise move to check your insurance, as you never know what can happen with animals escaping when frightened by traffic.
The main cattle priority is young stock on the farm, as they need to keep growing to reach their target weights of mating if they are going to be capital stock, or to be sold in the sale yards. There are far too many skinny stock around farms in July waiting for the ‘spring flush’ which often never comes as the farm is overstocked.
So put what feed is available into the young stock. Mature cows that have only suckled one calf last year should not be a priority. Cows with beef genes are rarely a problem, as they hold their condition well all year round. Problems arise in cows with dairy genes that milk body condition off their backs while suckling calves (especially if more than one), and take more feed and more time to replace it.
Research has shown that if young stock stop growing, it takes more feed for them catch up which takes up more time, and this will have lasting effects on their mature weight and size. They will be stunted cattle compared to their peers for the rest of their days and it is a good idea to cull them.
Skinny cows are prone to ‘metabolic diseases’ such as milk fever (lack of calcium) and staggers (lack of magnesium). They may also go down with ketosis (lack of readily available energy so need glucose). Cows that have had subclinical Facial Eczema may be much more prone to these problems.
Cows should calve at Body Condition Score 5 which means they must have rounded hips, so check our website for an easy way to learn condition scoring. The DairyNZ system is too complicated. An ‘average BCS’ for a herd is regularly used by farm advisors and is a very dangerous and useless figure. You want to know how many cows are in the lower BCS range, as any under BCS 3 are officially ‘emaciated’ under the Dairy Cow Code of Welfare, and need urgent special feeding and health care. See our website for pictures of what they look like.
Skinny cows need a lot of feed and at least 6 weeks to replace condition. They need 180 kg if Dry Matter on top of feed needed to maintain the cow to gain one BCS.
If calves and yearlings have dull coats and start scouring, don’t rush to buy drench and especially not pourons – even if there are great specials on offer. Check with your vet before buying any animal health product. Worms certainly are a possibility as a cause of ill thrift, but the chances are that it’s something else or a combination of problems, and the vet may need to do blood tests or Faecal Egg Counts for a correct diagnosis.
Get all the gear ready for calving – and be prepared for the unexpected very early calf. It’s essential to save some colostrum from the first cow to calve, and put a few plastic containers of it in the freezer, which will be useful for any calf (or lamb) that may need a booster later in spring. The thicker the colostrums, the better quality it is in terms of antibodies. Don’t dilute it.
Keep an eye on any udder development in yearlings, just incases any got pregnant as calves, as they’ll need to be aborted (induced) by a veterinarian as soon as discovered. Never try to rear one of these calves if they live. It’s better to get them euthanased by your vet.
Before you decide to rear calves this spring, think long and hard about the time involved and the cost, and if you haven’t reared any calves before, then talk to some experienced calf rearer and don’t rear more than 10-12 calves to start with.
The best idea is to get these calves from the one farm in a single consignment, rather than buy them in ones and twos from the saleyard where they could have had a stressful journey to the sale and be exposed to a range of bugs from other farm’s calves. Check our website for information for first-time rearers.
If you want to rear calves to make money by selling them as dairy weaners, make sure you do a full budget and include a cost for your labour. You could be very disappointed.
Early lambs often appear as surprises and are unseen and die of starvation, as rams run with the ewes all year round on many small farms. It pays to be prepared for lambing well ahead of the expected event – if that’s known.
Modern breeds of high-fertility sheep must be kept in good body condition all through pregnancy as most of them will be carrying twins and need extra feeding to make sure their lambs are of good birth weight – which is the secret to good lamb survival. (Check our website to see how to condition score ewes).
Research shows that a birth weight of 4.7kg is optimal for survival, but it’s hard to achieve this if you don’t know how many lambs the ewe is carrying – and even if you do! Get a spring balance and weight a few twins and triplets just to see how heavy they are – and to realise how much extra care they need to ensure survival.
Most lamb deaths happens in the few days after birth due to mismothering of multiples and exposure/starvation. A good feed of colostrum straight after birth is the key to survival. An old electric blanket is the best way to warm up a starved lamb slowly.
Check with your vet or an experienced farmer neighbour about the equipment needed for lambing, and how to assist a ewe when lambing. But don’t get too clever and if you suspect complications, get veterinary help. Make sure you know how to use a stomach tube correctly to feed a starving lamb, and not poke the tube into its lungs.
Save and freeze some colostrum from early lambing ewes (or a newly-calved cow) for emergencies. A lamb that has not had enough colostrum with an hour after birth has little chance of survival. There are some good proprietary colostrum products available. Use an old electric blanket to warm up starved lambs, as it’s more effective than a dunking in warm water, which was the old trick.
