Friday, July 1, 2022

A connection not made

After a week of travelling around the country I paid the man in the booth as I left the airport car park. I asked if it had rained during the week, and he gleefully replied that it had not. It had been a “really great hot week”, he said. He was rather taken aback by my response. The same response fell on deaf ears when I insulted my car radio. I had heard the editor of a major financial newspaper dismiss reports of farmers being in strife from the dry because it had happened before and it always seemed to suddenly come right. The fact that the rain might have “suddenly arrived” but on to farms with few stock was a connection he hadn’t made.

A visual pasture recovery is not a financial recovery. The lack of appreciation by the general population about not just the plight of farmers but the economic impact of that plight seems to be increasing. The Federated Farmers president reminding the radio listeners that New Zealand’s financial slump in 2009 was triggered by droughts in significant farming areas could not counter the jocular dismissal that preceded him.

So battling on in seeming isolation is how it has been for many this summer. By the time this column is read, next season’s outcomes will have been largely set. The big drivers will be in place – ewe condition determining the scanning result and cow condition going into the winter determining feed priorities.

When the going is tough the challenge is always to know when to change the focus. Fighting to get the best from today has at some time to change to fighting to set up next season.

This summer I saw too many trade lambs on farms when there was barely enough feed to prepare the ewes for mating. A calculation on the return on the feed available showed without doubt that it would have returned much more to lift the ewe flock than grow out lambs. Of course that better return on the feed consumed, if going into ewes, is not realised until next season, but what was more telling was how hard it can be to change the focus, cut the losses and begin setting up next season.

The forums where this change in focus was being addressed were discussion groups and Monitor Farm-type days. The power of these forums to address these sorts of issues is underestimated, in my opinion. We all need help to make decisions, particularly so when under pressure.

How to keep ewes going coming into mating has been a major discussion point all over the North Island late this summer. The standard recommendation of prioritising the lighter condition ewes and holding the okay condition ones always applies. When the feed supply dwindles to the point of threatening the ewes to just hold, what options are there?

As part of a Monitor Farm project years ago we looked at the cost benefit of feeding ewes maize grain to maintain their condition. With the cost of maize and the value of lamb at that time, it was financially positive. I expect the same applies now, except what lamb price do you use in such a calculation?

The barrier to this working, though, is getting started early enough to allow ewes time to adjust. I have seen a lot of silage in its various forms being fed to ewes. This will hold them as long as they are given enough, but this forage will never lift ewes. The high ME supplements are the ones that really make a difference.

For ewes that have never been exposed to supplements previously, it can take a frustratingly long time to get enough eating enough. Some ewes just refuse to be supplemented. There has been a lot of talk this summer about annually training ewe lambs/hoggets to eat supplements so that they can readily pick it up if they need to in later years. For many southern farmers this is old hat but the perception is that it is in more intensive systems. This summer I have seen relatively large hill-country flocks being supplemented.

By April the haemonchus outbreaks and the late season facial eczema challenges that followed the rain will have been dealt with and the disappointment in the “guts” of the fresh growth will have been experienced. Of course if it has not rained in much of the North Island by then, those issues will not figure.

This season is shaping up to be not unlike that of three years ago in the west of the North Island. Ewes went into the winter not carrying enough condition and the feed covers being taken into the winter were less than ideal. With this combination the outcome is almost totally in the hands of the nature of the winter and spring. In that 2010 year the spring weather was diabolical, playing havoc with light and hungry ewes.

Efforts to feed stock this autumn must be accompanied by as much effort to build pasture covers for the winter – or at least securing winter feed. The focus even now has to be ensuring enough feed in the spring. Pregnant animals must be fed and feed budgets must always protect these classes first.

It could be a big nitrogen year.

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