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Successful summer dairy farming demands regular monitoring. This page recommends farm walks, managing grazing residuals, monitoring body condition scores, staying informed on industry information, and future planning. Key tools include DairyNZ Farmwatch for weekly on-farm summaries, NIWAFarmMet for weather forecasts, DairyNZ Pasture Growth Forecaster for grass growth predictions, NIWA's Hotspot Watch for soil moisture levels, and NIWA's Seasonal Climate Outlook. In terms of pasture management, it advises against overgrazing and provides dietary guidance for mid-lactation cows. Regular checks and using available resources can help you prepare for whatever summer throws at your farm.
Successful summer management means regular monitoring. Go for farm walks, manage grazing residuals, monitor body condition scores, keep up-to-date with industry information, and plan ahead.
Regular monitoring allows you to evaluate options available for stock and feed management based on the most accurate information. On-farm, keep an eye on the weather forecast and benchmark yourself against others to help with decision-making.
You never know what summer is going to throw at you. Here are some tips to help you manage different scenarios.
The primary differences between summer and spring pastures are, in summer dry regions, leaf emergence rate and pasture growth rates are slower due to reduced moisture. Slowing down the round or increasing the number of days in the rotation to capture the three-leaf stage will help maximise growth during the summer and increase feed available in autumn months. See leaf stage.
In summer-dry non-irrigated regions, high air temperatures and moisture stress can cause a build-up of dead material (stem and stalk) in the pasture base.
This may increase dry matter percentage and fibre content, but also reduces pasture quality; this needs to be considered when allocating daily pasture allowances.
For example, a mid-lactation cross-bred cow weighing 500kg LW producing 1.4kg MS and walking 2km over rolling terrain requires approximately 167MJ ME/day. This equates to:
16kg DM/cow/day - dry summer pasture in the Waikato with ME: 10.5 MJ
14kg DM/cow/day - irrigated pastures in the South Island with ME: 12.0 MJ
In irrigated areas, summer pastures are generally consistent with spring pastures.
Over-grazing pastures in summer depletes the a plant's energy stores primarily contained in the bottom 4cm of the plant.
This results in a lag in pasture regrowth when moisture become available, e.g. after the autumn rains. Severe or repeated overgrazing during this period can result in plant death which will have negative consequences for longer-term pasture persistence.
Manage pasture condition so when it rains pastures are in good shape to respond.
Options to reduce over-grazing include:
It's important that post-grazing residuals are no greater than 4.5 cm during summer. If higher residuals remain in summer, pasture quality will decline further and dead material in the pasture base will rot when it rains.
Additionally, in areas prone to facial eczema, leaving high residuals and increasing the amount of dead litter in the base of the sward will increase the risk of high spore counts and FE.
Options to avoid under-grazing:
Look after your irrigated pasture. If you are irrigating, regularly monitor soil moisture levels and consider signing up to NIWA FarmMet - a subscription weather forecast and information service.
Have a contingency plan for when water restrictions are applied. One option is to fully water the best part of your farm rather than poorly watering the whole farm. Irrigated crops can provide a high return.
More on managing water supply restrictions here.
During mid-lactation, energy is generally the limiting nutrient in a pasture-based system. Feeding an energy supplement in summer can be profitable, if it has been sourced and fed at a reasonable cost, pasture is not wasted and that it will keep more cows milking for longer lactations.
As the dry matter content (DM %) increases in summer pasture (even under irrigation) there is more dry matter available for the cows to eat compared to pasture at the same height in spring.
As a rule of thumb, protein requirements for a mid-lactation cow are 16% crude protein.
For most farms, protein will not be limiting production as crude protein content in pastures is rarely less than 16%. Protein may be limiting where a low protein supplement is fed, for example where more than 4 kg of maize silage/cow/day is being fed. Whether a protein supplement will be necessary will be dependent on the average protein content of the cow's diet especially if a high proportion of the diet is supplemented.
If protein is limiting production during the summer months in a pasture-based system, supplements high in undegradable dietary protein (UDP) are required to generate a milksolids response. Feeding supplements that are high in rumen degradable protein (RDP) or non-protein nitrogen will not improve production.
