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Farmers feel the impact of soaked soil

Wairarapa dairy farmers – like their colleagues throughout the North Island – are facing the consequences of prolonged wet weather conditions that have caused poor grass cover and destroyed pastures this winter.

As calving season gets underway in the region, ongoing wet spells are causing milk production and reproductive challenges for the dairy sector.

Low grass cover and sodden paddocks could pose challenges for maintaining cow energy levels and body condition over the dry period and through calving, SealesWinslow territory sales representative for Franklin and Northwest Waikato Simon Butler said.

“After a strong end to the 2022-23 season, the sun disappeared, and the rain hasn’t stopped,” he noted.

“It’s challenging times for North Island farmers with limited grass and the emotional and physical demands relentless rain puts on them and their staff, not to mention their cows.

While many can supplement herds with silage, feeding out in these conditions can damage pastures and result in poor feed utilisation.”

Farm management consultant Aidan Bichan, who also runs a 900-cow dairy farm in the South Wairarapa, said cow condition has not gained as much as farmers would have planned, and pasture covers are definitely behind target.

Farmer management consultant Aidan Bichan. PHOTOS/FILE
Federated Farmers president David Hayes said most sectors in the Wairarapa are suffering through a very wet winter.

“Normally we would be targeting our mixed-age cows to have a body condition of five at the start of calving and the two-year-olds to be at 5.5. A lot of the two-year-olds are quite good, but it’s the mixed-age cows that are down – my average would be 4.7 rather than a score of five,” Bichan told the Times-Age.

“If you can protect your feed and get your spring feed management right – not pug paddocks – we can cope. It will have a little bit of a potential impact on both production and mating, but if we can get the next couple of months management right, we can minimise impact,” he said.

BakerAg director Chris Lewis said he would expect dairy farmers in the lower North Island to start with similar calving numbers to last year.

A big plus for the lower North Island from a grass-growing perspective is that there is more supplementary feed on hand due to a good autumn, he said.

“That meant people who had stored supplementary feed and also things like maize silage ended up with a lot more and have still got that extra feed on hand right now. That’s part of the reason why they’re happy to keep cow numbers up, as they’ve got enough feed.”

Meanwhile, Lewis believes that although there won’t be any immediate changes, having a mindset around the lower milk price as well as the projection of an El Niño dry season may lead some farmers to make some culling decisions to reduce cow numbers earlier in the season than they might normally do.

“We’ve still got high cost relative to what it costs to make milk; a solution for some will be to reduce cow numbers before Christmas.”

While grass will always be king, there are times when the cow’s unique nutritional needs cannot be met by pasture alone, according to SealesWinslow nutrition and quality manager Paul Drew.

Wairarapa farmers discuss sustainable agriculture.

“This is particularly true in the current conditions. Most farmers will need a supplement to make sure cows have enough energy and starch to keep the rumen working and better use the pasture that is available,” Drew said.

“If farmers do find themselves in the unfortunate position of not having met body condition scores pre-calving, it’s essential they prepare the cow for lactation and peak. Complimenting pasture and available farm feeds with a good amount of starch and energy can help.”

And as Federated Farmers president David Hayes told the Times-Age, it’s not just local dairy farmers facing challenges most rural sectors in the Wairarapa are suffering through this very wet winter.

“Hill country farmers, especially those with fence and track damage following the cyclone, are not able to manage the pasture and stock normally. This, combined with the severely wet soil conditions, means feed availability is down, and pasture damage is a big risk,” Hayes said.

“Farmers will have, in many cases, needed to reduce stock numbers prior to winter, but conditions are still extreme.

“Arable farmers also have had a long period of wet conditions and can’t do much until things begin to dry out, hopefully, this spring. Olive produces will have had a difficult harvest and lower quality yields, and trees such as on apple orchards may well die through the winter due to the extremely wet soil conditions.”

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