Winter Feeding

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Feeding stock through winter and on into calving or lambing is critical for so many reasons.  It is usually cold and wet, days are short, there isn’t much sun, and feed is tight but stock need more of it.  At this time of year I often get phone calls from farmers ringing in desperation, looking for cost-effective ways of getting more energy into their cows and ewes. We can help of course, but our members plan these decisions months ahead based on the most profitable feed available which is invariably grass and the most profitable stocking rate.

There is a fair bit of confusion about spring feeding of cows, ewes, replacements and finishing cattle.  What are the priorities?  How do you manage it when the pastures are bare and the best paddocks are pugged?  Which are the cheapest supplements?  Which are the best?

And I am often asked, what’s all this about feeding only pasture, Floyd?  I mean, supplements are essential on today’s farms, aren’t they?” That’s another of the comments I get, and my answer is “Who says?”

Most thinking farmers will agree that pasture is the cheapest feed, but many are convinced that they need to stock their farms to the hilt and top up with maize or PKE or N when the grass runs out.  Sure, that’s one way of farming, but it is the expensive way.

Putting on high amount’s of urea for example is really stressing the system – the soil, the pasture, the ground water and the stock.  It will mean more of what Graham Shepherd calls “high octane nitrogen and crude protein-rich pastures with little sugar and minerals”.  The pasture will be less palatable and less nourishing for stock, and they will need to eat more in an attempt to get enough of the right nutrition.  It will mean poorer stock health and higher vet bills than necessary.  It may mean more production but a lower nutrient density in the products.

It will also mean shallower rooting grass plants with less drought tolerance, weaker clovers with less pest resistance, less nitrogen fixed, more soluble nitrogen lost to the environment, more rumen methane produced, and a loss of soil carbon.

To perform well stock need high quality feeds as indicated by carefully measured Brix levels rather than ME, which is at best an estimate based on plugging figures into a formula that often gives a result that bears no relationship to reality.  Brix levels can be influenced by daily management decisions and is instant, easily repeated and gives a far better basis for making decisions about feed quality.

If you are in strife you may well need to buy in supplementary feeds of some sort to get you through.  It would be a good idea to think hard about your stocking rate and whether it is sustainable and profitable, and then to do a comprehensive review of your whole soil/pasture/fertiliser/stock/grazing management regime in terms of profit per kg of DM consumed by your most profitable class of stock.

Sound difficult?  It actually isn’t when you know how and have good tools to use for analysis and guidance.  Talk to me about it, or better yet talk to eCOGENT farmer members about how they manage winter.

Peter Floyd

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