While New Zealand's climate is usually temperate there have been regular cases of heavy snowfall where a thick blanket of snow can knock out power, landlines and cell phone towers and block roads.
In some areas electricity and phone services may take weeks to restore after heavy snow. With no pumps and frozen pipes, fresh water for stock and households can be at a premium. Stock losses and the loss of stock condition can be significant.
Bouts of heavy snow are hard physically and emotionally on farming families and staff as they worked in freezing conditions.
Previous experiences of heavy snow in New Zealand highlighted the immense insurance value of having:
- Surplus feed on hand
- Large standby generators
- Alternative means of cooking and heating for households.
Daily diary notes will be a very useful record for insurance, applying for assistance, and future weatherproofing of your business.
Steps for dealing with heavy snow conditions:
1. Immediate Actions
- Ensure the safety of family and staff
- Move stock to safety, shelter and water - preferably lighter land or a stand-off area. Break ice on troughs
- Make sure stock can't wonder. Don't rely on mains powered electric fences
- Check power and phones. Report outages if possible. Check neighbours - is it just your power/phone?
- Check dogs, poultry and pets
- Are neighbours okay, or can they help you?
- Use generators if available to keep pumps, electric fences and essential household appliances running. Source generators if you don't have them.
- Monitor the local radio for news and information.
2. Next Priorities
- Move stock to a stand-off or sacrifice area if they are not already on one. Ensure they have enough space to lie down - at least 3.5 sq.m per cow if on woodchip, sand or concrete for up to two days; at least 5 sq. m on woodchip or sand for more than two days; and 8 sq.m if on crops or sacrifice paddock.
- Feed stock. They will be hungry and will eat whatever is put in front of them, so take great care when introducing different feeds.
- Ensure stock have access to ample clean water.
- Separate out any small, weak, sick, lame animals and put them in a separate mob for special attention.
- Check and clear driveways and access tracks. Report road and tanker track access problems to council and/or dairy company if appropriate.
Look after family and staff, check neighbours. Accept help if you need it and give it where you can. Communication is critical.
- Milk any lactating cows if you can, but note that you may choose to delay milking or milk once-a-day to allow you time for other priorities. Monitor SCCs, watch for mastitis and keep in touch with the dairy company as necessary.
3. Develop a flexible feed plan
Feeding to manage animal stress and to maintain as much condition as possible is critical in a heavy snow situation. Develop a flexible feed plan and monitor as time goes on.
- Assess the feed you have on hand - silage, hay, straw, brassicas, cereals etc
- Decide what you will feed while snow is still on the ground. Do you have enough? How will you manage any changes in feed type? How can you ensure enough metabolisable energy (ME) and crude protein (CP)?
- Do a feed budget. Cow diet needs an average ME of 9.5 MJ/kg DM with at least 12% CP otherwise body condition will be lost. Straw has an ME of about 6, and even when mixed with cereal silage the diet will still be low in CP.
- If you have a feed shortfall, order in suitable supplementary feeds - grain, PKE, cereal silage, baleage, broll etc. Be aware of their energy and protein content, and seek expert advice on the best combination for your situation. Don't just guess.
- Plan to feed young stock as well as possible. They are your future.
- Monitor crops and pastures carefully, and be ready to change grazing priorities once the snow thaws
- Swedes and turnips can be break fed to cows even under 30cm of snow. Feed from long, thin faces with on/off grazing. Once the snow thaws, graze other crops preferentially.
- Kale/rape/choumoulier should not be break fed until snow melts otherwise much will be lost. They retain their energy and protein while under snow, but the dry matter (DM) content can drop by about 3%, so factor this into your feed budget.
- After the thaw, graze before leaves start to rot, and utilise heavier crops first.
- Beware of high nitrate levels - feed late in the day, don't feed if N has recently been applied, avoid feeding after frosts and dull days. If in doubt, get a nitrate test kit from your vet.
- Nitrate poisoning is a rate-of-intake problem, so slow the rate of intake by feeding straw, silage or baleage before putting cows onto crops so they are less likely to gorge themselves.
- Feed from long thin faces with on/off grazing, shifting fences a little and often to get good crop utilisation.
- Greenfeed oats, barley, short rotation ryegrass - give priority to feeding of these crops once snow thaws. You will have a window of about three weeks before rotting occurs, but frequent frosts after thawing will hasten deterioration. Check the smell - if the base of the pasture smells like compost, graze it off immediately.
- Pasture will be an unknown quantity until the snow is gone. Short pasture should recover ok, but long pasture will be crushed and wet after the thaw and will rot unless fine, windy weather dries it out.
- Some farmers use chain harrows to break the top of the snow, speed thawing and provide access to the grass for stock. However, be aware that using blades or snow ploughs can cause much damage to pastures and crops.
- Let the snow thaw, then graze long grass quickly to promote regrowth. If it is starting to rot, graze what you can.
- Minimise pugging as best you can. Perhaps create a sacrifice paddock if any need renovation, then re-seed in spring.
- Consider applying nitrogen if conditions are right.
- Concentrates, PKE, vegetable wastes can be expensive, but have high feed value and high utilisation if fed out under fences. Some farmers place feed onto old conveyor belts.
- Don't forget stock that may be out grazing. Contact the grazier to make sure they are ok and meet with them early to discuss any issues and plan the way forward.
4. Monitor stock health
- Cold, wet stock will lose condition quickly. Provide shelter, adequate feed and water.
- Feed quality is paramount - don't feed mouldy hay/baleage to pregnant or lactating stock.
- Magnesium supplementation is good insurance, especially if feed is restricted and cows are within a month of calving. Use 50-70g magnesium oxide dusted on feed or 50g of magnesium chloride or sulphate through water.
- Watch for bloat when starting stock back on kale - feed a fibre source first.
- If cows have not had dry cow therapy and are lying in mud there is the risk of environmental mastitis. Thorough teat spraying prior to calving is advisable.
- Remove any cows that abort from the main mob in case it is contagious.