Advice on drought management

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So far during 2018 we have had a late, cold spring followed by excellent growing conditions for many and since June a prolonged dry spell which has hampered grass growth in many areas.

With a range of land types and only localised rain showers, some farmers are experiencing significant shortages of grass, especially on lighter or rocky land.

What can be done in these circumstances? There are two aspects to the solution namely reducing feed demand and increasing feed supply.

Reducing feed demand

For early spring calving herds now would be a good time to pregnancy diagnose (PD) cows. Any ‘empty’ cows could be housed and finished intensively. This will reduce grass demand and also reduce the risk of oversupply later this autumn.

Assess the cowherd and cull ‘problem’ cows – for example older cows, those with feet problems, poor temperament, poorer fertility etc. Ensuring only healthy young productive cows remain in the herd will help with management during the current shortage and make life easier next spring.

Consider weaning calves and housing/restricting cows so that younger animals get access to the best grass. They will use it more effectively than will older animals.

Consider selling animals that are near market ready, to reduce feed demand.

Managing body condition

Mature animals can afford to lose some body condition. However, care must be taken to avoid extremes and to ensure reproductive performance is not adversely affected.

Batching animals according to condition score can be an effective way of targeting scarce feed to those animals which need it most. It is important to monitor body condition regularly and adjust feeding plans as required.

Health issues

Care must be taken to ensure that hungry animals do not eat any poisonous plants, for example, ragwort.

Worm larvae will probably not hatch in the current dry weather but be prepared for a population explosion following the eventual return of cooler, damp weather.

Increasing feed supply

Giving cattle access to the whole farm or overgrazing short grass will only increase the duration of grass being in short supply. It would be better to restrict access to a smaller sacrifice area and manage animals there, so that the majority of the farm will be in ‘recovery mode’ when rain does come.

Care should be taken when sowing fertiliser under dry soil conditions as there could be significant volatilisation losses to the atmosphere. Only sow fertiliser when there is sufficient soil moisture for the grass to use it.

Grazing silage ground?

Grazing silage ground could be a useful strategy in some cases, however it is important to complete a fodder budget to ensure there will be sufficient silage stocks to take the herd through the winter. Grazing silage ground now may simply move the shortage from the present time until next spring.

Buying feed?

Cattle and sheep have a daily requirement for long roughage in the diet of 0.5% of their bodyweight on a dry matter basis. However, usually concentrates have the lowest cost per unit of energy. It is important to balance the physical needs of the animal and achieve value for money at the same time. There is a relative feed value calculator on the DAERA website to help with this.

Summary

· assess cows so that only productive animals remain in the herd

· consider selling forward stores if possible

· only sow fertiliser when the soil is damp

· avoid overgrazing recovering swards

· ensure purchased feeds are good value for money