What some people may not know, is that dairy farmers spend 12 to 15 months preparing for winter, carefully selecting and sowing paddocks in winter crops and determining how best to manage them in a way that looks after their cows and the environment.
While that may sound relatively straightforward, it’s often a delicate balance to achieve both. And each farm has its own unique set of challenges based on soil-type, terrain, climate and type of cows.
At DairyNZ, we appreciate how complex this can be, and we have been supporting farmers and doing extensive research into wintering practices to help them make the best decisions for their farm, animals and the environment.
Most dairy farmers in cooler regions of New Zealand feed their cows crop over winter, such as fodder beet, kale or swedes, when grass growth is very slow. These energy-dense feeds help keep their cows in good condition. The challenge is that grazing crops in wet weather produces mud. If not managed carefully, the exposed soil is at risk of nutrient and top soil run-off into waterways.
While good management practices can help minimise mud, preventing it completely just isn’t possible. If there’s heavy rain, or a period of consistent rain, the reality is there’s going to be some mud on farm.
But careful management can make a huge difference in limiting the amount of mud to ensure cows have a dry surface to lie down and move freely, and to reduce the impact on the environment.
Some of you may remember the images and footage of cows in deep mud that hit the headlines last year. This wasn’t acceptable, it isn’t the norm on dairy farms, and I hope we don’t see any incidents like that again this year. But I want to stress, those farmers are the exception, and the majority are doing a great job wintering their cows on crop.
As part of our sector strategy, Dairy Tomorrow, we’re committed to challenging our farmers to constantly look at how they can do better for the environment, their animals, business, people and community. And that principle also applies to wintering cows on crop.
Over the last few months we have focused heavily on promoting good management practices, particularly in Southland and South Otago, where soil-type and weather conditions can make wintering cows on crop more challenging.
We’ve been impressed with the number of farmers who have attended these events to brush up their skills and shown their commitment to improving how they winter their cows on crop.
Some of the key practices we’ve been reminding farmers to use this winter to reduce the impact of a wet spell includes using portable troughs, back fencing, and keeping cows out of critical source areas (low-lying areas where water can pool or flow after heavy rain). We’re also encouraging them to adjust their herd size, graze paddocks that are prone to be wetter or have heavier soils earlier in the season, and have a Plan B. These are just a few of the many things farmers do to mitigate the risk of mud.
All of these practices, combined with careful paddock and crop selection, determining where to leave extra grass buffers near waterways and critical source areas, and strategic grazing to prevent nutrient run-off, make a significant difference to mitigating top soil loss, nutrient loss, and mud.
We will continue to work closely with our farmers this winter to help them do the best they can for their animals, farm and environment, no matter what the weather throws at us.
By Tony Finch - DairyNZ’s head of South Island farm performance.
027 749 7857