Options to reduce drought impact on stock health and welfare

1 July 1998

The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry is urging farmers in drought-affected areas to consider all options to maintain optimum stock health and welfare through winter, as part of their planning process, into spring.

Many areas are experiencing the worst drought in living memory, and in some areas it's the worst drought in 150 years, and the survival of farming businesses will depend on prioritising and planning.

Ru Davis of MAF Quality Management Animal Welfare Services group said many farmers have done and are doing all that they can, and have taken the best advice available. Others may not have considered all the options.

Dr Davis said the emphasis in drought conditions should be on ensuring that only productive stock are kept and that they are fed adequately according to their needs.

"This means pregnancy testing followed by culling of empty stock and preferential feeding of ewes carrying two or more lambs," he said. "Empty stock have no place on farms when feed is scarce and if they haven't gone they should be sold or sent for processing without delay."

He said supplementary feed is available in most areas, although it is relatively expensive. "It may well be worth digging deep into the pockets for it if necessary, because breeding stock are the farm's future." Extra feed will be particularly important as calving and lambing approach, because a rising plane of nutrition is necessary, particularly for high producing ewes, to prevent metabolic diseases.

Crops and high energy supplementary feeds must be introduced to the diet in small amounts to start with, Dr Davis said, gradually increasing over a period of 7 to 10 days to allow the digestive tract to adjust, and the feed should be spread out to prevent gorging by individuals.

Body condition scoring can be used to identify and separate thinner stock which can then be given preferential feeding. "When there is competition for feed, bigger bolder animals tend to get more than their fair share. Sorting stock into mobs according to their body condition can help ensure that they all get an adequate ration."

Thin cattle, particularly dairy cows, have very little insulating fat under their skin and if they have empty bellies they cannot produce heat from digestion in the rumen. They are very susceptible to chilling.

Cattle in winter must be in reasonable body condition to help withstand cold, wet weather conditions. "They are particularly valuable animals at present and their offspring are likely to be in demand as replacements," Dr Davis said, "so it is worth pulling out the stops to ensure that they are in good body condition and on a rising plane of nutrition as calving approaches.

"It may be tempting to waive the regular drenching programme to save money, but when pasture freshens, parasite larvae can pose a real risk to stock." Routine drenching programmes should be maintained, or strategic programmes designed after consideration of the particular problems on each farm preferably with the advice of an expert such as a veterinarian.

Although top-dressing generally has low priority at present it may be an option that will pay off in some areas, where strategic top-dressing of potentially high producing pastures may reap rewards. In many instances over-drilling of pasture in spring will aid pasture recovery. "The pros and cons should be discussed with an expert before a decision is made," Dr Davis advised.

It is important to remember that in dry conditions superphosphate fertiliser will persist on the ground, he said. Stock grazing pasture before the fertiliser has been washed into the soil - particularly if the pasture is short - are at risk of poisoning. Prevention of poisoning depends on withholding stock from recently top-dressed pasture until more than 8 mm of rain has fallen. There are similar risks following nitrogen application which can result in toxic concentrations of plant nitrate particularly if pasture is short. "If there is a risk of nitrate poisoning, pasture or crop should be tested before stock move onto it."

Further information:

For beef herd planning and budgeting information, contact Meat New Zealand Research Group at 0800 696 328

For general advice call Federated Farmers drought co-ordinator in your region at 0800 327 646

Media inquiries to:

Ru Davis
MAF Quality Management Animal Welfare Services
Private Bag 9007, Hastings
Phone 06 878 7125, Fax 06 876 0757



Last Updated: 09 September 2010

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