The shortest day has gone but seeing young calves around and early lambs can fool you. It’s not spring and we have the rest of winter to face, so stock needs to get through to spring in good order. A lot of nasty weather is still to come, so be prepared with a plan to look after animals that may have been struggling in the wet and cold of winter. With climate change for real, anything could change.

Pasture management

The countryside may look green, after the brown desert for months in many parts, but there’s very little real pasture cover. The textbook says it’s time to build up pasture for stock which are in the later stages of pregnancy but this may not be a reality. Remember pasture is always the cheapest feed but it will never be enough, so you need plenty of good supplementary feed (hay and silage), to give the pastures time to grow.

You can’t just ‘set stock’ leaving the stock in the same paddock all the time and expect the pasture to grow. Sheep and especially cattle need long feed to be able to ‘crop’ it, as they have no top teeth like horses, which can nibble pastures right down to the soil. When the stock is forced to eat bare pastures, they inevitably ingest a lot of soil which is bad for their teeth and digestion.

Supplements cost money to produce, of course, so make sure what you feed out is not wasted, and that large animals like cattle don’t pug the pasture around their feed. If you feed out from racks or troughs, move them regularly or better still, have a special dry area or feed pad to protect the soil from damage. Damage from pugging smears the delicate soil crumb structure and can take a long time to recover.

So only feed out hay that stock can clean up, or they’ll use it to lie on and won’t come back to eat it. Silage fed out in large heaps will burn the pasture which may take months to recover, and weeds will grow on the resulting bare patches faster than grass and clover.

With rising temperatures Nitrogen fertiliser is promoted to give spring pastures a boost, but this will only work when the 10cm soil temperature is above 6°C and soils are not waterlogged. The boost will be short-lived if other soil nutrients, especially Phosphorous and pH are low.

A dressing of 25kg of N/ha would be plenty. But note this is not kg of fertiliser, so work out the N applied. Urea in pellet form is the best option, but keep it well clear of creeks and wet parts of the paddock, and apply a number of small dressings rather than one large dollop.

Pasture produced by high rates of N can cause Nitrate poisoning in cattle, so check with your vet and get a test done and advice through your vet clinic before grazing if there is excessive lush dark green new growth. It happens after a summer drought along with dull days not allowing good photosynthesis.

In wet weather, up to 80% of precious feed is wasted by heavy cattle pugging it into the soil so always use a back fence when grazing and a mobile water trough on the grazed strip. If strip grazing in wet weather, move stock across the long ungrazed pasture, and not the grazed parts to avoid more pugging damage. Make sure the electric fence is working well (buy a voltmeter), as you don’t want the stock to break out to save pasture and cause more damage.

The key point is that stocks have to be well fed, and if you don’t have the feed and cannot afford the cost to buy in, then get rid of some before spring.

And in these days of increasingly heavy traffic, never graze the road verge no matter how much feed is growing, as the risks of accidents and possible legal proceedings are far too great. If you have a property near a road, then it would be wise to check your insurance, as you never know what can happen with animals escaping when frightened by traffic. Double-check the boundary fences. Some cattle can actually open gate latches, even with a ring on the hook to prevent them!

Sheep

Early lambs may appear and are not seen and die of starvation, as rams are run with the ewes all year round on many small farms. It pays to be prepared for lambing well ahead of the expected event – if that’s known.

Modern breeds of high-fertility sheep must be kept in good body condition all through pregnancy as most of them will be carrying twins and need extra feeding to make sure their lambs are of good birth weight – which is the secret to good lamb survival. (Check our website to see how to condition score ewes).

Research shows that a birth weight of 4.7kg is optimal for survival, but it’s hard to achieve this if you don’t know how many lambs the ewe is carrying – and even if you do it’s near impossible! Get a spring balance and weigh a few twins and triplets just to see how heavy they are – and to realise how much extra care they need to ensure the survival of small multiple lambs.

Most lamb deaths happen in the first few days after birth due to mismothering of multiples, and ‘exposure/starvation’ when lambs don’t find the teat and have a good suck of colostrum straight after birth which is the key to survival.

Check with your vet or an experienced farmer about the equipment needed for lambing, and how to assist a ewe when lambing. But don’t be too clever and if you suspect complications with multiple lambs inside the uterus, and get help soon. Make sure you know how to use a stomach tube correctly to feed a starving lamb, and so you don’t poke the tube and milk into its lungs.

