Hawkes Bay Drought Survival

June 2009

Measures to alleviate the effect of ongoing drought

The past three seasons have been unexpectedly very dry in parts of the Hawkes Bay, and farmers have had to change management strategies to survive. In this article we hear from two farmers who have been more successful than most at adapting to the dry. We also hear from veterinarian, Richard Lee, who will comment on the widespread effects of the dry conditions on farms and stock.

Sam took over the management of the property from his father 9 years ago after completing Lincoln University. It is 765 ha rolling hill country fenced into 95 paddocks with some steeper sidlings including some valley flats that can be used for cropping. About 35% of the farm is cultivable. At present running 3700 breeding Romney ewes and 200 cattle, a mixture of beef steers and Friesian dairy bulls. Usually lambs are sent off finished, and he runs a mixture of weaner bulls upwards of about 150 kg and weaner steers around 200 kg. These are farmed through to 350kg plus. Cattle mainly sold forward store on the grass market in the spring and throughout the summer.

The 06/07 season looked to be a normal one after a good autumn in 06, and a kind winter with a lambing percentage of 140% and after a good spring and early summer rain failed to arrive in early 07. Sam held onto trading stock in the hope that it would rain, but in April he realised that it wasn't going to rain in time to produce any growth so he was forced onto the store market with the balance of the lambs and decreased the cattle numbers down 800 sheep and about 100 cattle, so that stocking rate was 8.4su/ha instead of the usual 10.5. Rain came in June 07 and prices were not yet at rock bottom, so selling what was a large number of lambs was good for cashflow. The decisions allowed him to take all his ewes into the winter.

People were in strife, and drought meetings started around then, and have continued in the following years, and Sam says they were invaluable for advice and support from both friends and neighbours in the same situation as well local vets, farm consultants and bank managers.

In 2008 we just gradually dried out over summer. Cricket damage wasn't too bad but lamb prices were as low as $30, when we were forced to sell again around March when we simply ran out of grass for surplus (not capital) stock, says Sam.

Then we got rain in April and were able to take about 600 trading lambs into the winter, but we had fewer cattle and so stocking rate was about 8.2/ha. Spring was also very dry and there wasn't really enough feed for the lambs, but what has saved us this year is the excellent stock prices and stock health we were getting prices in excess of $80 for lamb at that stage whereas in previous years it had been between $55 -$65, and prices continued to rise as the season progressed.

We climbed into the lambs at weaning time, and by the end of November we had killed 1250 lambs off their mothers, double what we usually do and the weights were up too. This season has been a good one in terms of returns, but feed levels have been very low. Not having replacement hoggets on the property has proven to be a saviour.

This year there was some rain in February, which set ewes up reasonably well for tupping, but there has been little since until just recently.

As the result of the series of droughts Sam has made some policy and management changes:

Fortnightly review of the feed situation, and being diligent about taking action to quit stock if rain doesnt appear. The decision is the hardest part. Once the stock have gone you just concentrate on feeding what you have left well.

Changed from breeding own replacements (1000) to buying in 2th replacements and putting all ewes to terminal sires so that all progeny go to slaughter. The dry seasons have limited the farms ability to grow 2ths into good sheep and that has led lower scanning and lambing percentages for those ewes. 2009 will be the first scanning for the bought in higher fertility breed ewes.

No pre-lamb shearing. This reduces ewe feed intake.

Diligent animal health decisions pre-lamb. Different treatments for different classes of ewe, Eg. Twins, singles, light twins, light singles etc.

Reduced numbers of cattle and no trading lambs, leaving more feed for capital stock ewes.

Changing cattle policy lower liveweight bulls so that the property is carrying less liveweight per ha. Younger cattle do not require long pastures and the feed we are growing is short quality grass.

Use of urea 100ha of ground spreadable country

More winter feed crops 20ha (4 ha of green feed oats, another 4 ha of sovereign kale and 11 ha of Goliath rape)

Pad feeding 80% of ewes on maize grain and straw to allow covers to build before winter.

Sam says, Water storage is an option for the future with a view to some form of irrigation to alleviate some risk. I think we just need to realise that we are farming on the East Coast and it is traditionally summer dry so our systems and decisions need to reflect this.

Tom Clouston grew up on the property and has been farming there for the last eight years. It is 590 ha effective, rolling to fairly steep, 50% wheel tractor, includes 56 ha of stony bony argillite (highly indurated mudstone) type country, about 20 ha of silt flats and the rest is a heavy clay-based soil.

He normally runs 2800 Kelso composite ewes with 900 replacements plus as many bulls as possible. Last winter the cattle included 430 2yrs and 230 yearlings, the year before it was 330 2yrs only.

