This summer the weather has been kinder to us than it has in many recent years and the forecast is for high temperatures and normal rainfall.

Pastures

January is all about soil moisture levels and evaporation rates. Most folks know and talk about rainfall but not how much evaporates into the air each day. Evaporation rates can be around 5mm and up to 6.7mm/24 hours in some Waikato areas in the peak of summer, which with no rain will take weeks to recover. They may not recover at all till winter.

It’s vital to understand the importance of ‘pasture residual’, which is what is left after grazing, as leaves are the factories for future growth from photosynthesis. So January is not about growing more pasture – it’s more about saving and using what you have in an efficient way, and then hopefully preventing it from burning off. Because once the leaves are dead, they can’t photosynthesize to produce food to recover.

Dry pasture has very little nutritional value, especially for young stock that you want to keep growing such as calves and yearlings, so feeding supplements is the top priority. It’s no good leaving the stock to starve assuming that it’s going to rain – as even if it does, pastures will not recover and produce meaningful feed till autumn.

If you run out of pasture, silage has the best feed value, but the hungry stock will always eat hay even though they’ll waste a lot of it. Don’t forget the option of feeding willow and poplar prunings, which are high in minerals. But check the list of toxic trees and shrubs on the property, as they are always more palatable when wilted. Yew and tutu are the real killers so learn to recognise these. Even Macrocarpa can cause problems if they eat too much of it when there is no other feed. So be careful what you throw over the fence from garden prunings.

If your block is grossly under-stocked and pastures are totally out of control, and you don’t want to cut them for hay, just speed up the grazing rotation and let the stock chew off the tops of this ‘standing hay’, or ‘deferred grazing’, and accept the amount of waste that will result. It will look horrible and remember this dry pasture can be a fire hazard so be prepared, especially if near the road from cigarette ends from passing cars. Modern cars don’t have ashtrays anymore! Fire will even travel across closely grazed paddocks as bare as a lawn.

Only big hungry mature cattle can chew off a mass of dry dead feed, and most of it will be wasted leaving a thick ‘thatch’ that will delay the growth of fresh green quality feed, both for the rest of the summer and into autumn. And it’s also an ideal cover for the growth of the Facial Eczema fungus to produce toxic spores.

One good thing about this deferred grazing is that it will provide seed that will fall into the pasture, and add to the years of un-germinated seed (called hard seed) in the ground already. This may save you having to spend money or reseeding in the autumn.

Do some sums to see if it’s worthwhile to sell some stock now, and make hay of any surplus feed to sell now or later. If pastures continue to dry up, then getting rid of stock is a wise option and accept the financial loss – which could increase if you keep them on.

Keep the slasher in the shed as shaving off paddocks does more harm than good, and any dry litter left is an ideal base for Facial Eczema fungi. When it rains, this dry dead thatch rots away in only a few days, leaving large areas of bare ground for weeds to germinate with the extra light and moisture.

With modern traffic, forget about fencing the roadside for grazing. It’s far too risky as you could end up with a massive legal bill and highly likely a human tragedy to live with for life.

Sheep

Sheep don’t like hot humid weather, so make sure they’ve all been shorn and they can get shade and plenty of clean water from a trough and not a creek where toxic algae can grow. Flies can be a constant annoyance in the shade as well as out in the sun, so be on the watch for blowfly strikes at all times.

The most important job is to get rid of all ewes that are not going to add value to the business next season – and don’t delay this decision. It’s far better to quit them now and reduce the stocking rate for when pastures dry up and when the sale yards of full of skinny sheep. This really should have been done in November or as soon as lambs were weaned. These old dears are in great demand this year.

Be ruthless when selecting ewes going to the ram next season, and only keep those that are in good body condition, have two good undamaged teats, and no hard lumps in their udders. Only keep ewes that reared a lamb or lambs to weaning, and don’t keep any that you know had mastitis.

‘Keepers’ should also have a full set of teeth that are not worn down to the gum, or have grown too long and are loose, have large gaps between them that chewing off grass has made wider, and teeth worn right down to the gum, especially on pumice country. These ewes should be culled.

If teeth have been worn evenly and are all present (8 incisors), such ewes will be worth keeping for another year and should be able to harvest grass effectively. You’ll also see teeth that are being replaced by permanent incisors at 1.5, 2.5, and 3.5 years of age, so will look half pushed out. After five years old you cannot age sheep by their teeth after they have a full set.

The best lambs should have been weaned in December so what to do with the ‘rats and mice’ is always a problem on a small block, especially if it gets very dry. Too many flocks have the rams running with the flock all year ending up with small lambs in the heat of summer. It’s best to get rid of them and cut your losses, as they’ll never grow and will only eat the remaining summer and autumn feed needed to build up the ewes for mating. They will never grow into decent sheep anyway and will cost you time and money later on preventing flystrike, dagging and drenching.

