The shortest day may have gone but don’t think it’s spring. Seeing early newborn calves and lambs can fool you but they could have been unplanned matings! There’s still a bit winter to face and 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.
This year there’s also the major concern over mycoplasma bovis, so keep up with information from MPI and other official sources. One thing everyone should have learned is that biosecurity applies to every farm, large or small.
The main priority is to build up as much pasture as possible for stock in the later stages of pregnancy. Pasture is always the cheapest feed but it will never be enough, so this can only be done if you have plenty of good supplementary feed (silage and hay).
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 of course, so make sure what you feed out 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 or feed pad to put them on to protect the soil from damage. Damage from pugging smears the delicate soil crumb structure and can take a long time to recover.
So 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 on the resulting bare patches faster than grass and clover.
With rising temperatures Nitrogen fertiliser is promoted to give spring pastures a boost, but this will only work when the 10cm soil temperature is above 6°C 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 should be plenty. And note this is not kg of fertiliser, but kg of N so work that out from the N content of the fertiliser. 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 always 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.
The key point is that stock have to be well fed, and if you don’t have the feed and cannot afford the cost to buy in, then get rid of some before spring.
And in 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 wise to check your insurances, as you never know what can happen with animals escape when frightened by traffic.
The main cattle priority is always the young stock, as they need to keep growing to reach their target weights for mating if being kept for breeding, 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.
Mature cows that have only suckled one calf last year should not be a priority, and 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 calf), and they 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 breeding cows are also 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 in autumn may be much more prone to these problems when they calve.
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 as 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 statistic. You really want to know how many cows are in the lower BCS range, as any under BCS 3 are technically ‘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. Internal parasites 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 (FEC) 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 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. Make sure theses heifers have passed their afterbirth which may take a few days.
Before you decide to rear calves this spring, think long and hard about the time involved and the cost. 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.
The advice from MPI due to M bovis is to buy calves direct from the farm of birth rather than sale yards and make sure all NAIT regulations have been complied with. 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.
Check our website for information for first-time rearers.
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 and you don’t know when lambing is due to start. 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).
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 it’s difficult 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 survive.
Most lamb deaths happen in the few days after birth due to mismothering of multiples and exposure/starvation when lambs don’t find the teat and have a good suck as a good feed of colostrum straight after birth. This is the key to survival.
Check with your vet or an experienced farmer 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 so you don’t 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 within an hour after birth has little chance of survival. There are now some good proprietary colostrum products available. Use an old electric blanket to slowly 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, which will 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 looking for a teat at the right end! 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.
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 shorter feed. It’s a risky time, as a spell of cold winds can cut feed drastically – 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 available.
Keep a watch for ewes before lambing that look dopey, walk very slowly or go down, as they are most likely affected by a 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 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 can’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 the 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. Many folk now let the shearer take the wool rather than you cart it to a broker where your small lot will be discounted.
- Keep up to date with information on M bovis.
- 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 before they come into leaf.
- 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.