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Sunday, 01 March 2009 07:09

Farming Diary for March

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march sheep


March can be a worrying time as the effects of February are all too obvious providing plenty of media 'bad news' to panic dairy farmers. A dry February is normal, so it's what happens in March when autumn kicks in that's important, as this controls feed supply in winter. March is a very important time for management decisions and rainfall is always the key issue, as soil moisture deficits are always low and take time to get back to normal.

The main concern is to predict what pasture growth rates are going to be in March and this borders on the impossible. There are average growth rates available for you area on websites such as DairyNZ, but they can be dangerous.

The safe approach is to make sure you have a more than enough hay and silage, as you may have to start feeding it out much sooner than planned if autumn rains are late, and soil temperatures drop quicker than normal with a few early frosts.

March is time for an end-of-season tidy up of pastures, and especially any that grew long, dead and straggly where browntop was the dominant grass due to low fertility. There will also be plenty of the family of 'summer grasses' – paspalum summer grass and crowfoot. They may save your bacon in a drought but will be gone at the first frost leaving large areas of bare ground for new weeds to germinate.

Far too many small blocks neglect dealing to weeds like Californian thistles, and in March are still looking far too green and healthy. The worst are thistles that are real drought survivors with their massive rhizome root stores. The best and cheapest way to weaken weeds is to keep cutting off their food factory – their stems and leaves, otherwise they just manufacture food to feed the roots to be 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, as there's increasing evidence around the world of more chemical resistance developing in plants.

Be careful when feeding out silage – especially in big bales that are hard to handle. Silage laid out in large lumps will burn the pasture, leaving bare patches for weeds to grow. Don't feed out more than stock can clean up at any one time. Hay doesn't cause this problem, though it may leave behind weed seeds if they were present. So if you ever have to you buy hay – check what's in it.

Make sure all silage bales are well protected from stock, rats and inquisitive birds like magpies and pukekos. Silage is a source of nice moist feed for stock and 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.

Hay bales suffer badly from getting wet so before the autumn rains, check that hay storage sheds 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 prunings (especially when wilted) and 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 but many rams have been out since January and even December when early lambs are wanted. Often nothing much happens till the daylight starts to decline in March as only a few ewes are stimulated to cycle early by the presence of the ram –especially if he has developed a good strong 'Billy goat' smell which is where his pheromones are found.

The best plan is to work out a ram joining date to lamb when you have enough spring pasture to feed lactating ewes well, so they don't have to milk off their backs.

When rams are out 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 the young fellows are bursting with libido but may lack a bit of technique.

When using more than one ram in a mating mob, watch especially for continual fighting causing shoulder injuries. Lameness through 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 20.

The old advice was to use an old experienced ram on young sheep and a ram lamb on 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. 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 which won't rub off and leave a good mark. Rams can be racists, where they'll mate ewes of their own breed first, and leave contrasting coloured ewes to last.

If you want to put hoggets to the ram, they must be at least 45kg to be able to keep on growing and produce a decent lamb. Don't dip ewes or rams for a month before mating and for 6 weeks after mating, as there have been cases of poor embryo survival, which may have been the dip chemicals.

Have a good tidy up of the flock and get rid of everything that will not earn their keep next season, or grow into 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, they will be good enough to keep for another lamb provided you can provide plenty of long feed over winter.

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 gland. Don't keep any ewe for another lambing that has had mastitis, as the chances are the udder tissue will be damaged.

The way the wool market now only wants wool around 10mm 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, so the correct product is used. Internal parasites showing resistance to the different types of drench chemicals is a growing problem.

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 by high FECs and end up wasting money on drench they don't need. The trouble with drenching is that the farmer always feels better after drenching his/her sheep, and so does the shop you bought it from, but the sheep have not benefitted at all!

Facial eczema is still a risk so maintain prevention right into April. If you have been using the zinc boluses, be wary and don't use a third one as this can risk zinc toxicity. Talk to your vet about this.

If you have 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.


The main priority is to get rid of all stock that will not contribute to future income, and put what feed you have into stock that have lost condition and need building up again which means feeding supplements if you have enough.

It takes 280kg of Dry Matter to replace one condition score on a cow, over and above its daily maintenance requirement so getting condition back on a cow can take much longer than you think. 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.

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 growing well, and not less than of 0.5kg /day if you have plenty of green feed, but this may not be achievable after a drought so you may have to accept a period when they just maintain weight.

If young stock are scouring, don't drench them without checking first with your vet as to the cause and the best treatment. It may not be worms. Older cattle should not need a drench as if they are scouring, the cause is most likely something else. They will certainly produce loose dung when the new lush autumn green feed starts to grow.

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, and also watch also for ryegrass staggers in cattle (and horses). Young stock are a special priority to protect them against FE as the resulting liver damage can have long-lasting effects.

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 this month to see what fertiliser is needed. If you can't understand what's on the soil test report, ask someone else as well as the fert rep! There is far too much fertiliser phosphate going on when 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.
  • Keep checking the water supply – especially for leaks, as ground water will need building up over winter and it may take a long time.
  • 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.
  • Always keep your 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 at super low give-away prices. It's guaranteed 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 with details of certificates and insurance, and don't pay anything in advance.


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.