Their focus has already turned to next season. They’re being warned to expect high rates of spring mastitis in cows being dried off early.
A lack of feed is forcing farmers from Waverley to Okato to stop milking portions of their herds months earlier than normal.
Vets told farmers at drought workshops last week to consider using teat sealants to provide dry cows with better protection from bacteria once it rains.
“What we know from other droughts, especially the one in 2008, is that antibiotic dry cow therapy does not provide protection up until calving time after long dry periods,” Stephen Hopkinson from the Taranaki Veterinary Centre told the crowd.
“Teat sealant is the most effective way to keep bacteria out of the teat canal.”
“Dairy farmers who dry cows off early and don’t use teat sealant should expect mastitis rates of up to 20 per cent at calving time in the spring,” he said.
It’s one of a long list of tips being provided by rural professionals at a series of workshops organised by the Rural Support Trust in drought-stricken coastal communities.
I met dairy farmer Grant Gulliver at the workshop held in Waverley.
One of his farms milks 500 cows. It’s close to the coast and extremely dry. He’s been forced to stop milking 100 cows and cull 50, so the remaining 350 have enough food to eat.
“We haven’t had a season like this since about 1978,” he told me. “In 1978, I went to the Golden Shears in February and the cows were dry. When you walked across a paddock, you could hear the grass crunching under your boots.”
Recent rain in Taranaki has provided farmers with a glimmer of hope. “We had 75mm of rain in the first week of January,” told me.
That soaking rain will breathe life into dormant grasses and parched summer crops.
But Stephen Hopkinson is urging farmers not to get complacent. “You might think the drought is over after the rain, but it’s not,” he told the crowd. “Coastal Taranaki is still in severe drought and February’s still three weeks away, which is usually our driest month.”
He had helpful advice for affected farmers.
Any cows not being kept until next season, or which are not in calf should be culled immediately. It’ll ensure there’s more food for those remaining. Reducing milking frequency to once-a-day will not lower a herd’s daily feed demand, but it will reduce stress on the cows and help them maintain weight. Cows with a body condition score of 3.5 or less, must be dried off now.
Stephen said a dry cow only needs half as much food as a milking cow, at this stage of the season.
Speakers at the workshop all urged farmers not to forget about their replacement heifers.
“Have you called your grazier to make sure they have feed? Are your heifers’ target weights being met?” the group was asked.
Stephen Hopkinson reminded farmers that undergrown heifers will not produce much milk next spring and they won’t get in calf.
Bruce Patterson from Agriseeds said it’s vital farmers don’t rush in and graze new green shoots on grass and he encouraged them to use a standoff paddock to avoid overgrazing pasture.
“You have to look after the daughter tillers growing now. That will pay you dividends in 18 months’ time,” Bruce told the crowd.
With silage and hay in short supply, farmers still have time to consider other options for winter feed.
“Work out a plan,” said Bruce. “If you’re looking at a brassica crop for the winter, consider forage rape. It’s very underrated. Once it’s mature, it holds its quality.”
He predicts there’ll be a big demand for seed and fertiliser when the autumn rains arrive. “Talk to your suppliers, get seed and fertiliser ordered. Cereals will be in short supply. Supplies of green feed oats are getting short,” he said.
DairyNZ has developed easy-to-use tables to help farmers calculate their feed requirements, cost of brought-in feed, expected income and daily pasture growth rates needed to meet demand. It’s urging people to get in touch with their local consulting officer if they require help.
The Rural Support Trust said Rural Assistance Payments are available to farming families experiencing hardship. If anyone you know is struggling, get them to contact the Rural Support Trust on 0800 787 254.