Pastures

Are we in for another summer drought? This is now the worry every year as records show declining annual rainfall over the last three years. Folk who have recorded rain, except for a very few areas have recorded half of what they got last year, and that was a drier than average year. So it’s time for serious planning for summer although it may seem some time away.

It’s all about what surpluses there will be to make first into silage if you can handle feeding it out or leaving it longer to make into hay nearer Christmas. Keep an eye on the 10cm soil temperatures to see how things are drying out.

It’s important to take a careful look at what’s growing (especially weeds) as they will tell you a lot about soil nutrient status, as will a soil test. Too many small blocks have not had lime for decades, and until soil pH is fixed, then the other main nutrients of N, P. K and S will not be fully effective.

Good pasture (grass and clover) is not free feed. It has cost you rates, fertiliser, water, fencing and labour, so when a surplus arrives, none should be wasted, especially with the prospect of another dry summer.

Pasture has the best feeding value when in the green, leafy ‘vegetative stage’, and not when it starts to grow long, becomes fibrous and races to go to seed. And the best and cheapest way to keep it that way is by grazing management, where after grazing, plants are given time to build up feed reserves from their leaves to be stored in the roots, to then feed the leaves again. On too many farms, especially those with horses that can graze right to soil level, the leaves never get a chance to grow.

If pastures start getting out of control, start to rotate the stock faster so they are just knocking the top off. But this causes a lot of waste and that’s when you start considering silage when pasture has gone beyond 15% seed heads, which is the limit for quality silage. Confirm your booking with your silage and hay contractor, as they have to plan too.

With the publicity and concern these days over environmental issues, there is increasing interest (and endless arguments) over the merits of ‘regenerative farming, ‘biological farming’, ‘organic farming’, and ‘biodynamic’ farming. It can all be a bit confusing, so be careful when talking to enthusiasts and folk trying to sell you cheaper options. Conventional fertiliser providers will probably rubbish all these options so if you need help, try to find some independent help based on science. It may not be easy, as everybody seems to have the perfect solution!

The problem is that information on all these systems always seems to be given in general terms, and it’s often more clear as to what they are not, rather than what they are. So be aware of enthusiasts and claims made on limited evidence on how these systems will improve your profits and lifestyle. And be especially wary of sales folk who claim they can treat your whole farm for a fraction of conventional fertiliser costs, and how their product will enhance the environment.

Be prepared for a late cold snap and a classical ‘feed pinch’ when pastures may stop growing. The best action is to bring the closed-up saved paddocks back into the grazing round again (if you have any), as it’s very bad practice to cut feeding levels to stock at this time of year.

Advertising hype seems to be increasing to grow special crops such as chicory, plantain, lucerne and lucerne to supplement pasture and counteract drought, but on small blocks, this is rarely possible because of lack of area. Then there are also forage crops such as kale, rape, turnips and fodder beet being pushed at farmers. Avoid these options for small farms, as there are too many management problems, which cost money and may not be economic.

Sheep

All lambs should have been tail docked and males castrated following the Sheep Welfare Code. If you want to sell some early-born lambs for the Christmas market, leave them as entire males which usually make more money as they grow faster. The problem is often late-born lambs as on most small blocks, lambs can arrive from mid-winter up to Christmas because rams run with the ewes all year round. The result is lambs of all sizes on ewes; all competing for the same grass as there are not enough paddocks for good feed control.

It’s a good time now to start identifying ewes that will not have earned their keep for the season. Mark them for culling and get rid of them early as we know it’s going to get dry. Also cull all ewes with chronic foot rot, as they are just a source of infection for other sheep.

Some young lambs may get foot scald in wet and lush grass, but it often cures itself when conditions dry up. Treat any bad cases where animals are suffering. Young lambs may also get arthritis showing stiff legs and clearly are not happy. Check with your vet for the best current way to deal with these problems.

The promotion of worm drenches is relentlessly accompanied by special giveaways. Ewes should not need a drench as they should have developed an immunity to worms, and if lambs are scouring, before buying any product, send some faecal samples to your vet for a Faecal Egg Count (FEC) to see if parasites are the problem. Due to the increased risk of drench resistance in worms, you need veterinary advice as to which is the correct product to use to avoid the problem. Check advice on best practices in the ‘Wormwise’ programme on the Internet. It’s not often mentioned in the farming press anymore.

Wool is an economic disaster at present as more committees are set up to find answers. The length of the wool dictates shearing these days, as processors require wool no longer than 100mm because of the demands of modern processing machinery. So plan to shear twice a year to achieve this, as if you try to sell long crossbred full fleece wool, you’ll get very little for it.

There is a major concern over contamination of wool with thistle heads, and lack of good fleece preparation. Talk to your shearer about this but it’s a good option to let the shearer take all the wool away. Get rid of thistles before they seed and contaminate the wool.

