Make plans and avoid drought pain, farmers told

Last updated 10:44 11/03/2014
Drought Orini dairy cows

GET READY: An Orini farm shows how paddocks are drying out in parts of Waikato.

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Dairy farmers have been told they can get through drought-like conditions for the rest of the season without suffering production and profit loss by preparing properly.

A recent DairyNZ summer dry workshop in Morrinsville advised farmers on how to cope with the dry conditions.

DairyNZ North Waikato regional manager Duncan Smeaton said it had become very dry in most of the Northern Waikato and Coromandel.

"It's dry from Auckland Airport all of the way down to here and from here to Hamilton Airport is as dry as anywhere I have seen."

The workshop was attended by about 30 farmers. A quick survey of these farmers revealed that most had pasture covers that were less than 1500kg dry matter per hectare, most of their herds had a body condition score of 3.8-4.1, three-quarters were feeding at least 75-85 per cent of their diets as supplement and one third of the audience had switched to once a day milking.

Many herds around the region were milking 0.9-1.1kg milk solids per cow per day, Smeaton said.

The body condition score of 4 suggested many farmers were not taking the condition of the cows yet.

"That may be still to come," he said.

The key to getting through the dry period was having a plan, DairyNZ farm systems specialist Chris Glassey said.

He advised farmers to try and make the most of the remainder of the season, but plan to protect future production.

"If you need extra supplement to do what you need to do, then go and find it, and you need to regularly review the plan as things change."

Feed covers can change and supplementary feed costs can lift and that had to be factored in, he said.

Many farmers would have had record production levels this season, despite farmers facing the same situation a year ago.

Many in the audience had already achieved last year's production.

"That's sending us messages that we can get out of here if we make good decisions, he said.

Most important was achieving the body condition score targets of their cows as farmers' attention turned to calving.

"One of the reasons why we have had a good season is that many people did get their cow body condition score to the targets they were looking for, for calving last year."

For farmers with a calving date of July 1, they are 128 days out from calving as of March 12.

"So we really need to thinking about body condition score for cows in relation to their calving dates."

Farmers had to be careful to avoid their herd over-grazing paddocks.

"If we are to grow our way out of this deficit, we need to not impact on the re- growth potential of our pastures."

One of the current risks on farms was that hungry cows would graze low on pastures and take the residuals down to a level below what was needed for pasture persistence.

A single grazing that took the pasture cover to a low level would not affect the paddock, but doing it continuously would impact its re-growth potential, he said.

Glassey was aware of some farmers that were feeding 100 per cent supplements and were zero grazing their pastures.

"The main reason for that is that they are trying to protect their pastures from overgrazing."

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Farmers also needed to have a feed budget and secure supplementary feed to fill any gaps. He recommended that budget be reviewed weekly and that these budgets be made conservatively.

Farmers had to decide whether it was better to dry off cows early, switch to once a day milking, or to bring in supplementary feed and keep milking the herd and take advantage of the high payout.

In the past, feeding supplement to keep on milking was expensive.

"This year the milk price is saying the drying off decision is also expensive and we're urging you to look at ways of getting through to a point where it does rain so you still have the potential to produce some revenue."

At this stage it looked like there was the potential to do that, he said.

Supplements could be used to bridge the gap until it rained.

Maize and pasture silage cost about 44c and 74c per kg of dry matter eaten while nitrogen fertiliser costs 24c.

It was one of the least expensive options for farmers to get feed but it needed rain.

Glassey understood there was large quantities of grain available. it was more expensive than other supplementary feed but was an option for farmers that could feed it out in their dairy sheds.

A common diet for cows in these current conditions was 6kg each of pasture and pasture silage and two kg of PKE.

This diet enabled protein levels above 15 per cent and would enable a cow to produce just under 1kg MS.

Adding maize silage would give the cow more energy, but lowered the levels of proteins received by the cow and lowered milk production.

However, it can keep the herd milking and bridged the feed gap until there was a decent shower of rain, he said.

Once this happened, expect the pasture to take off.

"We're accumulating a lot of nitrogen in the soil because the plant isn't accumulating it for growth. Once moisture is restored, away it goes."

- Fairfax Media

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