In this article, Conail Keown, senior dairying adviser, CAFRE, outlines how to manage farms during periods of dry weather conditions.
Grazing management tips
A farmer’s main priority now is to reduce daily grass demand to below daily growth rate.
This will help hold grass cover on the farm, protect current growth, and speeding up recovery when rain arrives.
Maintain rotation length at 25-30 days; this means grazing no more than 4% of the grazing block on your farm daily.
Assess the grass available in this area and supplement with forage/ concentrate to balance herd demand.
If there is a larger deficit between growth and demand, it will be necessary to temporarily reduce demand further by reducing grazing stocking rate and feeding extra silage.
Increasing rotation length beyond 30 days may lead to much-reduced grass quality in current conditions
Maintain normal fertilizer N applications after grazing if possible.
However, if drought conditions persist to greater than 60mm soil moisture deficit, it is advised to delay N until rain is forecast. This is currently the situation in the east of the province.
Feeding out forage supplements in dry weather
Currently, on many farms where average farm cover has significantly dropped, the only option is to feed additional forage and supplement the herd to maintain production.
Each farm will have its own preference (based on facilities/machinery/labour). However, the main aim remains to reduce total daily grass intake to the level of daily growth or below.
Some of the best options for feeding include:
- 100% silage and meal in a shed or a convenient paddock. This may be a paddock marked for reseeding later in the year. You can allocate a small area of fresh to the herd daily. Some farms have used a temporary wire feeding rail to good effect. This approach simplifies grazing management of the main group. However, there is a risk of injury due to slippery concrete floors if feeding in a shed and adequate space is needed.
- Offer silage to all cows in the grazing paddock, placing silage along with perimeter fencing if possible. This works best where you can allocate feed with a diet feeder. Calculate silage allocation to balance available grass on the paddock daily. Spread forage along a long linear distance (1m per cow) to reduce bullying.
- Feeding silage swards or zero grazed grass from outlaying blocks can fill a grass supply deficit. However, based on a pre-grazing cover. If silage swards have surpassed ideal pre-grazing grass cover and are nearing the cutting stage, then it is preferable to leave for silage cutting at this stage;
- Offer high fibre straights such as palm kernel, soya hulls, beet pulp or other forage reducing straights. These are best fed in mobile troughs or as part of the mixed ration.
- With the hot and dry conditions, ensure full access to clean water. If feeding in a paddock, cattle may require additional water access.
Whichever actions are chosen, it is vital to act now to ensure that you ration out any remaining grass supply as early as possible.
Also, plan to supplement with forage and concentrate until grass growth exceeds demand.
Feeding additional concentrate during drought conditions:
Parlour-fed concentrate will form a major part of daily feed allowance in drought conditions. Some guidelines for this include:
- Feed additional parlour concentrate up to a maximum of 50% of the diet dry matter. This is a relatively safe level provided adequate water is provided.
- Base crude protein on the overall composition of the diet. In normal circumstances, a 14-16% high energy ration would be adequate at grass. However, during a drought, it is likely that lower protein ingredients will form a significant part of the diet, with a small percentage of the diet actually fresh grass. Also, where grass is drought-stressed and lacking N uptake, it is possible that sward protein content could be lower than normal.
Therefore, it is recommended that a higher protein ration be used if grass intake is restricted for example 16-18% protein.
Other management issues:
- If dry conditions persist into August, consider offloading problem cows that are already in line for culling;
- Do not neglect youngstock. Total dry matter intake requirements are small relative to the milking herd but nonetheless, adequate feed must be offered daily;
- If you have to feed silage for a few months in summer, complete an early fodder budget. This will allow plenty of time to act if there is a risk of feed shortages later in the year.
Find more farming tips here.