Preparing for winter following a dry summer is essential, writes veterinarian Trevor Cook.

February for me was dominated by a worsening dry situation for many North Island farmers. It being handled differently by farmers was very evident and showed up very starkly how much the policies in place impacted on the options that could be taken.

Some very powerful lessons have come out of this which need to be remembered and stored for future use. The most important one is to act early. While this might seem very logical, for it to happen requires an early acceptance that budgeted income is not going to happen.

The earlier that it is accepted and that the focus shifts to limiting the loss, the more effective any actions are. Selling but for less than expected, reducing weight gains which will impact on later value or culling deeper all reduces the demand. But done early leaves more for what remains or is high priority.

I visited a couple who were dealing with the worst dry they ever have had who were very bouncy and positive. They had put a lot of thought into priorities and changed the allocation of the little feed they had. They had the infrastructure to shut down low-priority classes, which also demonstrated the value of subdivision. It is just as valuable when it is very dry as it is to ration winter feed, which is one of the other big lessons.

Having adjusted feed allocation, reduced the number of mobs and sold some tail-end yearlings it made them feel they were in control again.

For longer-term dry management, having well-identified flexible stock classes is very important. This alongside knowing in advance what the course of action will be if the feed supply starts to fall way behind what was budgeted for is very effective.

Making these decisions on the hoof is more the norm and is very stressful. Capital stock-dominated systems have suffered worst because next season’s production is on the line when breeding stock cannot be fed. Having stock classes just because they are flexible is a cost, but a very valuable cost when it gets extremely dry. This is very evident in those areas in which extreme dry is not unusual.

Supplementing stock seems an easy way to manage the dry. The cost of this must be considered and compared to other options. The cost of supplements needs to be calculated on the cost per unit of energy, not on drymatter. Energy is the most important nutrient to get through the dry.

When looking at supplementing breeding ewes feeding silage looks easy but while it costs about 50 cents/kg DM, each ME costs 7 cents. Barley on the other hand costs 45 cents/kg DM and each ME costs 3.6 cents. The logistics of supplementing can be a big challenge but getting sheep to eat supplements can be a bigger challenge. Those farmers in those notoriously dry places have sheep that have learnt, but for newbies’ to supplementing it can be very frustrating. It seems some sheep would rather starve to death than eat a supplement.

The most common failing I see on hill country farms on which it has got very dry is to open the gates and spread ewes out. The ewes are inevitably in good condition because they have eaten everything. But carrying that condition on to mating becomes almost impossible.

Controlling the allocation of pasture, whenever it is, will deliver more pasture, and in particular allow pastures to respond faster once it rains.

At some point the winter feed supply will need to be looked at. For any summer, setting up the winter is important to be less likely to run out. Planning the winter is the easiest form of feed budgeting because the feed demand is very predictable, and the feed supply is reasonably predictable.

As long as there is subdivision that allows control over allocation of pasture, the variations in the pasture supply can be managed. With so many farms going into autumn with no feed, some aggressive actions will be needed. Some autumn nitrogen is probably vital in many situations to ensure that there is enough feed to get through.

The worst scenario is light condition multiple ewes going into a winter with not enough feed. The horrendous lambing outcome in the spring of 2010 for the lower western North Island was a due to just that. It was the record wet September that did the damage, but a poor outcome was already likely due to light-condition underfed lambing ewes.