The rams will be very active from now on so keep them away from the ewes if you don’t want very early winter lambs next season. So it’s vital that mating is managed on small blocks and that your date for the start of lambing suits next spring’s pasture growth and your workload. This may not be easy to work out if you don’t have enough separate areas to keep the sexes apart.

If you want to put hoggets to the ram, they must be above 45 kg, and remember they will need extra feed for their next season as they are still growing. You don’t want permanently stunted sheep as the basis of the flock for the next five years.

Get the shearing out of the way, and if you kept the wool, and before you take it to the merchant, make sure it’s properly sorted. The only wool of real value is the main body wool (and that will be low this season), so throw the fleece on a clean area and remove any short and stained bits around the edges and keep the bellies separate. The best thing to do is to let the shearer take the wool and accept that whatever you do, you won’t make any money from wool these days – unless you have fine Merinos, which are not suitable for the wetter areas of New Zealand.

Shearing lambs may not be profitable, but it’s necessary as woolly lambs are more prone to flystrike even when clean. Giving them a fly spray around the britch and along the back is very effective, but talk to your vet to use the right product and follow the instructions completely. You don’t want to breathe in any of the chemicals or let them touch your bare skin. Take special note of the ‘withholding’ time on the product as you won’t be able to sell them for meat, and a buyer may not take them either.

Also watch for flystrike on shorn ewes if any get dirty, as it doesn’t need much to attract the Aussie green blowfly, which starts early and is active late in the season. A small shearing cut is all it takes to start a strike, although these usually heal up quickly.

Any ewes that have not improved after weaning and are still skinny could have health problems, so check with your vet. Don’t immediately assume they need a worm drench. They could be better cashed in now provided they are not too skinny to send to the saleyards or works.

Don’t drench any lambs that you are keeping until you have talked to your vet and actions are based on Faecal Egg Counts (FECs) and not drench promotional gimmicks like leftover Christmas hams! Any scouring or poor growth problems may not be worms. There has been some recent scary evidence of how many drenched families are failing and how triple combinations are the best option, till they run into problems too. So check the ‘Wormwise’ website for the latest advice on flock management to prevent drench-resistant problems.

There are far too many rams kept on small blocks for too long and they should be culled after two seasons when they are likely to mate with their daughters. All rams kept from last year will need vet checking and newly purchased rams will need shearing a few weeks before joining with the ewes. They need about 25mm of wool growth to stop a mating harness from sliding around and giving false markings on ewes’ rumps. Don’t apply any chemical treatment for fly or lice to rams (or ewes) before mating, as you don’t know what effect this may have on fertility.

Fit healthy rams in January or when it gets really hot in the North Island will start to ‘pink up’, start to smell strong and be keen to get to ewes. This smell from the male pheromone in the wool grease can bring ewes into the season, so keep rams away from the ewes if you don’t want early lambs.

If you want early lambs, the ewes need to be in top body condition and gaining weight (called flushing) to encourage ovulation and oestrus. The first round of cycles may have silent heats so don’t be surprised if there is no action after joining for a week or so. It’s a good idea to let the ewes smell the ram through a fence before opening the gate to get these silent heats out of the way.

Start Facial Eczema (FE) prevention now. The only practical way to treat sheep with zinc is with a bolus, which lasts around a month. Don’t give them more than two boluses (the marketing info many--say three) in a season as it can risk zinc toxicity. So deciding when to start precautions is a concern, knowing that FE can dangerous right up to May in ever-increasing areas of New Zealand as the climate warms up.

Talk to your vet about spore counting from pasture samples or faecal samples, to see when pastures are ‘hot’ and hence dangerous. Paddocks vary greatly within a farm, depending on aspect and shelter. Faecal sampling for spores is becoming more popular as at least you know that the sheep have eaten them. Ask your vet about this.

If you are serious about a sheep breeding programme in the long term, and the way the climate is warming up, consider buying FE tolerant rams to breed resistance into your sheep. Contact Sheep Improvement Ltd (SIL) for details of breeders and you needn’t pay big money for a top ram. Get the breeder to pick you one down the selection list, which will be a guaranteed improver for your flock. Breeders do all their culling before they offer rams for sale – they don’t offer culls to clients.

There is also a lot more farmers using lime on their pastures, which they claim changes the environment in the pasture base to discourage fungal and spore growth. There’s increasing evidence to support this so it’s well worth trying.

Cattle

It’s the young growing stock, especially dairy weaners, that are the main concern through January when it gets hot and humid when pastures go to seed and feed disappears as the soil dries out.

The young stock needs the best pasture to keep growing at least around 0.5 to 0.6 kg/day, but if feed quality drops, then 0.4kg/day or less may have to be accepted. In severe dry situations without supplements, they’ll stop growing or even lose weight, unless you provide good quality supplements like good silage and not low-quality baleage. Concentrate meal has the highest feeding value but it’s the most expensive and hard to justify the cost unless you have a serious emergency.