Shelter is vital for survival, so erect some small lambing pens in the paddock to hold newly lambed ewes with multiples, to make sure they get properly bonded and fed in the first 1-2 hours. Don’t assume that because a new lamb has it’s head under the ewe near her udder and wagging its tail that it’s getting a full feed of milk. It’s a good idea to catch each ewe at birth to clear the wax plug from her teats and to make sure there is milk there.
Learn to check a lamb’s tummy to make sure it’s rounded and full - especially before nightfall, and feed any lambs that are clearly not getting their share. Lamb covers made of wool or plastic, or even old bread bags are ideal when the weather is wet and cold, and especially for new-born twins and triplets.
As a ewe reaches peak lactation 2-3 weeks after lambing the best feed should be kept for then, and any late-lambing ewes should be put on short feed. It’s a risky time, as a spell of cold winds can cut feed drastically at this time – and hence ewes’ milk supply. Lambs will start nibbling grass from three weeks of age so again this a reason to have some good long feed.
Keep a good watch for ewes that look dopey, walk very slowly or go down are most likely affected by the metabolic disease, commonly called ‘twin lamb disease’. It’s caused by lack of glucose providing readily available energy. Part of this problem is that close to lambing, a ewe’s appetite always drops due to the size of her uterus filling the body cavity and restricting the size of the rumen and hence what she can eat.
These heavily in-lamb ewes can so easily get stuck on their backs and can’t get up again, and they can die fast if left there over night. This is most likely to happen with ewes that have long wool from being shorn once a year.
Check with your vet about vaccinations ewes need. Modern vaccines cover a whole range of diseases and come in 5 in 1 or 10 in 1 packages. Then you need to know, even if you vaccinate the ewes what vaccines need to be given to lambs as boosters, or for scabby mouth, which humans can get from lambs.
It’s alarming with all the publicity by ‘Wormwise’ to reduce the advancement of worm resistance to chemicals used in drenches that the farming press is full of adverts encouraging farmers to drench ewes before lambing and with special in-store promotions. There should be no need to drench ewes at this time, as by this stage in their lives their natural immunity should cover any internal parasite threats.
Young sheep are the concern and if they are scouring, contact you vet to get a Faecal Egg Count (FEC) done on them to see if the problem is worms, as there are many other reasons such as wet feed, and high protein of any new pasture growth. If young sheep are thriving and scouring, then the chances are very high that it’s not internal parasites.
Keep a watch out for any abortions among heavily pregnant ewes. These are always a concern as you don’t often see the aborted foetus, and you don’t often get a clear diagnosis from the vet as to the cause. The are often just a one-off case, but if there are more consult your vet urgently, and make sure your dogs and cats don’t eat the foetus.
The other thing you don’t want to have to deal with is a ewe with a prolapse or ‘bearing’. This may be the entire uterus pushed out with the lambs still inside or just the vagina pushed out and may go back in again on it’s own when the ewe gets up and walks away. But whichever it is, seek veterinary help as soon as possible, as amateur attempts at fixing thing often lead to the death of the ewe and her lambs – which inevitably will be twins. Also mark the ewe for culling as the chances are high that she’ll have to same problem next year.
Dag and crutch all dirty ewes before lambing. If you pre-lamb shear then make sure you have extra feed and shelter available after the wool comes off. Wool is still worth preparing well, so check with the shearer the correct way to prepare it for sale. Many folk now let the shearer take the wool rather than you cart it to a broker where your small lot will be discounted.
- Check your current financial budget and watch for unexpected expenses such as having to buy in more feed.
- Pay bills regularly and keep your farm records up to date
- Keep a farm diary to record when jobs were done.
- Check all machinery is serviced ready for spring.
- If you have an ATV, get a helmet and a roll bar fitted. Even look at extra clip on wheels for the rear.
- Check power fences and water supply.
- Clean out all troughs and put mesh over them to prevent young lambs drowning in them, but making sure they can drink from them easily.
- Prune all trees overgrowing roadways and buildings.
- If trees are threatening power lines, contact the correct authorities for advice before any action.
- Check you farm security system as rural crime is on the up again with increasing drug use driving petty crime.
- Bikes, even the kids’ bikes are popular, along with the meat in freezers, alcohol, electric and electronic goods, chainsaws and even ag chemicals and animal health products.
- Keep your gate closed at all times as burglars like a fast entry and exit. Reverse the top gudgeon so they can’t lift it off
- Get a bleeper on your driveway so you know when somebody is arriving. Video surveillance may be worth the cost too.
- Do a regular backup of all computers.