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Dry season management strategies for livestock producers

By Sue Briggs, Senior Land Services Officer - Sustainable Agriculture

Management decisions that involve taking a chance on future weather conditions can be challenging.  Most producers are optimistic that it will rain at some stage.  But quite often, the later decisions are made, the fewer available options.  With a less-than-optimal spring forecast and coming off a dry autumn/winter, it is obvious things are not going well, and decisions will need to be made.

Plans and trigger points
Plans require specific information from your farming business such as feed on offer, stock numbers (and condition), class of stock to be carried through the summer, fodder and grain stores, water stores and potential cash flow.  Planning will prompt you to consider timeframes and triggers around feed levels, potential feed costs, stock weights and classes and other variables.

Most effective plans make many small adjustments rather than waiting to be forced to make large,  more radical or costly decisions.

From a mental health point of view, once a decision has been made, right or wrong, you have more clarity about what you’re doing and it often feels like a weight has been lifted.  If you get two inches of rain a week later it doesn’t matter, it can be used as an opportunity. You can’t second guess yourself after the event - make the best decision at the time, based on the best information at hand.

Livestock Requirements
You need to determine what you have and what you need.  The following are examples of the information that can be collected from your farming business.

  1. Feed base
This can be done by an estimation using known growth rates.  However, you need to keep in mind that pastures in dry times are less dense and sometimes lower in quality when compared with a typical spring, therefore be conservative with your estimates.   Another option is to measure all pasture paddocks on your property – there are simple tools available to help with this (such as the MLA Pasture ruler).
  1. Stock numbers and feed demand
List the stock numbers, their feed demand and condition score.  Prioritise this list by ranking each class or mob that is essential for the farming system’s medium to long-term recovery from the dry.  This will help you determine, for example, any livestock that can be sold immediately.
This information can also be used in a feed budget.  Knowing the amount of feed in the paddock will help you determine if you can finish off sellable stock, or have enough feed to ensure the lactating stock do not lose condition.
  1. Fodder / grain stocktake
Record the amount of hay, silage and grain you currently have on hand. Conduct feed tests on all feed so you can confidently allocate the right feed to the right class of stock.
  1. Water stores
Determine the quantity and quality of water on hand.   A worthwhile exercise is to determine stock water requirements for the next the six-to-nine months.  Making the commitment to feed stock through the summer could become very expensive if water sources run dry.  This scenario will not only be costly, but additional work and stress.
  1. Financial options
Talk to your accountant and bank about cash flow so you are aware of the options and lead in times, if action is required.

Options to consider
Use the above information to develop trigger points within your plan.  These trigger points will be unique to each farming business, based on your current situation and the level of risk you are prepared to take under different scenarios.  The following are examples of possible decisions or options:

  • Bring forward the sale of stock – work out how long and how much feed is required to get stock to a desired sellable weight compared with selling early.  A feed budget and feed stores will provide relative information for this decision.
  • Early weaning – enables you to allocate better quality feed to young stock and help maintain an adequate condition score of the breeding stock.
  • Destocking – need to determine the mob or class of stock that are essential for your medium to long term recovery (or production).
  • Use of a sacrifice paddock or stock containment area to preserve the soil and pasture resource of your farm – site consideration is important.
  • Use crops as forage or conserve into fodder (if possible)
  • Obtain extra feed early  - this boat may have already sailed
  • Seek agistment early – parts of Victoria (and even SA) are having an average to good season.
  • If you are an irrigator, make informed decisions about where to buy or sell irrigation water - if you decide to use it, what is the additional feed it will grow compared to buying in alternatives etc.
The final step is to put the plan into action.  Benchmarking studies have shown that producers who consistently perform well, in good and bad years, monitor their business and make decisions early.  Even if you take no action, you are actually making a decision.  Likewise, if action is delayed, you are also making a decision that will have ongoing implications to feed supply, stock condition and budget.

Finally, and most importantly, share your concerns and challenges with your family, friends, neighbours, advisors, and consultants.  Communicate with your peers.  Look out for each other and members of your community.