Well, it’s winter and not time to hibernate! It’s time to work out what you are going to do next season and get any major projects underway right now before the workload of spring. So now feed is the priority – what do you need, have you got enough, and how to avoid waste, especially in areas of serious drought, with breeding stock in mid-pregnancy needing to be well fed.
In most areas, after the long summer and autumn dry, there are few good autumn surpluses of feed, and in many places, winter supplements have been used up. Facing the prospect of buying in the feed will add expense at a great rate as prices are at their highest from June onwards.
The main issue with late autumn and early winter pasture is feed ‘quality’ and not just feed ‘quantity’. The lush green pasture looks good but is low in Dry Matter (DM) so has high water content, it’s high in protein and energy, but very low in fibre which is important for good rumen digestion. So it’s a very unbalanced feed, hence the need for supplements such as good silage, baleage, and hay – in that order.
Normal winter growth rates for the North Island in winter are 15kg DM/ha/day, but after 2-3 frosts when soil temperatures start to drop below the critical 6°C for ryegrass growth, they will be less. With hard frosts on the South Island, growth rates per day can be zero. So this means the deficit has to be made up totally with good quality supplements, so the ‘condition’ of your stock is the best guide to their health and future performance.
It’s good to know the total pasture growing on the farm at any one time – called the ‘pasture cover’ (expressed as DM/ha). Around 2500kg DM/ha is minimal for cattle and 1200kg DM/ha for sheep. You can measure this with a plate meter, or you can learn to do it by eye. Beef+LambNZ produces a pasture ruler or a scale to stick on your gumboots to give a general guide. If you have a dairy farmer neighbour, he/she will show you now to measure pasture and use one of the many computer packages now available.
The individual feeding needs of different stock on the farm will vary over time, and there are tables to provide these data (see the website) or talk to a consultant or farmer who does regular feed budgets. So many farmers avoid looking at these tables and use guesswork. Well, that may work for the very experience but ‘eyeball’ assessments can be useless.
‘Strategic use’ of Nitrogen is always recommended to boost pasture production, but you need to have good ryegrass content in the pasture, and the 10cm soil temperature needs to be above 6°C, and the ground is not waterlogged.
Nitrogen fertiliser such as urea has gone up in price, and is easy to apply, but has developed a bad public image due to all concerns over nitrate in the environment – especially the drinking water in places like Canterbury. So be careful to keep the spreader well clear of creeks and wet parts of the paddock, and it’s also better to apply a number of small dressings of under 20kg N/ha rather than in one large dollop.
When conditions are right you can get a 10:1 response or better, which is 10kg of pasture Dry Matter for every 1kg of N in the fertiliser applied. This could happen in a couple of weeks or less, but if it’s cold and miserable, it may take three weeks or more and the response could be lower, and it could be leached before the plant roots take it up.
The biggest sin on a farm is to damage the delicate soil structure by pugging with large animals. Dig a few spade spits and examine it carefully seeing how deep the tiny root hairs grow down, and how many worms there are. There should be at least 4-5 and in good soils ten. Smell the soil too, which should be a very pleasant aroma and not sour.
So at all costs avoid pugging the soil, as there’s no point in seeing the highly nutritious saved pasture grown at considerable expense, being pushed down into the soil by cattle. Sheep are generally not a problem. So if it’s going to be a wet night, take cattle off pastures and put them on a pad, and use a back fence when grazing and a mobile water trough. Just leaving stock to stand in a race where they cannot lie down in comfort is not now acceptable on both environmental and welfare grounds.
Consider having a simple stand-off pad for when it’s very wet. But contact your local authority for design details to avoid pollution from effluent runoff. The bark is popular but can be expensive, but you can offset this by using it as valuable compost after keeping it for a year or so.
Do NOT graze stock on the roadside anymore when the feed gets short. This is a very dangerous practice, even if done correctly with good fencing and observing the stipulated hours of grazing. Before you even think about the idea, check your public liability insurance as causing an accident and death could bankrupt you.
Get a soil test done if there hasn’t been one for over a year. It’s an ideal time of year to get your lime applications completed. Avoid putting stock to graze on paddocks where fertiliser has been newly applied, as it needs rain to wash it off the leaves.