Three dry seasons in a row has been pretty tough. In 06/07 we had a good spring and early summer and we thought we were nicely set up but it just got dryer and dryer and didnt rain until 11 June 07. I started grazing the long acre and feeding out and then decided in May that there wasnt going to be enough feed, so I sent the hoggets off for grazing. That was my first full year of management and it was a steep learning curve, says Tom.

I had done budgets assuming that it would rain in May, and we would lose quite significant money if we sold store bulls rather than fed out, so I kept the stock on. I wouldn't do that again. We went through the winter with very short covers and nothing did well, it was really hard on the ewes and the people.

Lambing % ended up at 103%, down from the average of 124%. Tom didn't restock until May 08. From mid January to early March 08 there were two months of intense heat, but then it rained and set the farm up for a good autumn. Tom stocked up with cattle but changed numbers and types instead of about 230 2yr olds and 430 yearlings he bought 430 two-year-old bulls and 230 yearlings. He also put urea over the whole property at 85kg/ha, and that grew enough feed for the bulls to put on 0.8kg/day.

After the poor winter we lambed about 134%. We didn't get much of a spring and the ewes did it tough, but we were able to sell all the two-year-old bulls finished from September onwards, says Tom.

The only time it got wet was for only two weeks in August. From then on it started drying out and by October we were very dry for that time of year. Every month after that was dry but we were able to send away the bulls finished because we had two-year-olds instead of yearlings. And after every load of bulls went away we would say Thank God they have gone.

There wasnt much rain but a lot of wind. November and December 08 and January 09 seemed very hot and the farm would have been very seriously dry if there hadn't been about 140mm rain in February and 18 mm in early March. At the end of April there was 10mm, and by 20th May there had been 30mm more.

Says Tom We are very short of feed at this stage. We have 900 hoggets, 2800 ewes, and 350 two-year-old bulls on hand. We have 19 ha of poor crops which are equivalent to about 10 ha of decent crops. They were early grazed by lambs but since then they havent really regrown because of the lack of moisture.

To get us through the winter we have put on about 34 tonnes of urea, and we are not buying any more bulls at this stage 350 instead of 660 last year. We made 150 bales of baleage off four hectares of grass in October, and we will feed that out over winter too. According to the feed budget we will just sneak through.

Crickets have devastated large areas of land in central Hawkes Bay, and Tom hasnt seen them this bad before. They lay eggs once the clay cracks open in the summer, and graze about 60cm either side of each crack until there is nothing left. Tom helicoptered on oats laced with malathion late in February, which killed the adults but with hindsight it would have been better to put it on in December or January before eggs had been laid.

Tom says where they had laid poison the crickets disappeared but there has been little regrowth because there has been little rain. Where he didnt poison, live crickets were seen until early May.

Lessons from the drought:

Do a regular formal feed budget

Make decisions early remembering that there isnt much growth after May no matter what happens.

Carry a greater proportion of 2yr old cattle, fewer yearlings.

Ensure cattle are well fed over winter and carry fewer to maximise growth rate and limit pugging, which can dramatically affect spring growth.

Fewer bulls through spring makes more area available for crops.

Sow more of crops such as a multi-grazed rape that can be grazed summer, autumn and winter, so that there is the option of leaving them in if it is to dry or too cold to re-sow them

Lamb older ewes early

For the future Tom plans a feed pad on stony ground, and plans to make silage and hay along with a self-feeding facility. He will also look into using drought tolerant grasses, like a modern fescue or cocksfoot.

Richard Lee:

Richard says that the 2009 farming situation is better than in 07/08 because of:

- Lower stock numbers, probably still down by 20%

- Ewes in better body condition BCS av ~2.5+ = OK-Very good

- Most trading lambs, bulls, etc have already been sold so are not competing with capital/breeding stock.

- Better farm gate prices all round

- Other areas are not drought affected cf. 2008, especially Manawatu & Waikato where spare feed is often sourced and stock sent for grazing.

- Feb 09 rains boosted feed then suddenly dried off, which resulted in snap dried grass of high quality and free from the worms and fungal toxins that normally severely limit autumn animal health and production, so stock did very well.

However, says Richard, we are now looking down the barrel of a highly predictable feed deficit in Aug-Sept around lambing and calving:

Low feed covers + advancing pregnancy/winter cold/increased feed requirements spell inevitable and predictable issues (lost production opportunities in sheep, cattle, and in-calf cows along with possible welfare issues)

Likelihood of reduced lamb crop from the East Coast NI and associated flow-on effects

Bigger issue is lack of income for HB/EC farmers and the effect on animal health issues generally

On the positive side, he says

Very good attendances at four HB-wide Drought Seminars run mid-May.

High awareness of issues and real groundswell of local support businesses that have info to assist

Farmer morale is generally OK, but disillusioned with 3 droughts in a row. Hard to swallow!

Some farmers proactive and very well prepared to face these issues they are generally young, progressive, tough, resilient. A great testament to farmings future!