Managing feed in extremely dry conditions

// Feed Planning and Strategies

Last year, Beef + lamb New Zealand asked Waikato-based AgFirst consultant Bob Thomson to share his advice on putting together a feed plan when feed resources are tight. He also provided some practical tips for managing feed in drought conditions.

cattle feed trough

One year on, and once again farmers in many regions are facing extremely dry conditions at what is a critical time of year. Below are some management strategies farmers can implement to get through winter and protect next season’s lamb and calf crop.

B+LNZ’s feed planning service is still up and running and will help farmers put together a feed budget and consolidate their thinking around feed and stock management. Farmers facing feed deficits are encouraged to make use of this service.

Feed planning – the basics for drought recovery

  1. Start by creating a priority list for the different stock classes on your farm, which mobs have the highest priority and highest feed demand?
  2. How big is your feed deficit and what can you do to address this? What is your current pasture cover and what do you think your pasture cover should be at this time of year?
  3. Create a plan of action to address the feed deficit. Big feed deficits will require big decisions. A proactive grazing plan will be essential once the feed deficit is addressed.
  4. Use your farm paddock map as a planning tool to create a practical grazing plan. By forward thinking to lambing and calving, you can allocate paddocks to each stock class at that time.
  5. Once you have determined the allocated areas for all stock classes as at lambing and calving you can then work back to the current time and start planning the autumn/winter rotational grazing program.
  6. To support farmers, the Ministry for Primary Industries together with Beef + Lamb New Zealand, DairyNZ, Deer Industry Association, AgFirst and Federated Farmers are providing remote feed planning support to farmers including a feed budgeting service and professional farm systems advice.

Feed planning support contact information

  • Dry stock sector – Beef + Lamb New Zealand: 0800BEEFLAMB (0800 233 352).
  • Dairy sector – DairyNZ: 0800 4 DairyNZ (0800 4 3247969).

Practical tips for managing your feed when farming under drought conditions

  • When pasture covers are low then pasture-growth rates are also low and so it’s worth remembering the old adage that ‘grass grows grass’.
  • Consider what rotation length is required to build pasture covers. In practice, it can be tough on livestock in the short-term, so you need to keep the long-term goal in mind i.e. creating feed for lambing and calving when ewes and cows will recover quickly and productively.
  • Rotational grazing allows you to ration your feed far more effectively than set stocking.
  • Temporary fencing is a cost effective, practical method of controlling pasture intake for cattle.
  • Nitrogen boosted pasture is the most cost-effective supplementary feed but obviously requires moisture to activate. Theoretically, there should be plenty of nitrogen stored in the soil following drought conditions, but practical farmer experience has shown nitrogen application is a valuable way of getting pasture covers back sooner.
  • The only way for nitrogen to work is when it’s on the ground and not in the fertiliser bin. If you need nitrogen book it in and get it on ASAP.
  • Breeding stock are very sensitive to underfeeding in early lactation, so it is important to plan early. When feed is short, it is better to ration feed before lactation than during lactation.
  • Post-calving feeding is much more important than pre-calving feeding
  • Once calved or lambed, breeding stock need to be fully fed and will recover quickly and productively.
  • Finishing and trading stock are a flexible stock classes and can take some short-term reduction in feeding or alternatively could be sold store.
  • Once ewes and lambs have been set-stocked for lambing you will have little opportunity to manage feed, but you can manage other classes of stock:
  1. Allocated areas for cattle which can be block grazed.
  2. Maybe set stock young cattle on the lambing platform
  3. Set-stock single scanned ewes at higher stocking rates or add more cattle to their paddocks.
  • Quick tips for feed management of breeding cows:
  1. Early weaning of calves is a good option and especially when combined with yard weaning where weaned calves can be supplemented and cows put on sub-maintenance rations.
  2. Pregnancy scan cows ASAP to determine empties for sale and late calvers for sale or extra rationing if required.
  3. When planning for saved feed for calving, lock-up 0.4 ha per cow of saved feed by the end of May to achieve pasture covers of around 3,000 kgDM/ha at calving. This will get them through calving up to the inevitable spring pasture surplus. Good planning here will secure good in-calf rates and bigger weaners for next year.
  4. Restricted feeding of late calving cows will help you build a feed wedge ahead of the cows..
  5. Break-feeding calving cows helps to manage feed and allows you to shed calved cows onto fresh pasture.
  6. Underfeeding breeding cows after calving will have an impact at mating – this is especially true for dairy-cross breeding cows.
  7. Target pre-graze >2,800 kgDM/ha.
  • Remember, with good planning, the drought will be a short-term issue and by mid-late October there should be surplus pasture once again.