Friday, July 8, 2022

Ten tips for drought survival

Putaruru sharemilker Hamish Putt has adopted an almost zero-grazing policy following the rain that has started pasture growing again. His 1100 cows in three sharemilking contracts are being kept off pasture following 36mm of rain in mid-March – the first rain since a token 13mm in January and 20mm in three dribbles during February. The whole farm, and region, had been dry and brown but turned green within a week of the rain.  Putt, however, was resisting the temptation to start break-feeding grass that had grown 2cm.

Instead he is continuing to feed out grass silage and maize silage in “sacrifice” paddocks chosen for good tree shade and proximity to the dairy – and now he’s able to feed them their maize silage in one green paddock that’s a blend of one-year-old perennial ryegrass, chicory and plantain.

On two of the farms there’s also a 4kg/cow ration of palm kernel fed in mobile troughs and Hamish has 700 bales of wrapped grass silage on hand that he bought at the start of March from the Bay of Plenty.

At the same time he trucked 75 dried-off cows to a grazing block at Raglan.

Hamish’s 10 point plan for dry summer management is:

1. Weigh the young replacement stock regularly and negotiate extra feeding with their graziers.

“A great investment is an electronic ID wand and weight indicator kit that plugs into the scales,” he said.

“I go to each grazing block once a month and run all the stock over the scales. If the rising one and two- year-olds are too light or not gaining weight then I have had to buy the extra feed. There’s a negotiation (over extra feed costs) and you need graziers you can work with. I’m now negotiating to keep our young stock off the farm a few weeks longer.”

2. Update your farm’s summer feed budget every 10 days.

“The writing was on the wall by February (about an on-going drought) so on February 5  I bought 150 tonnes of early maize after calculating our feed deficit to April 1  when our contract maize was due to be delivered.

“On this farm we needed 200t of drymatter (DM) of anything, based on 410 cows needing 12kg DM/day for 40 days, and that wasn’t coming from pasture. The maize silage was fed at the rate of 6kg /cow/day.”

3. Financial budgets must be updated regularly.

“The big calls are forced by the drought for unbudgeted spending on feed and reduced milksolids (MS) income. The bank manager has to be aware of what’s being spent and I am making contact every 10 days to tell him what I’m doing.

“The quicker you can refresh your feed and financial budgets the quicker you can be in the market to buy feed at a workable price. The banks have fewer options for farmers who don’t know the size of the hole they are in or refuse to believe it.

“I use an easy spreadsheet to show the bank how much more we have to spend.”

4. Zero grazing while pasture is recovering.

“If grass is going to make up less than 10% of the cows’ diet then why use it at all when it would be better to let the pasture recover?” he asked.

“Sure, the cows can eat the farm right out of DM when it’s dry because it will only rot down after rain. But then give the new tillers the time to replenish the reserves in the plant.”

5. Feed out at each end of the day when it’s cooler.

“We feed out grass silage in the morning and maize silage after 3pm when it’s not so hot because the cow is already struggling to moderate her body temperature, which requires energy, and then would require more energy to digest any feed.”

6. Body condition score (BCS) the cows regularly.

“By mid-March we were scoring the milkers each week and any cows below BCS 3.5 had to be dried off to have enough time to put on weight. They have to be at a BCS of 5 one month before our July 25 calving.

“It will take a full month of maize and grass to gain 1 BCS or six weeks on just grass alone.

“To maintain BCS we started 16 hour milkings in mid-January and then once-a-day (OAD) from late February.”

7. Be patient

“We know that when good rain falls everything unlocks and suddenly graziers have grass and want stock, as normal, and winter crops will be there.

8. Consider the future

“We have to consider what worked well this summer and learn from it. As a sharemilker you have to make a good case for any proposal to change the way things are done.

“We have changed to winter milking on two of our three farms because we can grow grass in winter and could grow more feed at that time than in summer.”

9. Review the herd stocking rate

“We look at cows as equity but those extra cows making up the numbers might not be adding to the profit line.

“It’s a difficult decision to destock after a good summer but we should consider the three-year rolling average rather than have the wheels fall off when the system is under stress.

“I am certainly going to run a lower stocking rate on all three farms and go from 3.1 cow/ha down to probably 2.8 or 2.9/ha, which reflects the fact that the amount of grass we have grown on a three year average doesn’t support 3.1/ha.”

10. Regrass poor paddocks and try multi-graze crops like chicory for summer grazing.

“We crop 8-10% of pasture for a summer crop and have identified next year’s crop area, which will be undersown near the end of March with an annual ryegrass that will increase winter and early spring growth – an extra 10t DM across the whole farm. Then it’s sprayed and drilled into chicory and plantain in October and in April under-sown with a perennial ryegrass.”

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