Save and freeze some colostrum from early lambing ewes (or even a newly-calved cow) for emergencies. A lamb that has not had enough colostrum within an hour after birth has little chance of survival. There are some good proprietary colostrum products available. Use an old electric blanket to slowly warm up starved lambs, as it’s more effective than dunking in warm water which was the old trick.

The shelter is vital for survival, so erect some small lambing pens in the paddock to hold newly lambed ewes, especially those with multiples. This will ensure they get properly bonded and fed in the first 1-2 hours. Don’t assume that because a new lamb has its head under the ewe at the rear end and wagging its tail that it’s getting a full feed of milk. It’s a good idea to catch each ewe at birth to clear the wax plug from her teats and to make sure there is milk there.

Learn to check a lamb’s tummy to make sure it’s rounded and full - especially before nightfall, and feed any lambs that are clearly not getting their share. Lamb covers made of wool or plastic, or even old bread bags are ideal when the weather is wet and cold, and especially for newborn twins and triplets. Put a raddle mark on multiples so you know which ewe they are from and they don’t get mixed up and hence mismothered.

As a ewe reaches peak lactation 2-3 weeks after lambing, the best feed should be kept for then, and any late-lambing ewes should be put on shorter feed. It’s a risky time, as a spell of cold wind can cut feed drastically at this time – and hence ewes’ milk supply. Lambs will start nibbling grass from three weeks of age so again this is a reason to have some good long feed available.

Keep a watch for ewes before lambing that looks dopey, walk very slowly or go down, as they are most likely affected by a metabolic disease, commonly called ‘twin lamb disease’. It’s caused by a lack of glucose providing readily available energy. Part of this problem is that close to lambing, a ewe’s appetite always drops due to the size of her uterus filling the body cavity and restricting the size of the rumen and hence what she can eat.

These heavily in-lamb ewes can so easily get stuck on their backs (cast) and can’t get up again, and they can die fast if left there overnight. This is most likely to happen with ewes that have long wool from being shorn once a year.

Check with your vet about vaccinations ewes need as modern vaccines cover a whole range of diseases and come in 5-in-1 or 10-in-1 packages. Then you need to know, even if you vaccinate the ewes, what vaccines need to be given to lambs as boosters, or for the scabby mouth, which humans can get from lambs.

It’s alarming with all the publicity by ‘Wormwise’ to reduce the advancement of worm resistance to chemicals used in drenches, that the farming press is still full of adverts encouraging farmers to drench ewes before lambing, aided by special in-store promotions. There should be no need to drench ewes at this time, as by this stage in their lives their natural immunity should cover any internal parasite threats.

Young sheep are the concern and if they are scouring, contact your vet to get a Faecal Egg Count (FEC) done on them to see if the problem is worms, as there are many other reasons such as wet feed, and high protein of any new pasture growth. If young sheep are thriving and scouring, then the chances are very high that it’s not internal parasites.

Keep a watch out for any abortions among heavily pregnant ewes. These are always a concern as you don’t often see the aborted foetus or blood on the rear end, and you don’t often get a clear diagnosis from the vet as to the cause. They are often just a one-off case, but if there are more, consult your vet urgently and make sure your dogs and cats don’t eat the foetus.

The other thing you don’t want to have to deal with is a ewe with prolapse or her ‘bearing’ sticking out. This may be the entire uterus pushed out with the lambs still inside, or just the vagina pushed out and may go back in again on its own when the ewe gets up and walks away. But whichever it is, seek veterinary help as soon as possible, as amateur attempts at fixing things often lead to the death of the ewe and her lambs – which inevitably will be multiples. Also, mark the ewe for culling. as the chances are high that she’ll have the same problem next year.

Dag and crutch all dirty ewes before lambing. If you pre-lamb shear then make sure you have extra feed and shelter available after the wool comes off. Wool is worth so little that it’s better to let the shearer take the wool.

Cattle

As always, the main cattle priority is young stock on the farm, as they need to keep growing to reach their target weights for mating if they are going to keep for breeding, or to be sold in the sale yards. There are far too many skinny stocks around farms in July waiting for the ‘spring flush’ which often never comes as the farm is overstocked.

Mature cows that have only suckled one calf last year should not be a priority. Cows with beef genes are rarely a problem as they hold their condition well all year round. Problems arise mostly in cows with dairy genes that milk body condition off their backs while suckling more than one calf, so they take more feed and more time to replace condition.

