There can’t be many folks left who believe that climate change is a myth, after the weather in January from floods to fires. It’s going to be the future and farming is sure going to be a challenge when you don’t know what’s coming next!

Pastures

The drought continues in many parts and could get worse, and as the soil continues to dry out, the chances of regrowth get slimmer until substantial autumn rains come – and when they do.

All you can do at this stage is think about what you can do in autumn in terms of pasture renovation, and deal with the weeds that have survived the drought-like Californian thistles that have been the only green plants standing!

The term ‘showers’ the Met Service use and loved by TV presenters area a cop-out as they could mean anything or more likely nothing! If they ever arrive, they can evaporate almost before they hit the ground. Folk keep quoting how much rain they got but forget to check the ‘evapotranspiration rates’. It’s a statistic that never gets publicity in local newspapers – or on the overhyped TV weather ‘shows’. At a rate of up to 3-5mm/24 hours (which is common in February), even small amounts of rain are soon lost and pasture growth (especially regrowth after mowing) can be severely curtailed. The only moisture is from the dew each day and that soon burns off.

So it’s a case of having plenty of good supplementary feed available all the time, and this means silage is the first choice with a much higher feeding value than hay. But everyone knows the major disadvantage of silage, even small bales, as they are difficult to handle and feed out – and the smell sometimes not enjoyed by neighbours, especially now with many working from home!

Unfortunately, hay made in February has little feeding value as plants have seeded and died off very early with the heat. Good species like ryegrass will have seeded long ago, and only poor quality grasses like Yorkshire fog and browntop will be dominant along with the sub-tropical species like paspalum. They make poor hay, which looks dark brown instead of green and sweet smelling.

It’s pointless cutting and wrapping this over-mature pasture and calling it balage, as the wrapping will not improve the feeding value, and could make it worse if the air is not squeezed out and moulds develop. If you are offered any balage for purchase, insist on opening a sample bale to check what’s in it, and especially for any weeds and mould. It could be full of seeding docks for a start.

It’s tempting to get the mower out to tidy up the paddocks, but leave it in the shed, as more cutting will only cause more drying out of the soil. Long dead pasture can always be grazed off in early winter by big hungry cattle like boner cows, which can be purchased or borrowed to chew it off, and then disposed of when finished the job.

Making young stock graze in this type of pasture is kin to starvation, as all it does is fill their bellies. It’s been a good year for Californian thistles, ragwort, buttercups, docks, white ox-eye daisies, and wild carrot, with paddocks on some small blocks just a total cover. It’s too late now in the flowering stage to do anything to fix the problem, but plans need to be made to fix things for next season when weeds are in the early leafy stages.

Weeds love dry conditions, and their seeds will be the first to germinate on any bare ground at the first sign of rain when soil moisture levels improve. So plan an attack on large weeds like docks, then all varieties of thistles along with ragwort to destroy them before seeding hastened by the dry conditions. Having thistle seeds leaving your farm in the wind is not good for neighbourly relations.

NEVER be tempted to graze the road verge anymore. It used to be a safe practice but the legal risks from potential accidents from all the extra traffic are now far too great. The best practice is to mow any long-dead grass on the verge to reduce the risk of fire from cigarette ends. Remember there are no ashtrays in modern cars, so the butts go out the window and roll into the verge, and the breeze from passing cars keeps them alight! And a road verge fire can spread into the paddock and smoulder and spread even if it’s fairly bare. Calling the fire service could cost you money!

Never fence off-road strips with metal or plastic standards. These can be lethal to wayward motorists on country roads – and there are plenty of them around these days. Just look at the tyre marks on country roads made by hoons.

For the same reasons – check all your roadside boundary fences so hungry stock cannot push through. Check the battens on the boundary fence are on the inside so they cannot be pushed off and leave gaps for hungry stock to push through.

Sheep

The priority for February is to have the flock sorted and ready for the rams to go out, so you don’t keep anything that isn’t going to earn its keep next season. Get rid of all culls to the saleyards, provided they are fit and healthy to move, which means no sick or lame sheep, and no dags!

The main aim is to provide shade and good clean water and fence off any drains that will have all sorts of nasty algae on them in the heat. Sheep by law must be shorn once a year, but in practice, the best time to shear is when wool reaches 100mm, as this is most suitable for today’s market.

If you have the long-wool breeds (Romney, Coopworth, Perendale) they will need to be shorn twice a year, but the other ‘Down’ breeds with shorter wool can manage with once-a-year shearing. It’s been questionable whether it was worth shearing lambs, but unshorn lambs are more prone to flystrike so should have their wool removed as a matter of routine for good animal welfare reasons.

The other key wool marketing issue is that sheep should not be dipped for at least 50 days before shearing as this chemical can end up in the environment from washing (scouring).