Mineral supplementation in summer depends on the diet being fed and cow requirements. Compared with cow requirements, maize silage is low in Mg, Ca, P, and Na.
If more than 3kg maize silage is fed during mid/late lactation, minerals supplementation is recommended as an inexpensive insurance against possible deficiencies which can negatively affect production and increase the risk of metabolic disorders such as staggers. As the amount of maize silage in the diet increases, the requirement for certain minerals also increases.
As the dry matter content (DM %) increases in summer pasture (even under irrigation), more dry matter is available for the cows to eat compared to pasture at the same height in spring.
For most farms, protein will not be limiting production as crude protein content in pastures is rarely less than 16%. The requirement for a mid-lactation cow is 16% protein.
Protein may be limiting production where a low-protein supplement is fed, for example where more than 4kg of maize silage/cow/day is fed. A protein supplement being necessary or not will be dependent on the average protein content of the cow's diet especially if a high proportion of the diet is supplemented.
If protein is limiting production during the summer months in a pasture-based system, supplements high in undegradable dietary protein (UDP) are required to generate a milksolids response. Feeding supplements high in rumen-degradable protein (RDP) or non-protein nitrogen will not improve production.
Hot conditions will reduce production, with Holstein Friesians (HF) being more sensitive.
When daytime temperatures exceed 27°C and nighttime temperatures also exceed 15°C, even with low humidity, the THI is above the comfort zone for high producing dairy cows (and farmers!). However, heat stress alone is not responsible for low summer milksolids production. For the latest research and recommendations see Heat stress.
The aim of dry summer management is to:
Use these strategies in summer dry to manage feed supply and look after the herd.
Be mindful of heat stress. Although heat stress effects are more severe in hot climates such as parts of America and Australia, dairy cows in some areas of New Zealand are affected by heat stress during summer.
Tips for cool cows
When hot conditions are forecast some short-term solutions to reduce heat stress for cows and minimise milk production losses are to:
Use supplements wisely if conditions get dry; feeding supplements keeps animals in production longer than would otherwise be possible in a dry summer.
Note: Supplements can be profitable providing you apply best practice management and purchase the supplement at the right price.
Only purchase and feed out supplements if you have:
Note: The immediate milk response is unlikely to fully cover the cost, but if feeding results in maintaining more cows in milk when it does rain.
A profitable return from supplements will depend on:
Note: Not all feeds are the same in how much protein and fat they will produce for the same MS response, there are differences in the supplement amount required for BCS gain in dry cows. The Supplement Price Calculator takes these factors into account.
Although this has little affect on feed requirements, moving to once-a-day (OAD) or three times in two days can take the pressure off cows and staff as well as give managers more time to plan and manage.
Impact: Data from research trials indicate that cows switched to OAD in mid-January gain approximately ¼ BCS unit more before dry-off (in approximately three months) compared with cows that continue to be milked twice a day. Cows need to be milked OAD for at least six weeks before gains in BCS are apparent.
Transition: During the transition to OAD it is critical to continue feeding cows well. Maintain feed quality and quantity at twice a day levels for at least the first week. Underfeeding during the transition to OAD milking may exacerbate somatic cell issues as the somatic cells will be concentrated in a smaller volume of milk.
Research indicates that there is only a 3% decrease in feed intake when cows are switched to OAD milking during summer. If this decrease is not enough to balance feed supply and demand on the farm and reach target pasture covers, then other options (e.g. culling, drying-off some cows and/or feeding supplements) need to be implemented in conjunction with OAD milking.
Dispose of known culls. Do this earlier rather than later. Cull on pregnancy diagnosis, production worth, and somatic cell count. The objective is to carry as many cows as practicable beyond autumn without jeopardising next season.
Feeding supplement to culls is expensive. If the known culls are disposed of the rest of the herd is fed better and the extra feed goes to milk production – not to maintenance as is the case with culls. Where 20% of the herd is culled the remaining cows can be fed 25% more i.e. cows have more feed for milk production and cow condition.
The aim of early culling and drying off of low-condition score and poor-producing cows is to keep as many cows as possible milking into autumn. This is important to capture any benefits from an autumn flush in pasture growth. The later the dry period breaks, the less likely a farm will capture the carryover benefits of any additional inputs and of keeping as many cows milking as possible.