Weeds never give up so if you had a bad weed problem last season, start working on it now to get the timing right. Timing of weed spraying is the key, so you have to be able to recognise weeds in the early vegetative stages, long before flowering or seed heads appear in summer. Californian thistles especially will be racing away.
The main concern in June is to have pregnant ewes in good condition for lambing, as during peak lactation of about 4-6 weeks after lambing, a ewe uses up a lot of her body reserves. Learn how to score a ewe’s Body Condition (BCS) with your hands, as wool cover can confuse looking at sheep from a distance.
Modern breeds should never be allowed to get thin as they all produce plenty of lambs at birth. However multiple lambs have lower birth weights and more will die due to exposure and starvation – so you need to provide shelter at lambing. The optimal birth weight is around 4.7kg so smaller lambs are difficult to keep alive without intensive care. Lambs are worth big money these days so all effort put into lambing care will be well rewarded at sale time.
Skinny ewes will also risk going down with metabolic diseases (milk fever, staggers, and sleepy sickness) and die, which is a loss you cannot afford. If ewes are below their ideal BCS at this stage, you’ll need some high-energy grain concentrate feed to rescue them, as silage won’t have enough energy. Grain-based feeds (sheep nuts) are always expensive so make sure they are not wasted. Feed out from a trough. Hay is no good as an energy feed for ewes.
Make sure ewe hoggets are not neglected over winter, as they need to keep growing to make decent ewes later in life and be productive over to at least 6-year-olds. If you have to cull any hoggets to sell as meat, remember to get them off before they show their first pair of permanent teeth to qualify as ‘lamb’.
If any sheep start scouring over winter, especially young sheep, don’t assume they have worms and need a drench. Due to the rising buildup of drench-resistant internal parasites; only drench sheep on the basis of a Faecal Egg Count (FEC) and with vet advice on the product to use.
Even if they have a high FEC (over 500 eggs/g of faeces) and are looking healthy – avoid drenching them, as this is the new concept of using ‘refugia’ which ensures some worms are left which will be killed by the drench. They will then mate with the resistant ones and so slow up progress towards total resistance. When this happens, then you cannot run sheep on the property anymore.
There should be no need to drench mature ewes for worms, especially before lambing, so be wary of advertising hype and sales promotions, which say this is needed to stop the worms from the ewes infecting the lambs. Lambs sucking their mothers are getting a high dose of immunity in the colostrum and should be protected from any parasite damage until they are older and start eating large amounts of grass so competing with their mothers for feed.
Harnessing rams at joining will give you a good idea of which ewes will be first to lamb to give them priority feed. Late lambing ewes can be given lower priority feed and any ewes that didn’t cycle at all, they could be cashed as they are making good money this year.
If you were able to get the ewes scanned, then this accurate information can be used to determine feeding preferences – the best feed going to the twin and triplet bearers. Ewes carrying triplets need very special care as their lambs will be very small.
If you need to shear in June, make sure there is a shelter or a shed available if the weather gets really bad. Chilled sheep off shears can die fast. And remember a 60-day chemical-free period is needed before any wool is shorn and can be sold.
To decide when to shear, the wool needs to be 100mm long, and take care to prepare the wool properly by removing all dags, belly wool, and all short stained and raddled pieces. Don’t expect to make money once costs have been deducted. With well-prepared wool, you may break even and hopefully pay for the shearing, but badly prepared wool will cost you money.
Sheep seen rubbing on fence wires and posts will have lice, so check for them around the neck and backline, and get vet advice on what product to use, and note the withholding period for meat if you are going to sell any. Lice are also getting resistant to chemicals too.
Don’t waste time treating sheep with chronic footrot – cull them if you can’t cure them after a couple of treatments, as they are a source of permanent infection on the farm. Make sure you know the difference between footrot and foot scald between the toes, which is less serious and can be cured easily and usually goes when pastures dry up.
The main challenge over winter is to look after young growing stock like calves and yearlings. But in winter if the feed is short, all you may achieve is to stop them from losing weight. If they stop growing, it takes a lot of extra feed and time to catch up and reach their target weights for mating in October.
