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Heading into calving with low pasture cover Farming through the drought Farming out of the drought Summer management Contacts Additional resources

Using tools and options to deal with dry weather and drought will help reduce the impact and help your farm recover quicker.

Heading into calving with low pasture cover

What do you have on hand?

Completing a feed budget will help assess whether you have enough feed to get you through to your balance date. It is important that dry cows, springers and early lactation cows are fed adequately, otherwise this may result in health complications, a loss in body condition score and fertility issues. 

Spring Rotation Planner  

Completing a spring rotation planner will help set yourself up for the coming season and avoid running into a deficit larger.  

Sticking to your area allocation in the spring rotation planner will maximise the pasture production potential for each paddock for the rest of the season.  

Remember – the area allocated in the spring rotation planner is the total area across all herds on farm.

What else is available?

Nitrogen and ProGibb 

Tactical use of nitrogen and gibberellic acid in late winter/early spring (July – September) can be a very profitable decision in a genuine feed deficit.  

ProGibb is a tool to fill an anticipated feed deficit by pulling feed forward ahead of balance date. 


  • For best N responses
    • Soil temperatures must be above 7 degrees
    • High soil moisture content will result in high N leaching therefore  less uptake from the plant.
    • A pasture yield response will typically take approximately 20 days.  
  • For best ProGibb responses 
    • Apply within 5 days after grazing.
    • Graze treated pastures within 3-4 weeks after application.
    • Apply with nitrogen fertiliser.
    • Consider there may be a potential growth lag in the next round. 

Supplement Price Calculator  

Use the supplementary price calculator to assess the profitability of potential supplements to fill the feed deficit.  

Not all supplements may be profitable to feed, make sure you do your homework before buying anything in. 

Farming through the drought

Have a plan in place

Planning is key to managing dry conditions. A good plan will reduce stress and reduce the impact on the following season's production.

A Summer Management Plan will help to maximise profit and reduce stress in a dry summer.

It may not be easy to predict when it will rain, but a plan provides the framework for what decisions need to be made and when. The plan needs to be reviewed as conditions change.

Assess your current position

Assess your feed supplies and cow condition. How much can you feed in the dry, allowing for having supplement on hand for when it rains in winter.

Estimate how many cows you can milk mid-March to early April. Guard against being over-optimistic. Then consider your options for buying in feed and supplements and for reducing feed demand.

Take action early

Quit low-value stock

If you are running short of feed it may be better to quit cull cows early than to hang onto them in the hope that it will rain, or try to graze them elsewhere.

Dry-off poor performers

It is better to put scarce feed or expensive supplements into cows that are producing well. The others will eat a lot less when dry, and you might be able to graze them off.

Remember your young stock

Don't forget young stock at home and grazing on the run-off.

Use supplements wisely

First and foremost earmark 10-14 days of supplement for the period after rain (approx. 100kg/DM/cow); more if severe drought, less if C4 grasses will grow after rain. There will be a lot of pasture decay at this time and you need something to keep your cows going and to keep the rotation slow to build up feed supplies.

Feeding supplements keeps animals in production longer than would otherwise be possible. However, supplements can increase stock water rates. Consider providing water in the yards the reduce the demands to reduce the demand on troughs in the paddock after milking.

Avoid using autumn/winter supplements if at all possible. Use them only as a last resort after drying-off the entire herd.

The profitability of feed supplements depends on the carry-over response of having cows in milk when it rains (the longer the drought, the lower the response) and the cost of supplement relative to milk price.

When feeding supplements ensure that stock have enough water as the demand may increase. Consider providing water in the yards to reduce the demand on troughs in the paddock after milking.

Seek professional advice before using unfamiliar feed mixes on your stock.

Consider milking once-a-day (OAD)

Milking OAD or once every 16 hours are good options to take the pressure off cows when feed supply is limited. OAD does reduce the stress on cows walking to the shed, and can increase the time available for feeding out.  The impact on milk production will be dependent on the production of the cows, their genetic merit and the feed available.

Review the plan

Monitor your farm and rainfall

Review the plan every week to 10 days (rainfall, feed cover, supplement, production).

Check cow condition regularly (every 3-4 weeks), particularly the 2 and 3 year olds, and dry them off based on their condition score and days from calving, feed available, winter pasture growth rates and expected calving date.

Check long-range weather forecasts:

Facial Eczema

Have a plan to manage eczema spores and start intervention in anticipation of eczema spores rising. After rain, eczema spores love fresh green grass.

Set up for next season

Dry-off more of the herd if required

Would it be profitable to keep milking a proportion of your best producers and graze the rest off? Or would it be better to dry off the whole herd and manage them all on your own property?  How will you maintain or improve their condition so that next season's production is not affected?

Ask for help if you need it

Ask for help if you need it

During the high-stress period of a drought, it is more important than ever to look after people on-farm. This includes the farm owners and managers as well as their farm team. It can be a real help to talk to others and find out how they are dealing with the situation, such as neighbours, consultants or your local discussion group.

It is important to maintain staff morale:

  • Lead by example - if you have a positive attitude your staff will too
  • Look forwards not backwards - start planning for the next season and set short and long-term targets. Involve your staff
  • Participate in local discussion groups or events. Take some of your staff with you
  • Create team building opportunities e.g. registering your team in a local sporting activity can be fun and relaxing
  • Celebrate special events or achievements e.g. have a BBQ for someone's birthday.

