Severe feed shortages in parts of the country mean many ewes are on a nutritional knife-edge heading into lambing and could be at risk of developing metabolic disorders.
There is a place for supplements, to bridge feed gaps -- particularly in the early part of the season -- but the first priority should be to maximise the pasture grown (ie the megajoules of metabolisable energy or MJME) and harvested per hectare.
Too often farmers talk about supplements (which cost money) rather than feed wedge, round length, growth rates, pastures in good growing state, nitrogen responses, stocking rates and so on.
It is easy for a farm manager to request or justify the need for additional inputs in the form of nitrogen and supplements when, in fact, the need could have been avoided had the timing of earlier decisions been different. Examples include culling and otherwise reducing stock numbers, speeding up or slowing down the grazing round, altering the milking frequency of part or all of the herd and the timing of when and what cows to feed supplements to.
Dairy farmers succeed by first excelling at growing pasture -- optimising the use of the land they farm. You should treat the farm as a grass factory and aim to grow a quality 'crop' of pasture on every paddock every grazing (no matter what the round length) in order to maximise MJME/ha.
Every region and farm within a region will differ, but the aim should be to get optimum round length that will meet cow requirements, and grow surpluses for supplements. Every farm needs to be managed to limit risk or exposure to 'bad' weather -- cold, wet, drought, etc. Risk management might take the form of expensive capital improvements (eg irrigation, feed pads, in-shed feeding).
Much better is a farming system based on maintaining more pasture (ie higher average cover / feed wedge). This may be achieved by a longer round to smooth out highs/lows in daily and weekly growth rates and make sure the cows are always fully fed.
In other words, you take control of your feed situation rather than the feed situation controlling you; then you can limit or avoid 'mayday' calls for more feed -- most of them avoidable
With costs rising and payouts low there is little margin for error. Buying in feed (and / or taking a production drop) to fill a hole in the feed wedge may not be an option.
Cherish and protect pasture cover and feed wedge and keep pastures in a good vegetative growing state. This will underpin growth rates and responses to nitrogen applications.
Farm with a buffer in the feed wedge and be prepared to use a mower (assuming the farm is mowable) to control quality or harvest surplus for supplements. It is often cheaper to mow than to feed supplements from a feed wagon (if you're forced to buy supplements to correct a deficit).
Be mindful of pasture utilisation and over-grazing. It is better to use 80% of 15 tonne / ha than 90% of 12 tonne. I believe pasture production and per cow / total milk production on farms is now limited by incorrect utilisation practices.
Moderate the stocking rate and focus on looking after the cow by fully feeding year-round relative to the stage of lactation. This will flow through to well-fed cows and improved herd health, reproductive performance (without intervention) and per cow productivity.
A hefty portion of a farm budget gets spent on breeding and rearing replacement stock with high genetic merit. As farmers we should be aiming to exploit that productive potential.
Aim to fully feed all stock to requirements (subject to stage of lactation) every day of the year on high ME feed.
Maintain high ME intakes by:
Appropriate calving date
Suitable stocking rate (cows per ha / breed and size of cow)
Preparing autumn feed budget = target cover / feed wedge as at dryoff and start of calving
Preparing spring rotation plan = controlled management of feed and first spring rotation
Setting feed management guidelines
Regular feed monitoring.
• Jack Ballam is a FarmWise consultant.