November is a critical month for pastures as the rain we get now dictates growth for early silage. If predictions are right about a dry summer, then early silage has never been more important. Grass and clover should be bursting out of the ground in most parts, certainly where regular fertiliser applications have been applied. But as you drive around, there are still a lot of bare pastures, which in many cases suggests too many stock. But things can change quickly so be prepared to work out how you are going to handle the surplus pasture when it arrives – and what to do to be prepared for a possible dry a summer.
Silage is the way to preserve the greatest amount of nutrients in the original pasture. It’s far too early to think about hay, which at best only preserves about 15% of the original nutrients.
But we all know that silage has problems as contractors’ machinery is designed for large farms, and produces 800kg round bales, which are a pain to feed out. Small square bales are a good option as it’s easier to remove small slices from them, but few contractors want to bother with them and they add to costs. These bales are still heavy to handle for one person.
Talk to your silage contractor about the best time to cut (usually when 15% of seed heads are showing), and how long the cut grass should be left to wilt to increase its Dry Matter (DM) content. If the cut grass gets too dry, it’s harder to compress in the bale to squeeze out all the air and ensure a good fermentation. If this happens, then the result is called balage and is of lower feeding value than silage.
Also, talk to your contractor about additives to help the fermentation, and don’t stack bales more than two high and fence them off from stock immediately. Anything that punctures the bales (rats, magpies and pukekos) with let air in and moulds will grow and lower feed quality, as well as being a health risk to handlers.
Grazing the surplus
If you don’t want to make silage from surplus pasture, then just graze it off by rotating what stock you have quickly around the block, accepting that this will be wasteful, as a lot of the pasture will be trampled into the ground and rot, and even slow up the subsequent growth.
A solution could be to buy in extra stock but this has problems with cost as it’s what is called ‘the grass market’ when everyone else wants to buy stock to eat surplus grass too. It’s no good buying young stock like dairy weaners or yearlings, as they are expensive and don’t eat enough to make an impression on long pasture. ‘Forward stores’ which are near to finishing are good, but they also are expensive as they are in big demand at this time of year.
A good option for a small block needing hungry mouths is to buy skinny ‘boner’ dairy cows, which will have been starved on a dairy farm, and will willingly devour anything they are given. For a range of reasons the sale yards have these skinny old girls all year round which is a terrible waste. The good thing about them is that they are quiet to handle, are always hungry and you can sell them on a weight basis direct to the works when finished. Buy the smaller Jersey x Friesians types as they won’t pug the paddocks like large Holstein Friesians do and they’ll be cheaper. They will have had a varied history, probably empty, or culled because of mastitis.
Make these ‘mowers’ work hard, and rotate them around quickly to eat the top off while trying to avoid flattening too much grass into the ground in the process. Then make them come back around again after a few days to clean up, especially cocksfoot clumps. Often mowing some of the area they are going into before grazing will encourage them to eat more and avoid waste from trampling. If they are not making an impression on cocksfoot clumps, slash these off with a weed eater.
You may be able to borrow some big cattle from a neighbour (e.g. a dairy farmer). These are a good option, but don’t take up any offers of calves, goats or sheep – and certainly not horses.
On really lush pasture if stock are scouring, a bale of hay will help their digestive system and you’ll get your hayshed cleaned out at the same time. Don’t offer hay to stock that is more than two seasons old, before checking for mould and dust. Use it as compost or mulch. In any case, cattle on good green pasture are not keen to eat hay and they only use it to lie on.
The priority is to get pastures under control for December and January, and this will get things properly set up for any drought ahead. You can always sell silage bales that you don’t need when things dry out.
If pastures are not growing well by November and getting ahead of the stock, then there’s something seriously wrong. The two most likely causes are overstocking and low soil fertility. A wise option may be to get rid of stock on the principle that the first loss is often the least one if the market is not good.
Checking soil fertility is always important, especially if pastures are just not growing. Get down close to the plants to see what’s growing – how much grass, what plants they are and what are the weeds which may be crowding out grasses and clovers.
Weeds love the spring flush and unless you identify what’s growing early, it may be too late. A good example is to see paddocks blooming yellow with buttercups, and massive thistles and docks left after grazing Do as much hand grubbing of weeds as you can to avoid the cost and human health problems with chemical sprays. There’s good information on the Net to identify these plants.
Lambs should be growing fast and competing with their mothers for grass, with good lambs growing at 300kg/day. They may be sucking their mothers with great enthusiasm still but they won’t be getting much milk. It’s only the very late lambs that may be still getting milk from their mothers.
So it’s a good time to start making plans for weaning and keep the lambs growing on the best feed if you want to get rid of some before Christmas when prices are high. The other reason is to give the ewes a rest and build up body condition after lactation.