Research has shown that if young stock stop growing, it takes more feed for them catch up which takes up more time, and this will have lasting effects on their mature weight and size. They will be stunted cattle compared to their peers for the rest of their days and it is a good idea to cull them.

Skinny breeding cows are prone to ‘metabolic diseases’ such as milk fever (lack of calcium) and staggers (lack of magnesium). They may also go down with ketosis (lack of readily available energy so need glucose). Cows that have had subclinical Facial Eczema in autumn may be much more prone to these problems when they calve.

Cows should calve at Body Condition Score 5, which means they must have rounded hips. So check our website for an easy way to learn condition scoring as the DairyNZ system is too complicated. An ‘average BCS’ for a herd is regularly used by farm advisors and is a very dangerous and useless statistic. You really want to know how many cows are in the lower BCS range, as any under BCS 3 are technically ‘emaciated’ under the Dairy Cow Code of Welfare, and need urgent special feeding and health care. See our website for pictures of what they look like.

Skinny cows need a lot of feed and at least 6 weeks to replace the condition. They need 180 kg of Dry Matter on top of the feed needed to maintain the cow to gain one BCS. And that’s a lot of top-quality pasture, which will be in very short supply in July.

If calves and yearlings have dull coats and start scouring, don’t rush to buy drench and especially not pour-ons – even if there are great specials on offer. Check with your vet before buying any animal health product. Internal parasites certainly are a possibility as a cause of ill thrift, but the chances are that it’s something else or a combination of problems, and the vet may need to do blood tests or Faecal Egg Counts for a correct diagnosis.

Get all the gear ready for calving – and be prepared for the unexpected very early calf. It’s essential to save some colostrum from the first cow to calve and put a few plastic containers of it in the freezer, which will be useful for any calf (or lamb) that may need a booster later in spring. The thicker the colostrums, the better quality it is in terms of antibodies. Don’t dilute it.

Keep an eye on any udder development in yearlings, just incases any got pregnant as calves, as they’ll need to be aborted (induced) by a veterinarian as soon as discovered. Never try to rear one of these mini calves if they live. It’s better to get them euthanased by your vet. Make sure the mothers have passed their afterbirth, which can take a few days.

Before you decide to rear any calves later in spring (it's far too early now), think long and hard about the time involved and the cost, and if you haven’t reared any calves before, then talk to some experienced calf rearer and don’t rear more than 10-12 calves to start with.

The best idea is to get these calves from the one farm in a single consignment, rather than buy them in ones and twos from the saleyard where they could have had a stressful journey to the sale and be exposed to a range of bugs from other farm’s calves. Check our website for information for first-time calf rearers.

If you want to rear calves to make money by selling them as dairy weaners, make sure you do a full budget and include a cost for your labour. You could be very disappointed.

General

  • Check your current financial budget and watch for unexpected expenses such as having to buy in more feed.
  • Pay bills regularly and keep your farm records up to date
  • Keep a farm diary to record when jobs were done.
  • Check all machinery is serviced and ready for spring.
  • If you have an ATV, always wear a helmet and get a roll bar fitted. Even look at the extra clip on wheels for the rear.
  • Check power fences and water supply.
  • Clean out all troughs and put mesh over them or use a few large rocks to prevent young lambs from drowning in them, but make sure they can drink from them easily.
  • Prune all trees over growing roadways and buildings.
  • If trees are threatening power lines, contact the correct authorities for advice before any action.
  • It’s the best time to plant trees for both shade and emergency feed in droughts – eg willows and poplars.
  • Check your farm security system as rural crime is on the up again with increasing drug use driving crime.
  • Bikes, even the kids’ bikes are popular with thieves, along with the meat in freezers, alcohol, electric and electronic goods, chainsaws and even ag chemicals and animal health products.
  • Keep your gate closed at all times as burglars like a fast entry and exit. Reverse the top gudgeon so they can’t lift it off
  • Get a bleeper on your driveway so you know when somebody is arriving. Video surveillance may be worth the cost too depending on where you are.
  • Do a regular backup of all computers.
  • When you go to town, hide all valuables in your car.
  • Check any firearms you have are legal and safely stored.
  • Make sure ALL your cattle are fully compliant with NAIT. This includes those you are rearing for the home kill.