Friday, July 8, 2022

Being prepared

Was the drought of 1964-65 worse than the 1972-73 one? This type of comparison goes on during every drought, and only goes to demonstrate that droughts are not unusual. My head shepherd has her origins in the dust and dirt of the South Australian dry land, where dry summers, if not years, are common place. She is forever surprised by how unprepared we are for droughts – possibly a commonly held view of many people outside farming as well.

That Australian situation is quite different from ours and it always terrified me that the in-laws might want us to farm it. An average annual rainfall of 30cm does necessitate a flexible stocking policy – and bank balance. It does not change the reality that planning for the management of droughts should be the norm in New Zealand.

The stress that droughts bring is probably the biggest challenge because of its impact on decision-making.

From the outside the actions that need to be taken are often quite clear, but at the coal face it is murky. So maybe the way that my father-in-law coped was to be always in a drought readiness state of mind, and taking protective actions early. That is easier when droughts are the norm. Are we in that state?

We still farm on the basis that the summers will be dry, but having plans in place to respond to the abnormal is surely a good idea. The few that have done that this summer are now in a much better state. For a couple of those at least, the trigger to initiate action was soil moisture data. It proved to be a reliable indicator of what was ahead. We probably need more background information to validate that measure as a predictor, but if it is highly correlated to what is ahead then we can create plans to set rolling when needed – and early.

My South Australian experience was notable also because the animal health inputs were so prescriptive, but decision-based. So, for example, if it was really dry there was no drenching. Two weeks after rain, sheep were drenched. Foot rot and fly strike prevention was triggered by the rain. For many North Island farms this summer there has been little need to drench. Most of the focus has gone on what to do after it rained. The Haemonchus threat has loomed large, but now that rain has occurred this seems to have been possibly misguided.

A sheep farmer asked me several weeks or more after the rain if he should drench his whole flock with a Haemonchus specific product. That is, one that has persistence against this worm. I asked how his ewes were looking and behaving and what feed they were on. Requesting some faecal samples for worm egg counting may have been appropriate but I knew that was not going to happen. On the basis of knowing the farmer, the farm, and his replies I told him I did not think his stock needed to be drenched. To which he replied that a visiting farmer had told him that since he had been giving his ewes a moxidectin drench before mating each year his pregnancy scanning had gone up. So maybe he should be doing it anyway. I did fleetingly think that I had missed the advertising that said the moxidectin had an Androvax effect, because given some of the other advertising around this product that we have had over the years it would not have been surprising.

I suggested to my client that his visitor had some major problems if that was truly a cause and effect outcome. It did not change my advice and he did mutter as he left the building that I had just saved him $1000. The shop over the road had told him that it was wise for him to drench all of his ewes, so maybe his sustainability conscience pricked him or his cash-flow shortfall was burning in his pocket, enough to get another opinion.

From my perspective, and one that makes me sweat at times, was this advice or an opinion? Is there a difference and how accountable am I for that message? I certainly do not take such conversations lightly and often will make contact later to talk through the conversation more. In this case the retailer across the road will never be held to account – a drench sale and Haemonchus covered will never be questioned.

The biggest challenge ahead remains the same as that of last month – not enough feed taken into the winter. The disease consequences of not having feed in the winter, and therefore in the spring, are fairly predictable. Light condition ewes on not enough feed coming into lambing has a known outcome. The same goes for cows.

For both, the susceptibility to worms just escalates – pregnancy, underfeeding and worms are a bad combination. Diagnosing this outcome is difficult, but responding to just the situation and known risk is valid. In times of adversity, sustainability considerations and least cost options usually need to take a back seat. 

  • Trevor Cook, veterinarian, Manawatu.
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