Feed Plan in Drought Conditions

Developing a feed plan due to drought conditions

The drought has taken hold across the country, soil moisture deficits of over 80 mm recorded in places and rain forecasts have been consistently deferred.  Growth rates have tumbled and even some heavy covers have regressed.  Early management tips advised stretching the rotation to 20 days, this was subsequently revised to 25 days and many farmers have come to the latter stages of this rotation.  Many farms have also fed a lot of silage which was removed from surplus paddocks earlier in the year.  The key to surviving the current fodder crisis will be to keep cows milking sufficiently so that they will be milking well when grass growth conditions return.

Research from DairyNZ found that to break drought conditions soil must return to 15% of the soil moisture capacity.  This effectively means that there must be in excess of 50 mm rain.  This means that the current drought could be problematic for a considerable length of time.  The current intake requirement of a milking cow is 15-17 kg DM per day with variations depending on cow type.  To develop a feed plan it’s critical to gather as much information as possible.

Measure what you have

The first step which must now be taken is to determine exactly the grass cover on the milking platform.  This task is essential on farms where grass measuring is not normally carried out.  Take stock of the current silage reserves and to carry out a winter fodder requirement budget now.  Also be aware that grass DM levels will be very high in the dry weather, so factor this in in order not to under-estimate covers when converting fresh weights to dry matter.  The Pasture Base Ireland website (www.paturebase.teagasc.ie) can help with this as it shows recent grass DM % from research farms.

Grazing second cut silage

Where second cut silage has been grazed or will be grazed due to the current fodder deficit it’s important to put a plan in place to fill this dry cow forage requirement.  The options include buying grass/arable/whole crop silage from a tillage farmer.  Sowing redstart or kale, pick a paddock ear marked for reseeding.

Sourcing Maize silage or fodder beet

All these are specific to area and relationships, the only advice that can be offered is to be proactive now to secure these deals and fodder supplies.  Palm kernal and soya hulls are other fodder options.  Consult a nutrionist on the relative rates.  Palm Kernal has questions marks over palatability and the quantity that can be safely fed before causing processing issues of milk.

Another question is whether you can afford to carry passengers?

 Consider culling cows which are not performing.  Milk recording is a great tool to assess the performance of each cow.  Scan cows.  Any cows that are not in calf after a breeding season that you are happy with would be suitable to cull.  These cows will be less profitable due to fewer days in milk next year and will have a higher dry cow forage requirement.  All livestock should be looked at now to identify animals that can be moved off farm to the mart or factory.

Should fertiliser be spread?

 Keeping fertiliser topped up is still a good idea on ground where it has been 3-4 weeks since its last round of fertiliser.  There will be no response to fertiliser until we get some significant rain, but by applying it now, the nutrients will be there ready to go when moisture arrives, which will help recovery times.  Avoid products with urea, and also high rates.  CAN and NPK products won’t be lost in dry weather.  If the dry spell continues a long time after the fertiliser is applied, then delaying the next round might be advisable.  Beware of the risk of nitrate poisoning.  Do not double up N application where no response has been observed from the first application.

Ensure adequate water supply

The water requirements of animals will differ dependent on cow type and production and the relative temperature. Milking cows may have a water requirement of up to 130 L per cow in this heat.