Managing pasture surpluses or deficits in spring is the key to maintaining quality and persistence going into summer, says Ravensdown agronomist Tim Russell.
You may have seen that NIWA are predicting an El Nino weather pattern this summer. The East Coast is already noticing dryer than normal conditions, dams are lower and creek levels are at a worrying low level. While the name El Nino means "little boy", the dry conditions that El Nino creates can be pretty big.
For those of you who are planning on continuing to plant fodder crops this spring, I urge you to consider making Plan B and maybe even Plan C as the current plan, Plan A, may have to be tweaked depending on when the dry hits, and when the autumn break arrives.
Be prepared for a change in situations so if you need to slightly alter your plans, it is not a major issue.
Dryland species such as rape are commonly planted to provide high-quality summer feed. This type of forage is sown in spring when the growth conditions are very good with adequate moisture and warmth. This feed, grown in good times, can be utilised in periods where pasture production and quality are reduced due to the hot and dry conditions. The advantage of rape is that it can be carried through into winter if conditions stay dry in the autumn – rape can be used for Plan A and/or Plan B.
When water or moisture is hard to come by, consider species with longer roots. Lucerne is extremely deep-rooted once established, meaning the plant can access water at depths far greater than grasses, making it good for the dry summer environment.
Given lucerne is a true perennial crop, time should be taken to ensure the best conditions for establishment to ensure you maximise its potential over the years. It is essential for the soil nutrient status to be at the optimum for lucerne growth.
Plant numbers should be around 500/m2 in the first year and this number will drop each year. Because it is vital to get as many plants to survive, eliminating pests and weeds is very important.
Red Clover and chicory are other deep-rooted plants that provide high-quality feed during dry conditions, but are not as perennial as lucerne. Red clover will generally start production slightly earlier than white clover so can provide early season production once established. I often see red clover in old, well-managed fodder crop stands such as plantain and clover mixes. This backs up my experience of seeing it produce further into the dry conditions than ryegrass.
For some farmers such as those in higher areas which have later seasons, it may be time for 'Plan C.' By November, signs be suggesting if it's going to be really dry or not. If it will be dry, it is best to postpone all cropping until the autumn, after it has rained. This may be easier said than done, but watching a crop fail due to lack of moisture is counterproductive.
The above are just a few options to assist you through the summer months, however there are many more and the options you choose for Plan A, B or C need to fit into your farming system to maximise the benefits.
Jeremy Klingender is technical agronomy manager at Ravensdown.