Avoid dipping or spraying any sheep for at least 6 weeks before shearing, as overseas wool buyers don’t want our chemicals ending up in their environment. There’s even a demand now for ‘organic’ wool! After shearing, if you need to treat sheep for external parasites and blowflies, leave it till they have grown about 25mm of wool so the chemical sticks. Talk to your vet about the appropriate products to use, again because external parasites are also getting more resistant to chemicals.

It’s not easy handling sheep on a small block without good facilities and a shearing machine to keep sheep free from dags. Dags on ewes can then soil the lambs as they try to find the ewe’s teats and run against their dams when closely penned. Sheep need to be kept clean to avoid the terrible pain and stress caused by being eaten alive by blowfly maggots at this time of year. Dagging should be done before shearing unless your shearer will do the job at the same time.

Cattle

‘Dairy weaner’ sales have started in the North Island, and this year with the beef exports looking good, weaner prices could be high. Some prices for early sale calves are often ridiculous, so make sure you buy on weight and don’t pay above the meat schedule price per kg. Don’t trust weigh tapes for an accurate weight.

At the same time as the dairy weaner sales, there are still some late-born feeder calves for sale. Don’t be tempted to buy these at this time of year, with the prospect of a dry summer coming. Calves should be growing at least 1kg/head/day on pasture and weaned off meals. If they are not growing well, get veterinary advice to look first at their feeding regime and then possible health problems.

It’s always disappointing to see how many poor calves are offered at both feeder and weaner sales, with so much good information available these days on calf feeding and rearing. So be wary of groups of cheap calves, or any, offered for sale where a poor one has been slipped into the mob. This happens! They’ll soak up all the profit on the others, as they’ll need extra vet treatment to keep them going and they’ll never catch up with well-grown mates. Be wary of buying calves on Facebook!

Before you buy any weaners, make sure they have been properly disbudded (dehorned) using a cauterising iron. Some calves dehorned with caustic paste end up being a mess and the horns re-grow. You don’t want added veterinarian charges to fix problems later, or be charged a financial penalty for horns at meat works.

Don’t drench calves for worms, and certainly don’t use a pour-on treatment unless a Faecal Egg Count (FEC) by your veterinarian confirms the need. Young calves should not need anthelmintics as their immunity should still be high from their colostrum and they should not have ingested many worm larvae at this stage of their lives.

Cows suckling calves should still be milking well, so make sure they are fully fed and have plenty of clean water. Their calves will be grazing too and need good pasture. If these ‘suckler cows’ get thin, they won’t come on heat, and probably won’t hold to early services, and this will certainly be the case if cows are suckling more than one calf. Generally, beef breed suckler cows keep their condition well – and it’s bred with dairy genes that ‘milk off their backs’, which are the ones that need extra feed.

Start planning to procure any bulls needed for mating beef cows in November (North Island). Bulls are dangerous animals so the main questions are – do you really need a bull and for how long? If you have an old bull on the property from last season, get him vet-checked as there’s always a surprisingly high number of bulls that have infertility and libido problems, so vet checking is essential. There are plenty of bulls available for lease, which is a good option but this year remember to check their health status.

If you have bulls on the property that you don’t need or trust, then get rid of them to the works pronto, as if you don’t like them – they probably don’t like you!

When using Artificial Insemination (AI) or Artificial Breeding (AB), which is the same thing, there are a few issues to consider. Veterinarians can offer a programme to bring cows on heat using drugs, but this involves a number of visits and ends up being expensive.

The other option is to let nature takes its course and you decide when the cow is on heat from its behaviour, and then contact an AB service provider to come and inseminate the cow. You will have to discuss this with them beforehand, to see if they will provide a service for small herds. There could be trained inseminators in your area who could help with advice – especially with help on heat detection and the right time to inseminate the cow. See our website.

Management

  • Keep the farm diary and records up to date.
  • Make sure all cattle on the farm are NAIT compliant.
  • Pay the bills regularly.
  • Boost your security as rural crime is on the increase. Stock is growing and can be easily stolen when near the roadside. If you have to go away for a few days, put your most valuable animals out of sight of the road, and inform your neighbours. Far too many folks on small blocks don’t know their neighbours!
  • Bikes, fuel and food are high-priority items for rural thieves. Keep your road gate shut all the time, and reverse the top hinge so it can’t be lifted off.
  • When away, a cunning trick is to mark your petrol tank as diesel and vice versa. Hopefully, thieves will have filled up enough of their tanks before their sense of smell alerts them!
  • Thieves then don’t go far and don’t come back – but make sure you remember!
  • Confirm bookings with silage and hay contractors in plenty of time, and make sure you pay them on time!
  • Before pastures are shut up for conservation, check there’s no rubbish such as metal fence standards and wire left around which could damage machinery.
  • And check all gates are wide enough and open easily ready for contractors with their large machines later in the season.
  • Don’t be conned into buying anything based on fancy advertising such as fertiliser, animal remedies, etc.
  • Never graze stock on the road verge anymore, and check your personal liability insurance.
  • Check tree branches now coming into heavy leaves that may be overhanging the highway, as you could be liable for damage to vehicles after wind storms. The same applies to your trees reaching power lines.