19 March 2020

Managing the big dry requires ongoing attention

Sitting here in March having watched pastures disappear in front of our eyes after an excellent early season for most, you could be forgiven for asking what have we done to deserve this?

By Mike Bailey, FarmWise Consultant

The correct question though is what are we going to do now?

Pasture covers in the wider Waikato and Northland are not providing much more than 2-3 kg of dry matter, with the rest coming from combinations of available supplements. The greater part of the North Island is also under pressure meaning there is little respite outside of your own region. Everyone appears to be in the same situation, Southland and the West Coast aside.

Your usual actions around dealing with a summer dry should have been utilised by now.

Once a day milking or three times in two days are good options for relieving pressure and stress on staff and stock.

There is still some time left in the season too so if the weather does break, we want to be able to take advantage of it with as many cows milking as possible. In the meantime, you need to take stock of your current position.

What should you be doing? Sit down and acknowledge your position. Are your cows hungry and, losing weight? How is your current feed supply? Do you have a contract for PKE and the means to feed these products? Do you know what each feed costs?

The first step is to count up what supplements you have left available for the next period. Ensure you have a good three weeks feed available for when the rain comes and you have ring fenced your winter requirements. What you have left is available to be fed now.

Do a feed budget now. If you have maize coming the gap may not be as big as first thought. Source additional feed to fill any gaps that appear, use the DairyNZ supplements price calculator to check on short-term economics. The dry is now widespread so sourcing silage at reasonable prices is unlikely. The longer you wait to assess your situation, the higher the prices and the further afield you will need to go to source the feed you want. 

Ensure you have made your culling decisions or at least have a plan for who you won’t be taking through next year. There is at least a three week wait so get onto your agent now.

This is not a season to be tinkering with MTs because they are giving a bit more milk. Look after next seasons capital stock now and cull your MTs.

Pressure will come on body condition score now grass reserves have effectively disappeared. With growth little more than traces and your pre-grazing height having dropped after each round cows are getting little more than a change of scenery. Overall intakes will decline and cows will milk off their backs so have a plan on condition score and stick to it. Ensure you give yourself enough time to gain that condition score for next season. Be prepared to act if cows are light and are 120 days from their due date. Critical time for a cow calving on the 15July is the 15 March.

Don’t chase showers with urea, it is simply too dry now to get a response and remember urea is a growth multiplier. Wait until the second drought breaking rain event before considering any nitrogen application. 

After drought breaking, rain pastures will recover and often this recovery is dramatic. Pastures have a habit of fooling you though so take a critical look and use the DairyNZ Pasture condition score tool to help you decide what action is necessary.

Mike Bailey, FarmWise Consultant

Paddocks are assessed based on factors such as damage, openness and weed infestation and given a rating five down to one. A score of five being a dense sward with desirable grasses to one, entire paddock severely damaged.

In a drought situation this may be cricket damage, pulling through overgrazing to pest damage. As the drought is widespread get your seed order in early to avoid any shortfall.

DroughtDon’t forget your young stock as well. There are too many poorly grown first calvers entering herds so its a good time to check on your grazier and act if required. Weighing young stock now and acting is essential. You can’t manage what you don’t measure.

Rainfall now goes a long way to fixing your immediate issues but won’t guarantee success moving forward. It is necessary to take stock and assess the most recent seasons effect on all aspects of your farming business.

Did your summer crop provide the necessary feed to get through? Is there an alternative? Did you get exposed by not contracting your PKE requirements? Are you milking too many cows? Are you getting enough production before Christmas? Do you have the facilities to calve earlier? Do you have the planning skills to address these questions?

The potential stress associated with cows being fed less than optimum and finding adequate feed poses real challenges for people. Keep an eye on your mates and neighbours and use the resources available to you for advice and help. Rural Support has funds available for support now drought has been officially declared in various regions with the Government releasing more money.

Given the current situation the next eight weeks will require some serious decision making.Remember it’s the agonising over making a decision that can cause the most anguish. Once a decision is made, the relief is usually palpable.