Early-born lambs should be over 20 kg and getting near 30kg live weight. Use the bathroom scales to check a sample of them. Some should be good enough to grade prime for the early export market, and will be in short supply this year. Get quotes before selling them privately if possible, as a small lot at the local saleyards where you’ll have transport, commission and yard fees to pay.
Don’t neglect the ewe lambs to keep for replacements, as they need to be well-grown and over 40kg if you plan to mate them as hoggets in Autumn.
It’s time to get the wool off sheep in most parts of the country. This dictates when you shear rather than the time of year, remembering that the Animal Welfare Act says that sheep must be shorn at least once per year. Sadly wool is still a disaster in terms of profitability and is not likely to change as far ahead as the market goes in the next few years.
The market (for what it is) doesn’t want wool longer than 100mm and it will be discounted. Book the shearer and as ewes will be daggy, check if the shearer will dag them for you, or it will need to be done beforehand. Dags are considered a health hazard for shearers these days – and rightly so for everyone!
Whatever the price of wool, it’s always important to do a proper job in preparing it. Contamination of fleeces with thistle heads is now a serious problem so removing all vegetable matter is important, along with dirty and stained wool. It’s only the main ‘body wool’ that is worth decent money. Put the dags around the fruit trees! If you don’t want to face all this work, let your shearer take the wool so it can make up a decent lot for a merchant. Lamb’s wool has dropped in price too, but shearing lambs is important to reduce the risk of blowfly attack.
Lambs can get dirty while suckling and when scouring on lush grass so they’ll need to be cleaned up too as the Aussie green blowfly will certainly be active early in the season. Before considering spraying to prevent flystrike, remember that wool buyers won’t accept wool treated with chemicals for at least 60 days before shearing.
Before drenching scouring lambs assuming it’s worms, check with your vet to see if worms were the problem and if the sheep need a drench. A decision should be based on a Faecal Egg Count (FEC), and it’s very important that the correct product is used to prevent drench resistance building up. Don’t be misled by advertising hype and promotional giveaways coming up to Christmas such as free hams and fishing rods!
Ewes don’t need a drench, as their immunity should be adequate to protect them. If they are scouring and daggy, and are not obviously looking skinny and anaemic, then it’s probably some other problem that would be worth checking. The most obvious one is lack of feed!
Don’t panic if you see tapeworms in lamb faeces. Sections of tapeworms look horrible but generally do little harm and the problem is not long lasting. If they persist and lambs stop thriving, then seek veterinary advice.
Current best practice is to leave some of the best lambs in a mob undrenched so they retain worms that are susceptible to drench chemicals. This is described as the worms being ‘in refugia’ and it’s hoped that these susceptible worms will mate with drench-resistant worms, and slow up the rate of total drench resistance. It’s theory, which seems to have worked from recent trials. Drench resistance is rising rapidly and there are no new drenches on the way to counteract it.
The end of the month is the time to plan to sort out the ewe flock and identify any ewes that need culling. Get rid of them as soon as possible as they are good money at present. Get rid of all ewes with persistent foot rot but remember you can not offer lame sheep in a public saleyard.
It’s also time for early ram sales to start thinking about any ‘keeping rams’ for next season. Ram breeders are now taking orders and rams sales are underway. A ram’s job is not just to get ewes pregnant – it’s to introduce genetic improvement into the flock, so money spent on good rams with performance records is well spent.
And you don’t need to buy a stud breeder’s very top rams. Because the genetics in recorded stud flocks are so far above commercial flocks these days, a below-average ram in a stud will be a great improver in your flock, and they will be cheaper. It’s a good idea to talk to a stud breeder and see if he/she as an old ram they have used in past years and which they’d be happy to sell or lease for a season. This would give your flock a massive genetic boost.
Don’t keep rams so long that they will mate their own daughters. This is inbreeding and can lead to lower performance of their progeny. If you keep old rams from previous seasons, then get them vet checked.
Dairy weaner sales are still going in the North Island, and prices have been good for top calves. Buying good dairy weaners on a weight basis is regularly a better idea than rearing calves from birth when folk forget to add in all the costs – especially the labour involved. Check what vaccinations young stock need with your vet. Blackleg and Lepto would be two important ones.
If you are selling any calves, to get the best price, offer groups of similar sized calves that are clean around the rear end. By law you cannot offer animals with health problems for sale, although you see plenty of calves at sales that should never have left home, and the agents are very remiss in accepting them.
If buying dairy weaners to grow on, only buy healthy ones. Make sure that they have been properly dehorned with a cauterising iron so horns won’t grow again – and cost you veterinary charges to get them done properly later. Meat works now charge a penalty for slaughtering horned stock as they can cause damage to hides, meat, slaughtering facilities and handlers.
If you get a stock agent to buy weaners (or any cattle) for your block, make it clear that you don’t want stock with horns. If this is ignored – refuse to unload them and change your agent.
