Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Tough talk for tough times

Northland AgFirst consultant Bob Thompson knows a thing or two about managing droughts, especially when it comes to beef cattle. His home region has had three droughts in the past five years and Thompson has called on the knowledge learnt during those events to help educate farmers from around the country. Speaking to farmers at a Beef Returns Improvement Group (BRIG) meeting near Hunterville Thompson pulled no punches when delivering his advice. His key message was for farmers to get tough with their breeding cows, using them as buffers to protect farming systems in times of feed shortage.

“We are too soft on breeding cows and they cost us money because of that. If you still have some rough feed just hang in there and buffer the calves as much as possible.”

He advised farmers that condition scores of cows can be taken down to a 4/10 over winter provided the process is gradual and not too sudden. Cows have to have access to top quality feed when it gets closer to calving so they can replenish their fat reserves. He also advised farmers to wean calves early which could reduce the feed demand on pasture considerably.

According to Thomson, recovering from drought conditions takes careful planning and quick action. “You have to be thinking: ‘How do I be the first cab off the rank when it comes to recovery?’,” he said.

What happens after rain has arrived and pasture starts to freshen? Farmers were told to resist the temptation to graze fresh grass immediately.

“Drought lesson 101: grass grows grass. One of my colleagues likens a blade of grass to a solar panel. The more solar panels you have up the more grass you are going to grow. You have got to get your covers up and that requires hard work for both man and beast,” he said.

Thomson advised holding stock back until pasture covers are at least 1200kg DM/ha, with the ideal target for cattle being 2000kg DM/ha.

“Discipline, discipline, discipline. Take some short term pain to create some long term gain,” he said.

Thomson believes nitrogen will provide the cheapest form of supplementary feed for a farming system.

“I know some people will say ‘but there is nitrogen in the ground that has been suppressed during the drought that will become available’. Bollocks I say. Build a bridge and get over it. Book your nitrogen in now and aim to have it on in mid-April.” He felt that would leave enough time to give a good pasture response before colder temperatures kick in.

His advice is based on working closely with Landcorp to try to better understand beef cow performance.

Other top tips from AgFirst for managing drought conditions:

Sell stock early and have no regrets. “Putting money in the bank is one of the most effective tolls for correcting the on-farm feed imbalance”.

Farmers need to be proactive rather than reactive. “Waiting until decisions become a have-to means you are too late.”

Planning is critical, whether it be financial, feed budgeting or stress management. “Put pegs (dates) in the ground. Don’t creep.”

Talking to someone will help ease the burden. “You may be too close to the action to make clear calls.”

A drought is not the time to follow a financial budget. “Follow the feed budget and make decisions early.”

Capital stock should be protected and priority fed. “Finishing stock should be sold or at least put on the back burner.”

Don’t rely on your eye-o-meter when it comes to monitoring weights of critical stock such as breeding ewes. Monitor weights regularly and prioritise stock classes accordingly.

During a drought stock can hold body condition far better if they have access to clean drinking water.

Calves should be weaned early if possible to take some pressure off the breeding cows. Yard weaning should be considered if possible.

Each farm will have different challenges depending on pasture covers and rainfall. “Remember where you are and protect your winter covers – especially the properties with long, cold winters.”

Cut down willows and poplars where available. “They have to be cut down or coppiced at some stage.”

Once rain comes, animal health will become a priority as the risk of eczema and internal parasites increases. “Be proactive with animal health treatments.”

A drought is not the time to dither about stock numbers. “Cull hard and cull early”

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