The poorly growing young stock are prone to internal parasites, but before you dive in with a drench assuming they have worms, consult your vet about the actual cause. If it is worms (confirmed by an FEC) then it’s essential to use the correct drench to avoid drench resistance, which again is building up in cattle too, especially with such frequent use of pourons, which are easy to apply. Mature cows should not need drenching despite what the large attractive adverts say in farming papers.
Mature cows need to be in good condition for calving and any skinny pregnant cows will need extra feed. If they calve when emaciated, there will be ongoing problems in spring and they’ll be slow to cycle and get in calf again. Having cows calving at Christmas can be very inconvenient.
All the official advice is that cows should calve at Condition Score 5, which is when they have rounded hips. But just notice how few cows you see on dairy farms coming up to calving like that. See here for how to Body Condition Score (BCS) cattle using an easy method.
A thin cow needs 180kg of DM to replace one condition score on top of the basic maintenance needs of the cow. This could equal a cow’s feed requirements at peak lactation, so plenty of supplements are needed, and it could take at least a month to see its effect.
Lice may be a winter problem, so again consult your vet about which product to use and the withholding times for meat and milk. There are many products on the market and cattle lice too are becoming resistant to chemicals.
Mineral deficiencies always get a lot of publicity and if young stock is not thriving, check with your veterinarian about getting blood profiles done. Building up mineral reserves in the liver takes time – it’s like charging up a battery.
Rather than doing a liver biopsy on a live beast, if you send any stock to the works, get some livers tested for minerals from the slaughtered stock through your vet. The liver test is better than a blood test as it shows what minerals are in the store to draw on, and not just circulating around the body.
Facial Eczema should have gone, but watch for any long-term effects on a stock that were affected. Long-term zinc treatment can strip the copper reserves from the liver, so copper supplementation may be recommended. (Check with your vet). Copper deficiency shows up in black cattle as their hair turns ginger coloured.
If there has been one beast affected by FE, others may have livers damaged by the toxins, so be on the lookout for milk fever at calving.
Abortions over winter can be a worry as often the aborted foetus is very small and is hard to find. Even when you send the foetus for lab testing, it’s rare to get a positive diagnosis so you worry about more occurring. Talk to your vet as soon as you see trouble, as you never know if it’s a one-off or the start of an abortion storm.
Only winter bulls on the property that you want to use next year. Any surplus bulls are a hazard and also eat feed that would be better used by productive females. Never put bulls or any cattle out on the road verge to graze.
Don’t be tempted to buy calves to the rear that are born in June from Autumn calving herds. It’s far too early, as you’ll run into pasture shortage problems after weaning them at 8 weeks old and you’ll have to keep them inside on meals too long to make a profit, especially if the weather is bad. Do a full financial budget before assuming that there’s good money in rearing dairy weaners for sale – there isn’t!
Regularly monitor cash flow.
Seek help early if needed; as things can get quickly get worse. There’s plenty of help around to understand your farming problems.
Summer dry has taught a lot of people about how vulnerable their water supply and reticulation systems are. June would be a good time to get some help sorting out what you need for future dry seasons.
Tidy up trees on the farm, and make sure large vehicles (trucks and fire engines) can access your entrances and driveway.
Remember that if trees on your property overhang a public road, you’ll be liable for any damage caused if branches fall off in winter gales, so check your public liability insurance.
You may get one free tree trimming from authorities if power lines are threatened, but that’s all. If you want the power cut off to trim your own trees, depending on the time taken this will cost you money.
It’s also a good time to plant trees for shade and shelter. Get advice on suitable species from the Farm Forestry Association or Tree Crops Association.
Remember your animal welfare responsibilities under the law, especially if your animals get into an emaciated state. Phones have cameras these days and you don’t want a legal bill on top of your feed bills.
Be constantly aware of home and farm security. Burglars and stock rustlers are out in force all the time and don’t take a winter break. Talk to your neighbours about combined security measures, especially when one of you has to leave the property for a while.
Too many rural folks leave their house door keys in the most obvious places when they go out – and they leave their gate open to confirm they have gone! Reverse the top gudgeon on your entrance gate so it can’t be lifted off.
Keep your farm diary and stock records up to date.
Keep your NAIT records up to date and check for stock with lost tags.