Another challenging winter is ahead in many areas suffering the ravages of more drought conditions, with no chance to build up the feed. It’s always a concern about what lies ahead in terms of winter rainfall and frosts, with stock approaching mid-pregnancy and the need for good feed to reach their required Body Condition Score (BCS) and target weights. It’s going to cost many dearly to buy in feed.
Many people don’t notice how much weight animals are losing when they see them every day, and visitors generally dare not comment. Check the website to see how to ‘condition score’ stock as weighing them is not practical on small blocks and heart girth tapes are not accurate due to variation in body condition.
In drought areas, it’s not possible to shut off part of the farm from grazing to build up a feed to strip graze for lactating stock in spring. There are rarely enough paddocks to do this.
So building up a feed for spring means feeding out more supplements, preferably silage if you can handle the bales and the smell! And while doing this, make sure the stock doesn’t pug the wet pastures. Get them off if possible onto a prepared dry area or holding pad.
Hay can be very variable and can spread weed seeds around the farm. So if you have to buy any hay, check what’s in a sample of the bales first. Weeds like docks, thistles and barley grass may appear to be dead and dry but their seed with still be first to germinate when conditions are right.
This is really not the time to be buying silage and hay as it’s at its highest price, and certainly be careful with ‘balage’, which may be hay that got wet and was wrapped to try and save it. It’s often hard to get all the air out of balage, and moulds grow rapidly which can be harmful to both stock and humans handling it.
So in future, make as much silage and hay as possible or buy it off the paddock when it is cheapest. It could be cheaper not to make hay or silage at all, and buy it all in when prices are competitive.
Successful pasture management means constantly looking at what’s growing and learning to recognise all the different grasses and especially weeds. It’s no good just being happy when your ‘pastures’ have turned green again, as they could be covered with poor quality grasses like browntop and paspalum and with no clover present.
With clover plants that are so small and weak, they will never grow to produce decent feed. In fact, they are more likely to be smothered out and die.
Perennial ryegrass, which is the main pasture species stores most feed in the growing point above ground, so if this has been damaged by drought or over-grazing, then there’s little chance of decent late autumn/winter recovery from the plant.
By May, all the subtropical ‘summer grasses’ (paspalum, summer grass and crowfoot) which stayed green in the late autumn dry spells will all be gone once temperatures drop, leaving large areas of bare ground where weeds will germinate.
It’s generally too cold in May to sow new seeds to renovate pastures, so just have to live with what regenerates naturally from the ‘hard seed’ left over from past years of natural seeding. Again it’s probably too late for this to happen.
If you did sow new grasses earlier on, they will need special care now in early winter to make sure they have established well, so the new plants will have tillered. Tillering is the process where the plant puts up new shoots from the growing point just below the ground surface. Ryegrass is the classic tillering grass and grazing off the tillers well above the ground encourages more to grow. But grazing too early, treading or pugging the soil can damage these delicate structures.
To see if new plants are ready to graze, use ‘the pull test’. Grab a handful of plant leaves and tug them to tear them off as an animal would do when grazing. If they pull out of the ground, it’s too early to graze. New grass needs very light grazing with stock such as sheep, and calves. A quick on-and-off grazing with young stock is best, at a very light-stocking rate.
Never use heavy cattle and avoid stock stampeding across the paddock or hanging around gateways or troughs as they’ll end up ploughing it up.
If the young grass plants look yellow, then a light dressing of Nitrogen (25kg/ha max) will help to get them going again but this won’t work if soil temperatures have dropped below 6C and the ground is very wet.
Weeds regularly beat new autumn/winter pasture growth, especially thistles of all kinds, docks, redshank, fireweed and ragwort, and you’ll need to recognise these in the early growth stage and deal with them then. Get out and chip thistles, ragwort and docks to try and avoid spending money on the spray.
Soil pugging at any time is a major sin, as it does major damage to the delicate crumb structure of the soil that holds air and water. This soil structure may not repair for months and some soil damage can be permanent. If you have heavy clay soils, it really is time to build a standoff pad for cattle for winter, but make sure it meets local environmental standards.
Sheep in the North Island are well into pregnancy with sheep on harder ‘later’ country in the central North Island and in the South Island generally a month or more later.
Sheep can handle feed too short for cattle to graze, but this doesn’t mean they can be underfed which they often are in May. A pregnant ewe at this stage needs at least 1kg of Dry Matter per day to maintain her body functions, and about as much again if she’s carrying twins and needs to build up body reserves to produce milk. This is a large amount of green wet pasture and will take the animal a long time to harvest if the paddocks are like your lawn. They could into the bargain wear down their teeth by eating soil.
So keep checking body condition (see our website for details). It’s no good just looking at sheep from a distance, as their wool cover will fool you. You have to feel the spine and the back muscles around it.