If the drought worsens, talk to advisers. Consult DairyNZ staff or Farmer Information Service and other drought-savvy advisers, and keep in touch with feed suppliers and dairy company reps.  Talk to Federated Farmers, your Rural Support Trust and check in with your accountant and bank manager.

In extremes, seek emergency assistance

Federated Farmers, DairyNZ or other agencies may be able to help you find emergency feed or grazing off the property.  If you do make sure you have a written grazing contract so that you and the grazer know what is expected of each.

The drought can be considered 'broken' only when there has been enough rain to take the soil to within about 15% of field capacity. That generally means more than 50mm. Until then plan to get through in the best shape possible.

Farming out of the drought

Slow the rotation, feed more supplement

Slow the rotation

This will allow the grass to get away and develop some root mass.

Feed more supplement

Up to half the grass available is lost after rain because it is dead and decays quickly, so cows will require the major part of their intake from supplement. You will need around 100kg DM per cow (up to 160kg on very dry farms) to feed the herd for about three weeks after rain. The DM content of new grass is low (below 15%) because of its rapid growth, so supplement will still be needed even when there is plenty of fresh feed available.

Apply N fertiliser

Nitrogen applications can be delayed for several weeks after rain as the soil will have good N reserves. The response to autumn applied N takes place over three months, so take this into account when making the final drying off decision.

Beware of nitrate poisoning

Soil nitrogen levels usually rise during a drought, and when rain arrives the new growth combined with cool, cloudy weather can cause nitrates to accumulate in leaves. This can lead to nitrate poisoning. Permanent pastures are generally safe in warm, sunny conditions but there is some risk in cool, cloudy weather. Any new grass and annuals sown after a drought could be toxic, and applying fertiliser N will increase the risk.

Reduce risk by:

  • Testing suspect pastures with a nitrate kit from your vet
  • Using long rotations
  • Feeding cows other forages first - don't put hungry cows onto high risk pasture.

Plan pasture restoration

The burnt-off patches in pastures will inevitably be filled by hardy but low feed-value grasses, and weeds. Availability of finance may limit the amount of renovation you can afford, so plan carefully.

Assess and prioritise pastures

  • Paddock by paddock, assess how badly your pastures are affected and how likely they are to recover. How dense and strong are the grasses that are left? Have weeds taken over? Can they be repaired or renovated, or must they be replaced?
  • After the drought breaks use the 50% rule - test the pasture by doing a minimum of 20 observations in front of where you place your right boot. Are there live ryegrass tillers present at the front of your boot? If the answer is no in more than 50% of cases, the paddock definitely requires renovation.
  • What types of ryegrass and which endophytes have survived best?
  • Taking into account the degree of damage and the productive potential of each paddock, rank them in order of priority (e.g. badly damaged pasture on productive flats will have a high priority).

Develop detailed actions for each paddock

  • For partially damaged pasture (or where repair is not possible), make sure they have enough N for grasses and P, K and S for clovers. Consider extra fertiliser in early spring to boost growth. Use rotational grazing to allow plants to spread and replace root reserves
  • For the rest, decide what crop or pasture species and varieties to sow in them and when, what fertiliser is needed, and the costs involved
  • Use treated seeds to limit insect attack and enhance germination
  • Undersowing or direct drilling with short-term ryegrass may boost feed supply early
  • Involve family and staff in the planning process and seek advice from advisers and seed specialists with good pasture and crop experience.

Options for repairing drought-damaged pasture:


1. Mostly bare ground with no weeds present.

Undersow with Italian ryegrass, or perennial ryegrass/clover

2. Mostly bare ground with some weeds likely to re-establish.

Spray and direct-drill with short-term or perennial pasture
3. Most productive plants have been replaced by weeds. Spray/cultivate and plant 1-2 crops or short-term pasture before planting perennial pasture

Options for spring-planted crops:

Summer greenfeed
Rape, forage brassica, turnips Rape and forage brassicas provide multiple grazing, and turnips a larger single grazing.
Winter greenfeed
Kale, Swedes, (or turnips planted in summer) Swedes are suited to cooler regions, kale and swedes are popular for contract winter grazing.
Conserved feed
Triticale, barley, Italian ryegrass, maize, lucerne Maize silage suits warm districts, triticale can be planted early-spring and barley mid-spring for whole crop silage, Italian ryegrass can provide multiple cuts.
Grain crops
(cash crop)
Barley, wheat, triticale Require some skill to achieve reliable yields.

Choose perennials that suit your farm

A perennial pasture can be sown after crop harvest in spring or autumn. Consider drought-tolerant alternatives to ryegrass - tall fescue is the most similar to ryegrass for growth and quality, and other options include cocksfoot, pasture brome, lucerne, chicory, plantain, and sub-clover. If you are sowing ryegrass and clover pastures, use the types of ryegrass and endophyte that have survived best during the drought as a guide for what will be most sustainable on your farm.

Remember young stock

Young stock are very sensitive to the stress of dry weather and special attention is required to keep them healthy and in good condition. Young stock should be monitored regularly, especially if grazed on run-off. Prompt veterinary attention should be obtained if young stock show signs of ill health or stress.

Summer management

You never know what summer is going to throw at you. For tips to help you manage different scenarios visit our summer management page.

Check long-range weather forecasts. Is a La Nina or El Nino expected? Have a look at NIWA's long range weather predictions. Some forecasting companies have seasonal outlooks. If you are getting uncomfortably close to a trigger point, also check the MetService's 16-day forecast. Some regional councils also provide weather information.


Last updated: Aug 2023

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