After forty years working as an AI technician for Livestock Improvement Co, Alex Macmillan (81) now farms beef cattle at Pipiwai, Northland.
Those droughts had devastating effects on farming businesses, but we can learn from them to minimise the impact of any El Nino weather pattern this season.
Here are some strategies to help farmers get started -- to prepare now and as the season progresses.
Make a plan
Sit down now and write/draw a summer management plan. Writing this down will help you to follow a sequence of events and get your timing right. It also helps your team (including family) get up to speed with your thoughts and the strategies you are putting in place. It also allows for valuable feedback.
To start with, critical cropping decisions will soon need to be made. Turnips, chicory and maize all need to be planted in October, whereas sorghum or millet give you the flexibility of a later planting date; this all needs to form part of your planning. Planting 10% of your farm in turnips will generally give you enough feed for 60 days supplementing. Chicory planted at 3.5ha/for 100 cows should allow for a 21 day rotation with a daily break of 2-3 hours.
Get started on the rest of your summer management strategy. Set out your key decision points regarding round length, stock condition, production per cow, SCC threshold and feed management. Herd testing will be an integral tool to help with the monitoring and decision making.
Decide on a date when critical action on those decisions points needs to occur, and what action you intend to take.
Monitoring starts now
Take a look at your current situation and start monitoring now. It is good practice and you will use the information now and after Christmas. This includes feed reserves, pasture covers, and body condition score.
Honestly assess how the current general climatic situation is affecting your property. This becomes your point of reference. Then create decision rules. These are deadlines for when you will need to make decisions about certain aspects of the farm. Add these details into your written management plan and be sure to act on the decision rules you create.
Create proactive drought strategies
Many of these strategies will likely form part of any summer management plan but will need special consideration this season to keep one eye on the potential drought.
If you are cropping get it in early. Don't scrimp on crop establishment; every hectare needs to be producing as much as possible.
Don't waste grass, harvest what you can afford and defer what you cannot. If you are going to defer, try to roll the feed ahead that appears at the top of the wedge each round and treat as a crop.
Use nitrogen to help push feed into the summer months.
Get your round out to 30 days by Christmas. Reassess if necessary what criteria will trigger feeding supplements: has anything changed -- pay-out, feed price, and drought outlook? Be flexible.
Be smart if you go into the market for feed. Compare feed options on cost/megajoule of metabolisable energy (MJME). Remember when it's dry you may be looking for the cheapest protein source. A good general guideline for buying feed based on cents/kgDM is paying no more than 5% of pay-out. At $4.60 that's 23 cents; remember to factor in the utilisation.
Keep as many cows as possible milking as long as possible until the rain comes, but also try to avoid feeding excessive amounts of supplements to cows producing at very low levels. The DairyNZ supplement calculator (at www.dairynz.co.nz) is good for helping with short term feed decision
Body condition score (BCS) your cows and act with sufficient time to achieve the target for next season's calving: BCS 5.0 for mature cows and BCS 5.5 for second calvers. To regain 1.0 BCS will require 170-200kgDM, depending on feed type, so avoid taking too much weight off your cows. Get onto this early and establish a system that allows you to whole herd score. And get help if you need it. The DairyNZ website has a list of consultants certified to body condition score if you require assistance or want an objective evaluation.
Consider once a day (OAD) milking or three times in two (3 in 2) days, to help reduce stress on cows and help to slow a decline in condition. OAD is best before production declines from 1.3ms/cow per day, and 3 in 2 after AI is finished.
Organise your pregnancy testing for the earliest possible date and react to the results.
Protect your pastures. Be prepared to sacrifice a paddock. Cows will overgraze if allowed to, limiting a paddock's ability to recover. Target a paddock that might be a candidate for re-grassing in the future.
Make sure you have enough feed on hand for your cows once it rains. Allocate 10-14 days of supplement -- about 100kgDM/cow. This will help give pasture time to recover and establish some base and body while maintaining cow intakes.
Keep in touch with your grazier and be aware of what's going on in that environment. You need to protect the young stock; they are the future productive potential of your herd.
Lastly, make use of your network of friends, discussion groups and trusted advisors. Talk to other people around you and don't hesitate to ask for help if you need it.
Having a plan and following the rules you put in place will go a long way to helping to ensure the effect of any El Nino induced drought is minimised and does not linger into the subsequent season.
• Mike Bailey is LIC FarmWise consultant.