At this stage of pregnancy, skinny ewes will need emergency feeding with concentrates, as pasture will not provide enough energy for them to get back into a healthy state by lambing. Concentrate feed is expensive, so make sure all ewes get a fair share provided by plenty of trough space, otherwise, the shy ones that need it most won’t get any.
A month before lambing the lambs start to grow fast in utero, and udders increase for lactation. Ewes carrying multiples (if you know which they are) need extra special care. Scanning is the best way to find out but may not be possible in small flocks. An old trick was to pick twinning ewes by their big bellies that walk very slowly when driven a distance. But watch them carefully in case they prolapse with all the pressure inside the uterus from the rumen - both competing for space.
Lush green pasture in late autumn and winter will always cause sheep to scour, as it’s high in moisture, high in protein, and high in energy but very low in fibre. Don’t rush and buy drench, promoted by outrageous pre-lamb advertising and specials, stating that scouring sheep have worms when the problem is more likely to be feed quality.
There used to be an annual survey of drenches published in the farming papers for pre-lamb drenching showing that there are over 40 different products on the market, and it can be very confusing knowing which drench to use. The worst worms are Barber’s Pole in the North Island and Nematodirus in the South, so ask your vet about these, but the colder weather in May restricts their activity a lot.
Don’t drench any sheep until you get a Faecal Egg Count (FEC) done through your vet clinic, and if it is internal parasites, get vet advice to make sure you use the appropriate drench to avoid build-up of drench resistance. Do not use long-acting anthelmintic capsules. Worm resistance in sheep is increasing on many properties with the risk that not too far into the future, sheep and goats will not be able to be farmed in those areas.
In young sheep, internal parasites are a concern, as the build-up of their natural immunity isn’t complete until they are 9-10 months old. Old ewes should not need drenching, as their immunity will protect them. It’s when they get skinny that they are at risk of other afflictions such as worms.
If you just keep on drenching indiscriminately, then the drench kills the susceptible worms and leaves the resistant ones, which then build up in numbers. Then, there’s a greater chance of resistant worms mating with other resistant worms, and so it goes on till the whole worm population is resistant to the drench chemicals.
So ‘best practice’ now is not to drench the best 15-20% of a mob that look in good order, to maintain a population of worms that can be killed by drench – they are kept in ‘refugia’.
If any hoggets were big enough to put to the ram and got pregnant, they will need extra high-energy feed during the next few months in the form of concentrates. Hopefully, they will not be carrying twins, as these hogget’s lambs are always small and hard to keep alive. But hogget twinning is increasing in today’s breeds, which is far too big a strain on them and causing high death rates among the lambs. So generally, don’t put hoggets to the ram if you can keep them separate at mating.
Lice can be a problem in winter if sheep have not been pre-winter shorn. If you see sheep rubbing on fences, then have a good look around their neck and back line for lice. They will need treating, and again with over 20 products on the market, take your vet’s advice as lice too are on the way to developing resistance to chemicals.
Don’t spend time treating sheep with chronic foot rot. Culling them is the best long-term solution as they are hard to cure and remain a reservoir of infection for the rest of the flock.
If any sheep go downhill fast, then suspect that they may be suffering from the delayed effects (liver damage) from Facial Eczema, and their survival chances may not be good. Contact your vet without delay.
If you shear about now (pre-lamb) wool needs to be a minimum of 100mm long, make sure you are prepared for bad weather by having shelter and some feed saved up for any ewes off-shears. Good preparation of the wool clip is important and justified despite the pathetic prices. Let the shearer take the wool.
Thistles in wool have become a major problem in the recent dry years, as sheep have been working hard to find a feed. So take time to remove all dead plant material from wool at shearing.
The most important job in May and the coming winter is to give priority feed to young stock. If you don’t, then they will never reach their target weights and their lifetime production will be grossly reduced.
Stunted stock may eventually grow and catch up to reach its mature size, (called compensatory growth) but it will take more time on the farm and more feed because of it – and this means greater cost. They will always be smaller at maturity; so the best idea is to sell them when prices are good and when farmers want mouths to eat any surplus grass.
Mature cattle, especially of traditional British beef breeds hold their condition better than any with Holstein Friesian or other dairy genes.
Pregnant cows need to be at a Body Condition Score (BCS) of 5 for calving – i.e. they must have rounded well-covered hipbones. So if you score a cow BCS 5 as a BCS 4.5, then you have done her out of 180kg of Dry Matter to get her into calving condition as it takes this amount of DM to put on one score – over and above the feed needed to maintain the cow. See our website for an easy way to learn to assess a cow’s BCS. The DairyNZ system is too complicated.
The real worry is cows under CS 3, which under the Dairy Cow Code of Welfare are officially ‘emaciated’ and need urgent attention to rescue them before calving. To do this, you need to feed these cows what they would be getting in full lactation – and that may not be possible this winter if there is little green feed and only supplements of varying quality available.