Weight loss will stunt young growing calves and yearlings, which then has serious long-term effects. Stunted stock may catch up when well fed again, but it will take more feed and more time, and both of these have a cost as you’ll have them on the farm for longer.

All calves sucking on cows need to be weaned, and again in theory fed the best feed on the farm if it’s available. The cows can then clean up any rough drying pastures. With plenty of good water and shade, beef cows of the traditional breeds take no hurt from dry conditions, but you don’t want any young stock like calves (especially with dairy crossbred genes) to slip back in condition.

If the young stock starts to get thin and scour, don’t assume worms are the cause. At this time of year, there are still leftover drench promotions for temp folk to buy drenches that their stock doesn’t need. Check with your vet to find the cause of any problems so the correct product can be given.

Check young stock for lice too and get vet advice on what products to use, as lice are getting resistant to chemicals as well as worms. The widespread use of pourons (called endectocides) has hastened resistance problems in both cattle worms and lice. Older cattle should not need treatment for worms.

I’ll make the point again - do not now put cattle out on the road verge to clean up the feed. The risks are too great for the safety of stock and traffic, and for your legal responsibilities if there are accidents. With the increasing speed of traffic these days, the best advice is to buy some silage for feed, as you could end up bankrupt if you are judged the cause of an accident. Prune a few trees for cattle feed if it gets dry – but check which species are toxic.

Older store cattle in good condition can handle dry spells, and if the feed gets short, their main priority is good water and shade. Bulls not needed for next season should be in the sale yards or meat works.

Watch for biting flies on cattle in hot weather, and get vet advice for a pour-on treatment if they become a serious nuisance. These look like houseflies but bite (humans too) and are a different species.

FE protection should be well underway. Don’t rely on general spore counts published in the local paper or on websites, as they may not apply to your farm or different paddocks within the farm. Talk to your vet about what to do about FE prevention. If you want to use zinc boluses, don’t use more than two in a season. Three may be recommended. Zinc sulphate in the water trough is not palatable, so how much each animal gets can vary greatly and hence may not be effective. Note – for oral drenching you use Zinc Oxide, never Zinc Sulphate (it’s for the trough), as the sulphate will damage the rumen lining. Check our website for more information.

Cattle NAIT compliance

  • ALL cattle on your block need to be given NAIT electronic tags (called RFID) and registered with the NAIT online system.
  • This must be done before they are 180 days old, or before they are moved off the farm, whichever comes first.
  • Note that fines have been substantially increased to ensure full compliance with these biosecurity regulations.
  • It’s vital that the whereabouts of every cattle beast is known and can be traced for biosecurity reasons and to prevent disease spread.
  • It’s very important to remember that the above rules equally apply to calves that are being kept for ‘home-kill’ beef. It’s the beast’s owner’s responsibility to comply with the NAIT regulations and not the home-kill butcher.

Management

  • Ban all fires on your property, and watch out for what neighbours are burning as their fires could spread to your place.
  • If you are to go away for a break before school starts, double check farm and home security as more burglars are on the beat due to the ever-expanding drug trade. Inform your neighbours of your movements. See our December diary for full advice.
  • Keep your entry gates closed at all times and reverse the top gudgeon so the gate cannot be taken off. Burglars love the easy access to your property so they can drive in to check if you are home, and drive out fast with the loot.
  • Take the number (and a sneaky photo) of anyone arriving looking for a lost dog, or John Smith!
  • Try to keep young stock away from roadside paddocks in clear view of rustlers when you are away.
  • Keep checking the water supply, as you cannot afford to waste any. Put a tap on each trough to turn off the supply when the paddock is not in use. This will also save water being lost from evaporation, which can be amazingly high in the heat of summer.
  • Keep checking all power fences and especially the earth pegs which dry out fast and reduce voltage. Hopefully, you got a new model tester for your power fences for Christmas!
  • If hay has to be cut - keep in regular touch with the contractor.
  • Make access easy and remove all paddock hazards or mark them clearly.
  • You don’t want to be the cause of mechanical disasters to hold them up with all their massive modern and expensive gear.
  • Keep farm records up to date and pay accounts on time.
  • Your new farm diary is a vital bit of equipment to record events from year to year.
  • You’ll still be having visitors with children around the farm this month, so keep the kids well away from all working farm machinery and warn them of all other hazards.
  • Be brutal and banish small children from the motorbikes and ATVs. Don’t add to the appalling rural statistics and have a permanent injury or death on your conscience forever!
  • Check and prune trees that are overgrowing any roads on your boundary, as you will be liable for accidents they may cause if they fall on to the road. Check your insurance!
  • Make sure your gateway is clear of trees so fire engines can get in.
  • Start a programme of fencing off creeks and drains, even from sheep as well as cattle, and organise some riparian planting. There is plenty of good advice available these days on this subject.