How much new grass farmers sow and if they get enough moisture and warm soil temperatures to make it come away will dictate how much of a feed pinch the industry will face this winter, says one feed grower and supplier.
Bill Webb, of Paengaroa-based Bill Webb Feed Solutions Ltd, says widespread drought throughout the North Island has caused big headaches for farmers – and whether it will end come winter is still unknown.
“It’s been a really stressful time for farmers. North of Tauranga is really bad – Waihi, Whitianga and Coromandel. Also North Hauraki and up to South Auckland,” says Bill, who grows and supplies quality silage and hay across Waikato, BOP, Central Plateau and Taranaki.
He says as the Covid-19 lockdown hit, so did the calls from farmers needing supplementary feed – due to the first four months of 2020 delivering little if any rain to much of the North Island.
And – Bill says – farmers’ reluctance to order maize silage before last spring for the coming season resulted in him planting less maize. “Now there’s a huge demand and we’ve found that we could have sold all that we would normally plant, and more.
“We’re not sure why the early reluctance took place. If it was advisors or consultants suggesting that feed purchases shouldn’t be made in advance, it was very shortsighted.
“We anticipated, and were warned of, another dry season and were surprised at the lack of interest. Many other growers got the same response,” says Bill.
“Now there’s a real big shortage for good quality feed. It’s hard to find any. We’re bringing it out of other areas and from the South Island. But there’s even limited supply down there.” Read Bill’s column on page 42.
Federated Farmers Meat & Wool Industry Group chairperson Miles Anderson says other factors have magnified feed shortages too.
“The Covid-19 lockdown meant meat companies were only working at limited capacity. So there was a lot of stock that would normally be processed still on farms and eating into precious reserves during April.
“That had a knock-on effect because a lot of guys would have stock through the works by then.” Plus cancellation of traditional stock sale forums during lockdown did not help either.
Former Feds Waikato provincial president Andrew McGiven, who farms near Te Aroha, ran out of grass silage by mid-April – when autumn-calving 165 cows. “We had plenty of maize, which is a starch/carbohydrate but it’s not protein. To combat this we’ve fed soya bean meal, which is 90 per cent protein, through the cowshed.
“It’s quite an expensive feed though, and we also brought forward drying off and culling decisions for our spring-calvers.”
Andrew is surprised how long the dry weather has lingered. “We hoped mid-March, when we got rain, it would break the cycle but it hasn’t. While we’ve had some rain now and pasture is starting to recover, we just seem to be missing out on regular rainfall that would keep the soil profile moist.
“So in some ways we aren’t out of the woods yet as our water tables are still very low. We’re certainly hoping for a mild winter and spring so any gaps in our feed budget are not too exposed.”
P3 project manager and consulting officer Jaimee Morgan says the average Hauraki Plains farm is sitting at or below 1500kgDM/ha average pasture cover, at least 400kgDM/ha behind where they need to be midway through May and two months from calving.
“New grass establishment has also been very slow even for early re-grassing done in March. Given we’re now halfway through May with a big deficit in pasture cover, and the onset of winter with soil temperatures likely to drop, farmers are very concerned about not reaching pasture cover and cow condition targets.
“They’ve already used up their plan B, and are now reviewing a plan C and D. Grass grows grass so being with realistic with potential growth rates over the next few months in feed budgets, I wouldn’t expect growth rates above 30.”
Jaimee says farmers have been using nitrogenous fertilisers, re-grassing early, drying off earlier and supplements to extend pasture rotations from March.
“But with moisture missing from the equation a lot of these actions can’t take full effect. A lot have purchased more supplements than originally budgeted for and in-calf heifers have been kept off farm for a month longer if graziers have been in a position to do so.
“Now farms are needing to consider wintering cows off and sell capital stock given the situation isn’t improving and we’re getting closer to calving.
“It’s going to be a tough couple of months ahead as decisions have to be made. Farmers need to have further plans in place so they’re not rushing to make decisions in the middle of calving, keep monitoring the situation with feed and cashflow budgets – and keep talking to people, their farm team, suppliers, bankers, accountants and neighbours.”
Bill says some areas will have feed pinches going into winter, while others won’t be so bad.
“For a comparison on May 9 last year I had cows going onto grass up to your thigh, turnips half the size of your Redbands and regrowth maize at shoulder-height at Maketu.
“The same paddock mid-May this year – lucky if you could find a turnip the size of a golf ball, I’ve probably got maize about knee-high and grass about Redband-height.
“And I’ve had to re-drill some paddocks because first-time it never came up being too dry after harvest. So we’re 2000-2500 cover compared to about 6500 this time last year.”
As a result Bill will delay incoming dairy-grazers until end of May. “That puts pressure back on those farmers.
“But in some areas grass is doing okay. And if we get a bit of moisture and soil temperatures remain warm, we’ll get some growth from winter annuals.
“I suppose it all depends how much new grass farmers have put in. Hopefully, they will come away. But potentially there will be a feed shortage this winter.”
To support farmers, MPI with Beef + Lamb NZ, DairyNZ, Deer Industry Association and Federated Farmers are providing remote feed planning support to farmers including a feed budgeting service and professional farm systems advice. Read more in this service on page 20. To access this service, phone: 0800BEEFLAMB (0800 233 352) or 0800 4 DairyNZ (0800 4 3247969).
The Government has also announced a new $500,000 fund to provide advisory services to help farmers recover from and better prepare for future drought.
Waikato Rural Support Trust chairman Neil Bateup says people have been accessing the trust to process Rural Assistance Payments. See more on page 9.
His biggest piece of advice to farmers finding it tough is: “Just keep planning and feed budgeting”. The Trust’s helpline is 0800 787 254 (0800 RURAL HELP).