It’s worth the cost of getting cows pregnancy tested, and vets will do small numbers. Then you can cull any empties if the feed is short, as they will cost you a lot of feed carrying them over (called ‘carry-over’ cows) until they get pregnant and calve again for the following season. Culling very late calvers is also worth considering, as they will always be late calving unless you miss a season to allow them to catch up.
Remember though, that the costs of rearing a replacement heifer will be about twice what you will get for an empty boner. People forget to take into account what it costs to rear new stock – budget for at least $1000. Many seem to assume that replacements are reared for free!
The only way you can make money from a beef cow is to spread her running costs over a long productive life, and she must wean a top calf each year. A dairy cow’s maximum yield is at age 8, but few live that long due to wastage (mainly, infertility, mastitis, bloat and lameness). Beef cows should last longer with less stress on them from suckling multiple calves.
Hay and silage cost money so when feeding out, don’t let stock waste it, and if necessary, feed out twice a day, especially in wet muddy conditions. A well-designed feed rack is a good investment (provided it’s moved regularly) and a stand-off pad should be built for large cattle. Check with local regulations regarding effluent disposal.
Young stock about now can be prone to what is called ‘autumn ill thrift’ and it can happen when the late autumn/early winter green pasture starts to grow again. Vets often struggle to find a cause from blood tests. Cattle get thin and scour, and owners immediately think it is worms. Worms can be diagnosed and eliminated after doing an FEC, but various mineral deficiencies, yersiniosis and salmonella can also be involved. Lack of fibre in the feed is the main problem so good hay helps to dry them up which is the first priority.
If cattle have been on long-term zinc treatment to prevent FE, be on the watch for copper deficiency. Get some blood or liver profiles done to check copper levels, which may be low as zinc strips copper from the liver, and is especially important on peat farms. Ginger-coloured hair on black cattle and scouring are signs of low copper. Talk to your vet about how to build up mineral status in cows over winter and some extra energy from feeding molasses may be justified.
Any stock that had subclinical FE which you may not have noticed as there were no skin lesions) will have liver damage, and this can affect them coming up to calving when the pressure really comes on their systems. They can go down with metabolic diseases such as milk fever, staggers and acetonaemia, or even abort. Check with your vet to make sure you have emergency treatments on hand and always call for veterinary help.
Be aware that humans and dogs can pick up Leptospirosis from cattle (and also rats, sheep and pigs) which is classed as a ‘zoonotic’ disease. So, check if your young stock needs Lepto vaccinations (they will need one and a booster). Also, make sure that any purchased stock has been vaccinated. Personal hygiene after handling stock is a basic rule for everyone on a farm. If you get lepto twice you will have to leave farming as a third attack can be fatal.
Check cattle regularly for lice, especially young stock as they can prevent calves and yearlings from thriving, even causing death in severe cases through the blood-sucking parasites. Ask your vet for the best treatment, as these critters are becoming resistant to current chemical treatments. Cattle lice bite humans too!
- Keep reviewing the feed situation to see what feed you have, what’s going to grow, and what supplements will be needed to get through to spring with its high feed demand. If you don’t know how to do this, get some help.
- Check the financial budget for unexpected winter costs. Keep accounts up to date and pay bills regularly.
- Check and clean drains so they can take any extra rain during the coming months. Some extra tanks to store roof water for the garden would be a good idea.
- Rural crime is on the increase and burglars are getting more professional and brazen, and are now travelling into rural areas as groups. They are after food, fuel, small machinery and firearms. They will take the entire firearm cabinet so check it cannot be removed. And never confront them with your firearms.
- Monitored security systems have limited value, as by the time the security agents get to your property, the burglars will have long gone. So make it as difficult as possible for them, as they don’t like having to spend time on the property, as this increases the chances of them being seen or photographed. Install an electronic bleeper at the gate to record any vehicle arrivals.
- Keeping your front gate closed at all times, even when you are home, is the first thing you can do. Crims don’t like getting out of vehicles to open gates as people or cameras may see them.
- Freshen up your neighbourhood watch group. Too many people on small blocks don’t know their neighbours, as they seem to be too busy to meet. Neighbours are a major line of defence against rural crime.
- Regular checking of power fences and water supplies should be ongoing. And farm motorbikes and machinery keep on killing and maiming people. So don’t give in – keep the kids off large bikes and out of the way of working machinery.
- Trim trees on your property, especially those that are overhanging the road, as if they drop branches you will be liable for any damage. Check your personal liability insurance cover.
- Also, make sure a fire engine can get through your gate.
- NEVER put the stock on the road verge to graze anymore. The risks of accidents and legal implications would bankrupt you!
- Check that all your cattle are NAIT compliant, even those kept for the home kill.