With the price of wool being so low again, the best option is to let your shearer take the wool as part of the shearing cost. If preparing it yourself, the main ‘body wool’ is the most valuable part so keep it separate from all the other bits of the fleece. Use the dags for mulch around the fruit trees.

You see too many lambs still with ewes late in January/February; with farmers assuming that they are still getting milk as they keep chasing their mothers trying to get milk. They should have been weaned and separated in December/January, with any surplus sold to allow the ewes to build up a condition for the upcoming mating.

Get rid of these small lambs as they won’t grow and will only cost you money. When pastures dry up they are better sold to reduce the stocking rate, as they won’t grow again till winter and will cost you money in shearing, drenching, and blowfly treatment.

If you treat lambs for blowfly, be careful to check the ‘withholding period’ for meat as for some products it’s as long as 70 days. This means they will have to stay on the farm and eat feed that may be in very short supply and lose weight as a result. Read labels carefully and check with the shop staff or vet where you purchase the product.

After getting rid of all surplus stock, the main job is to get ewes ready for mating in the North Island flocks by exploiting the ‘flushing’ effect by improving body weight, which encourages higher ovulation rates when body weight is increasing. However, fertility is not a major problem in modern breeds, and flushing is not so important provided ewes didn’t get skinny before weaning. And you need feed for flushing which this year will not be possible.

All rams should have been vet-checked, especially any old ones that have been kept for a few seasons or are borrowed from neighbours. New rams from established breeders will automatically have been vaccinated against brucellosis. They should also have been shorn in December so there’s enough wool on them to stop a mating harness being used from slipping around the body. It should sit exactly on the breast bone.

Don’t treat any rams with chemicals (including anthelmintic drenches or pourons) for at least a month before joining with the ewes, and the same advice applies to ewes where chemicals can affect the delicate process of ovulation and attachment of the embryo to the uterus. Many authorities will deny this (especially those selling the products) but it’s not worth the risk of fertility being affected.

If you want early prime lamb next season for the Christmas export market, then rams will have to be joined with ewes this month at the latest, and most rams in good body condition will be keen to start hunting out ewes in oestrus, so keep them well fenced in and away from ewes that may be starting to cycle. Ewes on heat will come to the fence to sniff out a ram if they are coming on heat. Watch for these early signs.

For rams to trigger early oestrus in ewes from their smell, they need to be in good body condition and ‘in the pink’ when the bare skin areas on their bellies and face become pink and they start to smell like billy goats. The male pheromone that causes this smell and triggers ewe ovulation is in the grease in the ram’s wool, and some real hot weather helps to speed up the process. Polled Dorset rams exhibit this early sex drive better than other breeds.

After complete separation of ewes and rams for at least a couple of weeks, let the ewes see and smell the rams through a fence for around 7-10 days before joining. This can help synchronise the ewes’ cycles, so when the rams join the party, the first silent heats (ovulation without signs of heat) will have occurred and the chance of early pregnancy increases.

You can’t afford to have a ram failing to perform with ewe heat cycles every 14-22 days, as lambing will be delayed by this amount. It pays to change a ram every cycle if you have spares, as libido may be good, seen by mounting and serving into the vagina, but fertility may be defective and the ewes will return to oestrus. This is one very good reason for using a ram mating harness to show what’s going on.

Watch out for stroppy rams – especially ones reared as pets as they’ll try to knock you over especially at this time of year. Any aggressive ram should be culled and NEVER keep a pet ram as a sire.

Watch for blowflies, especially on any daggy sheep. They can kill lambs in 2-3 days. Get advice on the correct treatment from your vet. The Aussie green blowfly will strike on any sweaty bit of a sheep – it doesn’t need to be dirty. Look out for what looks like small wet greasy patches on the wool and a sheep trying to nibble that area and hiding in shady areas all the time.

Depending on when the ewes were shorn, they may need crutching before mating, and any real dirty sheep will need dagging.

If the weather gets hot and humid, Facial Eczema (FE) could be starting, so check spore counts at your local vet clinic. It’s only a very rough guide, as your farm may be very different, and counts can differ from paddock to paddock depending on shade and shelter.

Check with your veterinarian to ensure animals are getting the right dose of zinc and for sheep, the bolus is the preferred option. Putting zinc sulphate in the water trough may work once sheep get used to the taste, but only if spore counts are low. Zinc oxide is used for dosing sheep, as zinc sulphate for troughs.

If sheep are scouring, don’t drench before checking with your vet to make sure the problem is in fact worms, and that the correct product is used to avoid the build-up of drench resistance in internal parasites. This is now a very serious issue and will get worse with continuous advertising hype giving the misguided impression that lambs needed drenching every 28 days. Mature sheep should not need drenching at all, as a sheep’s immunity is fully developed by 10 months of age.

