Nitrate nightmares and new beginnings

with Bill Webb
Bill Webb Feed Solutions

The weather is very mild for July. We’ve had a few cold days but not many. With dry weather earlier on and mild conditions with a bit of moisture now, nitrate levels have become a huge issue in the Waikato and Bay of Plenty.

Normally it would be a worry in early-June, not July. But figures have been very high and are only now starting to recede.

When plants take off in dry-but-moist conditions their growth sucks nitrogen out of the soil, causing high nitrate levels. These can be toxic enough to kill cows or cause slips (aborted calves).

It certainly presented a challenge around feeding out this year. We’ve had to give dry feed, hay or silage, and two breaks a day.

We’ve been holding stock on smaller breaks, giving them dry feed in the morning for a few hours, then letting them onto their main break around lunchtime. This is when nitrates levels traditionally drop, after plants have had a bit of sun. It means cows are not going to their main break hungry, so they’re not gorging themselves. It’s extra time, work and a bit more pasture damage in a tighter break but so far we’re managing it. Cows tend to get used to nitrates after a while, but it requires constant monitoring.

High nitrates aren’t limited to annual crops, they affect new pasture as well. Farmers have had to be very careful. By early-August we hope the problem will have gone. At the time of writing this column, figures had been declining.

By August most farmers will be well into calving. Let’s hope most calving happens in fine weather, not wet – it’s no fun chasing calves around in mud! Hopefully, the mild weather continues and we have a great calving season.

Many dairy farmers around the Bay have gone into kiwifruit recently, so there’s a lot of development work going on. This is reducing the workload slightly on rural contractors. The challenge for them is they lose their regular work on dairy farms, which will be something they’ll have to overcome. I hope the kiwifruit market isn’t flooded once all these new orchards start harvesting in a few years’ time.

Current lamb prices are reasonably firm – that’s good for sheep and beef farmers. The wool price is also steady.

Dairy is still looking positive for next season, although West Coast farmers have sold Westland Cooperative Dairy Company to the Yili conglomerate of China. It will pass into Chinese ownership on August 1. It sounds like a whole lot of bad decisions in the last few years led to the demise. Fonterra has to be bloody careful it doesn’t end up in the same boat, it could so easily happen if they get things wrong.

China has just realised it has about five million tonnes of logs on their wharves, so they’ve put the brakes on buying logs from NZ; therefore the price has dropped considerably in recent weeks. This will most likely be temporary.

So overall, it’s a mixed bag for our primary producers at present, but as the old saying goes: ‘The only constant is change’.

It’s time for farmers to start thinking about their maize and bulk grass silage requirements. We’re already taking orders for next season. We still have plenty of good quality hay, straw and silage available and are always happy to talk to farmers about their requirements.


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