Hoping like hell the grass grows

with Bill Webb
Bill Webb Feed Solutions

The four months of January, February, March and April have been the driest in Tauranga in 131 years! As of mid-may we’d had 17ml of rain in the yard – and we thought we were going to get 70ml one weekend. Rotorua and south of there seems to be getting more rain than we are.

Tauranga’s four-month tally is 85ml. Last year we got 235ml. At Paengaroa we had a bit more rain with 141ml this year and 204ml last year.

As a result there’s a real big shortage for good quality feed. It is hard to find any. We’re bringing it out of other areas and across the ditch from the South Island. But there’s even limited supply down there; the Southerners feel they must keep some for their own this winter. Also, with Covid-19 it’s restricting truck movements, so it’s difficult getting loads up. We’ve had a six-week delay on some feeds from the south.

We hit the straps with Covid-19 lockdown and feed enquiries simultaneously. It was a double whammy – we’ve been rushed off our feet. We’ve been trying to work around Covid-19 regulations – all on top of having the busiest months we’ve had. It’s been incredible.

Covid-19 rules

We had to re-think how we’d run the operation around Covid-19 rules. Now we have one person per vehicle, two metres social distancing, we’re staggering our smoko breaks, the front door is still locked, we’re taking phone orders, and people have to sign in.

Loadings happen by drivers staying in their machine, we stay distanced from them when they jump out to put paperwork down. We both sign individually and sanitise and carry on. Those who want to collect feed have to first phone order, then pay online and then organise non-contact collection.

Any staff with symptoms were to stay home and get tested. And we did have one staff member with symptoms. He had trouble being tested to start with but we eventually got him tested and thankfully that came back negative.

We did get audited by MPI in lockdown. That shocked me but it was good to see them out and checking up on businesses to make sure they are complying. We had one little thing to sharpen up on which was good. I’m so grateful we’ve been able to keep going – and I really sympathise with all the businesses that haven’t been to operate and are now struggling. Every day during lockdown I was on the road carrying loads, checking crops, paddock etc and through town and everywhere there was nobody about – it was surreal.

Most people wanted silage for a start. When you can’t get silage then it’s hay, then straw. And with farmers not able to get cull stock off-farm due to restrictions at the works, there’s been many ringing us very stressed. In week one of lockdown our call-taker had people almost in tears on the phone wanting feed. It was terrible.

High demand

There’s also high demand for grazing. Last year we had a surplus. This year it’s all gone. We could have supplied our numbers twice-over this year. One call from a farmer was because he’d been let down by a supplier he used last year. They milked on because they thought ordered feed was coming and it never turned up. There’s been some real serious situations going on out there and while it’s still staying dry, it’s only getting worse.

Autumn-calvers would have been under the pump – although they might have secured feed earlier by having their pinch start earlier, but we’re still getting the odd call from them.

Predictions are slightly below-average or normal rainfall for May. Some predict we’re in a neutral phase, with talk it will continue to spring. One weather predictor says it might weaken and go towards a La Nina spring. So it’s certainly weird one.

Going forward will be hard for businesses, the economy, for NZ, and the world. There will be some dramatic changes – but more resilience will come out of it. Kiwis react well when you put them in a corner and see what they can do. There’s been respirators made from milking machine companies, different ways of making masks etc.

Nitrate levels and caterpillars

Next season’s payout, everyone is talking it back a bit. Whether NZ, with its clean-green image and low-cost farming, and being early out of Covid-19 – we might be the star everyone aspires to and wants some of what we’ve got. They might be happy to buy our products being a little ray of sunshine at the bottom of the world. You never know, it could happen.

Farmers now need to be mindful of those bloody army caterpillars because they don’t know Covid-19 is around and they won’t be isolating. They’ll be ganging up and attacking our crops and grasses. The other issue is nitrate levels with new grass. If farmers have sown or renovated pastures after a prolonged dry spell – that’s when you’re most vulnerable to nitrate poisoning. So before putting stock onto new grass you must test it.

Don’t graze too low, keep residuals up a bit on normal; don’t put them on new grass or annual winter crops hungry – feed them silage or hay first and monitor regularly. We monitored some mobs and pasture all last winter. This year could be worse.

So be warned and be careful. Don’t get complacent and stay focused.  Keep planning and keep up with feed budgets so you can identify any shortfalls early and can act immediately before you get caught out and sacrifice production of milk or protein.

At the time of writing, we still have threshed rye and barley straw in big bales and some conventional meadow hay. We also hope to have a new supply of grass silage shortly too. Feel free to get in touch and we’ll help with the stock we have on hand. And don’t forget to buy local, support NZ-grown local businesses and not to take the potential biosecurity risk of imported feeds.


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