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Sunday, 01 March 2009 07:09

Farming Diary for March

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march sheep


After another dry summer, and serious drought down the east coast of the South Island, substantial autumn rain cannot come soon enough. The main worry in March is how much will we get, and what will grow afterwards. Hopefully it will be a nice autumn flush of ryegrass and clover but it could be a mass of weeds as well.

March is a time for major management decisions, with rainfall the key issue, and soil moisture deficits always low, which can take months to return to normal. You should view March as the start of a new season with fresh autumn feed and breeding seasons starting for sheep, goats and deer, and maybe planned autumn calving.

Don't take much notice of average pasture growth rates published on websites for your area as these are based on long-term averages. If you want to know the exact pasture growth rates for your farm to do a feed budget – 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 needs to be used with care too.

The key point is that it's important to know how much pasture is growing and how many stock it will feed, and if you will need to start feeding winter supplements. Stock must be fed adequately under the law!

Growth of autumn pasture is very dependent on the 10cm soil temperature which you need to watch carefully, as it can hold up well after an the first frost with fine days, but can plummet in a very short time with more frosts along with pasture growth rates.

Don't delay in feeding out supplements rather than grazing pastures down to soil level, as this will make their recovery even later, and provide bare ground for weeds to germinate. The leaves are the factory for the plant to produce more leaf and food stores in the roots – to make more leaf growth.

Hopefully the semi tropical 'summer grasses' (paspalum, summer grass and crowfoot) will hang on through March till soil temperatures really drop below 6C. They will disappear rapidly at the first frost 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 week of autumn rains, again exposing bare patches for more weeds to germinate.

This dead thatch is the ideal medium for fungal growth, especially the Facial Eczema fungus (Pithomyces chartarum) where the rapidly developing and highly toxic spores can be found at the base of the new grass plants.

Far too many small blocks don't make a proper job of getting rid of weeds like Californian thistles, which in March are still looking green and healthy. Californian thistles are real drought survivors with their massive rhizome root stores joined up below ground.

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 next season.

If weeds have reached the flowering/seeding stage, you have left it far too late and you'll have to look forward to an even better crop next year – which will mean spending money on chemicals. 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, as there's increasing evidence around the world of more chemical resistance developing in plants.

Be careful when feeding out silage, as small bales, and large ones averaging 600kg can be a safety hazard, as is the machinery used to handle them

Silage laid out in large lumps will burn the pasture causing bare patches where little will grow, and pugging with stock standing around them. 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. So if you ever have to you buy hay – check what's in it.

Make sure all silage bales for winter 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 – and results in a danger to stock and money wasted. Keep checking stacked bales for holes and only silage two bales high.

Hay bales suffer badly from getting wet so before the autumn rains, check that hay sheds and stacks are waterproof, as leaking roofs and spouts filled with leaves can let in water which will rot hay, 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. This can be an expensive business 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.

Don't miss the opportunity in March to do some tree pruning to feed stock. Poplars and willows are rich in minerals and very palatable. But be careful as stock relish all prunings (especially when wilted) thrown over the fence from the garden, so check our website for a list of plants that can be poisonous if enough are eaten.


March is the traditional time to turn rams out in the North Island for a July/August lambing, but more farmers are putting their rams out in January to get early lambs to market before Christmas. Early lambs can make $130 and then drop to $80 in a couple of weeks. Many later lambs end up on the store market at reduced prices.

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.

But the best plan is to work out a joining date so ewes lamb when there's enough spring pasture to feed lactating ewes well, so they don't have to milk off their backs and get skinny before weaning, when all the lost weight has to be put back for the next breeding season.

When rams are out with ewes, keep an eye on them to make sure they're doing the job properly. This is especially the case if you are using ram lambs, which is a good idea, as these young fellows are bursting with libido but may lack a bit of technique.

When using more than on ram in a mating mob, watch especially for continual fighting for dominance causing shoulder injuries. Lameness from footrot or abscesses is the other major hazard for rams 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.

Traditional advice was to use an old experienced ram on young sheep, and a ram lamb with old ewes. But this is not all that important as long as they are working well. Fitting a harness and crayon on a ram will show which ewes have been mated and 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 rape 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 has not got covered with trash or soil when the ram lies down, as it won't rub off and leave a clear mark on the ewe. Rams can be racists, where they'll mate ewes of their own breed first, and leave contrasting coloured ewes to later.

If you want to put ewe hoggets to the ram, they must be at least 45kg to be able to keep on growing and produce a decent lamb. Some small ewe lambs may take the ram but they will never make decent mature sheep, and are best culled after they have weaned their lambs which need culling too, as they'll always be too small.

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.

Have a good tidy up of the flock and get rid of all sheep that will not earn their keep next season or grow into good replacement stock. Check especially for good teeth that meet the gum properly and are all present. If teeth are worn down evenly, as they often are 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 by 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 now 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!

If young sheep (lambs/hoggets) start to scour, don't assume it's worms and drench them before checking with your vet using a Faecal Egg Count to diagnose the cause. It's important that the correct product is used as internal parasites are showing resistance to the different types of drench chemicals, and some flocks are now totally resistant to current drenches. Google 'Wormwise' to see 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 his/her sheep, and so does the shop that sold the product, but the sheep have not benefitted at all, and the drench resistance worms will have had the main benefit!

Facial eczema is still a risk so maintain prevention right into April. 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.


Get rid of all stock that will not earn future income, so that any feed you have goes into stock that need building up again for next season. This will mean feeding good quality supplements to young stock, as they need to have priority.

It takes 280kg of Dry Matter to replace one condition score on a mature cow, over and above its daily maintenance requirement, so replacing condition can take much longer than you think. You have to start after calves are weaned and not a month before calving.

That's a lot of feed needed each day and if you don't have it on the farm, you will have to face the cost of providing it or quitting stock. Don't be afraid to get rid of stock if you see a crisis coming and can't afford to buy feed.

Young stock like dairy weaner calves and yearlings are a 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.

If young stock are scouring, 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 salmonella, copper deficiency, and more.

Indiscriminate use of endectocide pourons to kill internal and external parasites, encouraged by excess advertising with marketing give-aways has led to an ever-increasing rise in worms that are resistant to some of the main chemical drench families. The Cooperia family of drench resistant worms is a classic 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 green 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 also for ryegrass staggers in cattle (and horses).

If you send any cull cows to the works, arrange through your vet to have liver samples taken from them to check for mineral and trace element status of the farm. This is the most accurate way to check for mineral deficiencies rather than being persuaded to buy all sorts of mineral licks that may not be needed and supplements from advertising and promotions.

Pregnancy test any cows if you are not sure of their status – you can't afford to keep empty ones.


  • Get a soil test done to see what fertiliser is 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.
  • Be wary of fertiliser products 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, and maybe pasture pests such as grass grub and black beetle.
  • 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. They also target the content of freezers.
  • 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 on 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.
  • 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!


Dr Clive Dalton

Clive did a Ph.D. in sheep breeding at the University of North Wales at Bangor. After lecturing at Leeds University, he came to New Zealand to do research with MAF. Because of his communication skills, he moved to the Ruakura Agricultural Research Centre to be fully involved in interpreting science for practical application by farmers.

After 14 years he moved to teach at the Waikato Polytechnic where he taught young future farmers. He won the 1993 Landcorp Communicator of the Year award and the 1999 Sir Arthur Ward award for agricultural communication.