If you find that the worm drenches you have been using on the flock do not seem to be working, then discuss this urgently with your vet, as it could be a sure sign of parasite drench resistance on your farm.

Lice should not be a problem with shorn sheep but if you see sheep with long wool rubbing on fences, then have a close look around the neck and tail area and get an appropriate lice treatment from your vet, and certainly get them shorn.

Cattle

The hot dry conditions in February are a bad time for young stock such as calves and yearlings which need to be kept growing at around 1kg/day to reach their target weights. But this will not be possible, and you’ll be lucky to an average of 0.25/day if pastures have dried up. In severe cases, maintaining weight may be all that’s possible on pasture without feeding supplements, which greatly add to costs.

If young stock becomes stunted, they’ll never catch up. The theory of ‘compensatory growth’ says young stock do catch up and compensate eventually for lost weight– but they need lots of extra time to do this. They will also need extra feed, which will cost you money, and you’ll have them on the farm for an extra winter adding more cost to the system.

If it gets really dry and you really cannot grow young stock properly even with supplementary feed, then it’s best to sell some and take the least loss, as well as for animal welfare reasons. You don’t want issues with MPI or SPCA for animal neglect. Every passing car driver has a phone camera these days remember.

Water is a top priority for cattle in hot conditions. A mature cow will drink around 70+ litres/day and if there’s no shade, she’ll need more. Cattle need shade on hot days, as they will compensate by grazing at night.

Check that the water supply can deliver enough volume and that troughs are kept clean and ball cocks are not leaking and water is being wasted. If you wouldn’t drink from a trough – why should your cattle?

All suckled calves should have been weaned by now in the North Island and given the best feed available, which in drought conditions may not exist. So they will need to be fed supplements like good silage.

If any young stock is scouring, don’t drench them until you have checked with your vet about the cause, and especially for the correct treatment, as it may not be worms. Ignore all the advertising hype and promotional specials like leftover Christmas promotions.

The main concern is Cooperia worms which in cattle are now highly resistant to the main chemical families. The problem has gotten worse because of the overuse of pourons (endectocides that kill internal and external parasites) which are easier to administer than struggling with oral drenching. Talk to your vet about how bad this problem may be on your farm, and how to get around it.

If have to go back to use an oral drench then you’ll have to get into the race with cattle or use a headbail, so make sure you know how to do this safely or get some help. A good headbail and crush are essential for the safety of both people and stock these days.

Make sure FE precautions are on track, and that stock are getting the right dose of zinc. This is often the reason why clinical cases of FE occur after precautions have been put in place. Adding zinc to water troughs is not always effective and it will take time for cattle to get used to the taste and then drink enough. The bolus is the most popular precaution but in a severe outbreak, cattle will need to have extra zinc. Talk to your vet if this happens and keep watching published spore counts.

Get rid of all bulls off the property that are not needed. They’re a major hazard and many of them don’t like strangers on their territory so warn and protect all visitors.

Farm management

  • Water supply is critical, so check regularly for leaks and why a pump may not be working or overworking.
  • Find out how to maintain and service the pump to keep your maintenance costs down.
  • If the feed shortage is not manageable, then destock the farm till the grass grows again.
  • Having skinny starving stock will end you up in court, as every phone now has a camera, and animal welfare has become a more publicised issue. Seek early advice if you have problems.
  • Shade is very important so start noticing where the farm’s ‘hot spots are, and where trees need to be planted in winter to benefit animals in the summer heat.
  • Plant trees that can provide fodder in droughts. It’s a good time to trim trees like willows and poplars for stock feed.
  • Check any trees overgrowing the highway, as when in summer full leaf and after heavy rain adding extra weight, branches can fall off and are risks to traffic. You will be liable for any damage so check your insurance.
  • Check power fences as earth pegs dry out, and check for stray voltage on water troughs because of poor earth in dry soils, especially on troughs straddling the fence between paddocks. If stock is not drinking and emptying the trough in hot weather, check the troughs for voltage.
  • Increase the number of earth pegs and give them a good soaking to improve voltage efficiency. Buy a voltmeter.
  • Make sure all records are up to date and bills are paid on time to avoid penalties.
  • Keep checking your farm security, especially if you have a late holiday, as livestock and equipment are always on the list for thieves.
  • Keep the kids and visitors off the farm bikes unless you want to add to the awful national statistics. The costs of wheelchairs and altering the house and funerals don’t help the farm income.
  • Fire is a constant risk in hot weather, so it’s important to check all electrical wiring on the farm, especially in old sheds and where birds (Starlings) may be nesting beside fuses on power boards. Nests in tractor engines are especially dangerous.
  • Make sure a fire engine can get through your gate and up to your property unhindered by trees.
  • Check that your NAIT records are compliant and up to date.
  • Sheep measles is still a problem so make sure all your dogs and any with visitors have been drenched. Most town folk won’t know about this so educate them.