Prepare for disruption

Be prepared, is the advice for farmers facing the prospect of a widespread outbreak of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 virus, Sandra Taylor writes.

In Business11 Minutes

Be prepared, is the advice for farmers facing the prospect of a widespread outbreak of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 virus, Sandra Taylor writes.

With Omicron case numbers expected to spike in the coming weeks, farmers are being encouraged to plan for possible supply chain disruptions and an outbreak of the Covid-19 variant on their farm.

Waikato-based Total Ag consultant Rob Macnab is likening the possibility of supply chain disruption to a drought.

McNab says processing space is already tight in many parts of the country, but if processors had to close down due to an outbreak of Covid-19, it could be a very different situation.

“It would take us back to the closures due to industrial action in the 1970s and 80s, only this time farms have better infrastructure and pasture species.

“However, it still won’t be easy.”

He is encouraging farmers to be proactive and consider utilising firm store markets in many parts of the country and think about onfarm management strategies in case they are forced to retain prime stock. This includes determining what stock classes should get priority feed.

Weaning calves early, for example, will reduce feed demand from cows and allow the focus to be on feeding the weaners.

With prime stock, McNab says farmers need to ensure stock have plenty of water and that lambs are shifted regularly.

“Draft them and look after the top lambs so that when the works re-open you have the ability to get rid of them quickly.”

Going into mating, lifting the condition of lighter-condition ewes should be the top priority as they will generate the best return on the investment in feed.

In order of priority, McNab says the focus should be on ewes, then lambs then replacement stock.

While it is too early to make a decision about not mating hoggets to preserve feed for other stock classes, Rob says it should be considered as part of the scenario planning if the worst were to happen with prolonged processing and transport disruption.

Farmers in some areas, such as the Northern Waikato where he is based, are facing drought-like conditions which is adding pressure to farming businesses.

“We always expect it to be dry at this time of year, but this year the severity and speed of the drought has caught us all out.”

McNab recommends farmers in areas facing weather-related feed shortages are proactive and sell stock into regions where there is still plenty of feed.

“Utilise those store markets now, you won’t regret it.”

As well as scenario planning, he suggests farmers prepare an alternative budget.

While prices and therefore the budget looks good at the moment, he encourages farmers to consider what the budget would look like if they had to sell prime cattle at a lower weight or price.

Most importantly, farmers need to look after themselves as well as their business.

Everyone is in this together, he says, so it is important farmers stay connected with friends, family and neighbours, even if it is just a quick catch up to see how they are.

“Don’t get isolated.”

Identifying levers to pull

Southland-based Agribusiness farm consultant Deane Carson is encouraging farmers to make a plan and identify between three and five levers they could pull to ease any feed pressures that may arise.

“There are more risks on the table than most years.”

These levers will be different for each farmer depending on how their systems are run, location and climate, but they should order the options in a ‘least opportunity cost’ fashion.

Common options are:

  • Lime – for the small nitrogen effect it stimulates
  • Drafting lambs to lighter weights – the opportunity cost of doing so ranges from 20-34 cents depending on an individual’s view of the store and prime market.
  • Growing an extra paddock of rape or summer forage if there is a risk of carrying cattle into the winter.
  • Giberallic acid to get farmers through a short spell of low feed levels.
  • Urea – the cost landed is about 37c/kg drymatter (DM).

If there is a risk farmers cannot get mixed-age or two-tooth ewes to greater than 66kg for mating, there is margin in using nitrogen fertilisers to generate this effect (based on some assumptions). Urea can still be justified if it is used to lift the liveweight of light ewes or two-tooths to over 66kgLW for mating.

Carson says the greatest priority for feed is lifting the condition of tail-end of ewes for mating. This can return 50c/kg DM, far more money than what would be generated by finishing lambs or cattle based on price expectations.

If feed shortages were to become more significant, he would expect questions to be raised about capital stock, buying in feed, mating mixed-age ewes at lower weights and grazing out.

He says these are not on people’s radars.

Planning workloads

One North Canterbury farmer spoken to has already organised a work plan with his staff in the event of a community outbreak.

They have divided the farm into areas, and individuals will take responsibility for different parts of the farm. This means they will not be working together, minimising the chance of the whole team and their families getting sick at the same time.

Seed reps are reporting that farmers are getting in early to get seed and agrichemicals onfarm in case transport is disrupted. This will allow farmers to get on and get their autumn sowing down without delays.

Industry check-list

Seven industry organisations, along with the Ministry for Primary Industries, have put together a Preparing for Covid-19 onfarm checklist for farmers.

Broken into four sections, the checklist covers how a farm operates and what would need to be done in the two to three weeks after an outbreak. This would give a friend, neighbour or casual worker the information they would need to ensure animal welfare was maintained if the whole farm team was sick. The checklist also lists information that would help the Medical Officer of Health, such as the names of staff, family and industry people who live on or visit the farm on a daily basis, along with the vaccination status of family and staff. The final section covers personal well-being.

These are available on industry-good organisations’ websites.

Lessons from across the ditch

Australian National Farmers Federation chief executive Tony Mahar told Radio New Zealand that his advice to NZ farmers was to make sure they had a plan.

Farmers should be doing everything they could to maintain their business, keep their employees, contractors and supply partners informed and have plans in place if Covid were to make it on to the farm.

He also suggests limiting the number of people going on to the farm to reduce the risk of exposure.

In Australia, there were reports of farmers sending stock to their processors and processors sending them back because of staff shortages, but this wasn’t a regular occurrence.

Mahar says there has been a lot of disruption, but for the most part they had been able to manage.


  • Make a plan- similar to a drought plan
  • Utilise strong store markets
  • Consider weaning calves early
  • Identify three to five levers in the farm business which can be pulled
  • Priority feed lighter ewes
  • Sow an extra crop of rape or summer forage
  • Draft and maintain the top cut of lambs so they are ready to go when transport/processors are back on track
  • Reduce the number of people coming on to the farm
  • Think how the farm can operate to minimise transmission between farm staff.