Cows suckling calves with still be milking well and need plenty of feed, and fast growing calves will be eating a lot of grass in competition with their dams. So any cows that have been suckling more than one calf will be getting thin with all the milk they are producing, so wean some of the calves if this is happening, as the drain on the cow’s body reserves will delay them coming on heat when the bull goes out.
If weaned calves are not doing better than 1kg/day right now on pasture without supplementary meal, then you need to find out why. They could have a health problem such as worms so check with a veterinarian.
Keep a regular check on cows’ teats and udders for damage which can lead to mastitis – the signs are ‘pain; heat, swelling and redness’, and this will require urgent veterinary attention and antibiotic treatment. An obvious sign is cows kicking their calves when they try to suck. Big calves with sharp teeth can damage teats causing cracks that mastitis bugs get into, and then sucking spreads these bugs to other teats. Watch for any late-born small calves that are too small to empty out all the udder quarters, which can be a potential mastitis hazard too. You may need to get the cow into a yard and strip her out fairly regularly to stop unsucked teats going dry.
Don’t assume that calves need regular drenching for worms – as a lot of advertising hype will tell you this, to encourage sales (especially around Christmas) with promotions like free hams. If calves start scouring, talk to your vet before buying drench as the problem could just be lush pasture and may not be worms. If they have worms, they’ll be losing weight and not thriving. Drench resistant worms are increasing in cattle now, especially the Cooperia species and the overuse of pouron endectocides is the main reason as they are much easier to use than oral drenches. Also check what vaccinations calves will need – e.g. blackleg and Leptospirosis (for heifers).
On North Island farms it’s time to turn the bulls out. All bulls used should have been vet checked and they should top your farm ‘hazard’ list for yourself and family, all visitors and regular handlers, as they are highly unpredictable. Never turn your back on a bull and always have a strong stick handy – and a keen farm dog if possible.
If you take strangers into the paddock with bulls, keep a careful watch and sometimes bulls are very territorial at mating time and don’t like what appears to them to be new threats. There’s nothing more unpredictable than a friendly bull! All bulls should have been dehorned as calves regardless of breed!
All leased bulls coming on to your property should have been tested for TB, BVD and now Mbovis. All reputable suppliers of leased bulls are highly reliable and guarantee this now. They will immediately replace a bull with any problems.
It’s very important to make sure bulls are serving properly and that cows are cycling regularly and returning to oestrus. If cows are not holding to service, then consult your veterinarian for prompt action. Every cycle missed delays calving next year by at least three weeks.
If you are using AI on the herd without an expensive hormone therapy programme via your vet, have an early check on ‘Submission Rate’ to see how may cows have come on heat, and how many have returned to oestrus and in what intervals. Get your AI technician to explain these data used to see how the programme is going.
If results are poor, the first thing to check is the accuracy of heat detection – so get help if you are not confident about this. It can be a big problem with a single cow on her own with no other cattle to interact with to show mounting behaviour, so you can decide when she is coming on and going off heat, and hence the best time for insemination. A friendly heifer may mount you so be watchful when at close quarters!
Theileria gained a lot of publicity last year but it seems to have gone quiet as an issue this year. Theileria is a protozoan parasite, which cycles inside the life cycle of cattle ticks and has been a new threat on North Island farms causing anaemia, loss of appetite and depression and it’s feared that it will spread to the South Island with the movement of cattle. It can also be spread by wildlife such as rabbits and hares and even domestic pets. If you have ticks on your block, and new stock arrive with ticks carrying Theileria, then your ticks and your farm will be permanently affected. Talk to your vet about the current situation. DairyNZ produced an excellent booklet on the topic.
- Get to know your neighbours.
- Make plans for a dry summer with a good supply of supplements.
- Keep in regular contact with your silage/hay contractor.
- Update all records and especially your farm diary.
- Pay bills promptly.
- Talk to your bank manager early if you can see cash flow problems coming up.
- It’s coming up to the end of they year holidays, so increase your farm security as livestock are increasing in value and rustling is on the increase.
- It’s time to start planning to cut firewood for winter. Don’t every start a chainsaw unless you have a full set of safety gear and have had some training.
- Farm bike and ATV accidents continue, so take some drastic steps to stop young folk (or inexperienced adults) being killed and maimed on these machines. Facing the arguments is preferable to hospital visits, making wheelchair access around the house - and funerals!
- Zoonoses (like Leptospirosis) are diseases shared by livestock and humans, so remember basic hygiene after handling stock, and teach children about this.
- Summer is a good time for thieves to visit your property, knowing that you will be away often. Check your security.
- Do NOT graze stock on the road verge any more.
- Prune the trees in your entrance so large vehicles like ambulances and fire trucks can get in during emergencies.
- Prune trees overhanging highways before they get into full leaf. You will be liable if branches break off and damage cars or people.