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Farmers urged to plan feed for cows carefully

Farmers urged to plan feed for cows carefully

3 February 2015

Industry body DairyNZ is urging farmers facing drier than normal farming conditions to carefully consider how they make their feed planning decisions to keep cows in milk while maintaining their condition.

General manager of extension, Craig McBeth, says farmers are now reaching some crunch points for making the calls on feed planning and milking frequency.

"We know some farmers have moved on to once a day milking or milking every 16 hours as a way of managing their way through what are still very dry conditions in most parts of the country despite the recent rainfall. In the last couple of weeks we've seen pastures go from green to brown pretty quickly with limited post grazing regrowth. Soil moisture levels are still well below the average for this time of year and we're now seeing that reflected in crisp pastures," he says.

"A few areas in Taranaki and Southland have had substantial rain, but other areas need a really good soaking coupled with follow-up rain to get soil moisture levels up to support grass growth. That's why we're keen to help farmers make good decisions as they manage their way through these very dry conditions. With a low milk price, these kinds of judgement calls become much more complex as you delicately balance the profitability of keeping your cows milking and using supplementary feed.

"Farmers need to consider that drying off all their cows too soon is also an expensive decision.

"Generally, for the North Island, we know that in dry summers, March 20 is the date by which we need substantial rain before farmers would need to dry off all cows to secure pasture and cow condition targets for the next season."

He says it is good for farmers to keep some of their cows milking until that date to maintain their milk income at a reasonable level and to have the option of having cows in milk should grass growth accelerate after good rainfall.

"Options include a combination of selective culling, possibly milking once a day or every 16 hours and buying in or using their own supplementary feed."

He says this still makes economic sense as there is some reasonably priced feed (less than 30 cents/kg of dry matter landed on farm) about for farmers to buy in to keep cows milking profitably.

"This latest rain will give crops like maize and turnips an extra growth boost so we're advising farmers to keep growing their crops too, rather than feed it early to their cows. This will maximise the benefit of that rain we've had. And where substantial rain has fallen, say greater than 50mls, then it is worth applying nitrogen fertiliser."

Craig McBeth says making the calculations for feed planning is always an individual call. Farmers facing the driest conditions in Canterbury, North Otago and the Wairarapa are in a more advanced and challenging situation.

He says farmers need a lot more rain to get soil moisture levels back to normal.

"Farmers have to make the calculations and judgement calls now about how much grass growth we can expect in the next two to three weeks.

"They will need to make their own individual decisions about how to balance feed supply and feed demand. Factors to weigh up include costs and how many cows to keep milking and how often. With a bit of moisture around, they will also need to keep an eye on spore counts to manage the risk of facial eczema too."

DairyNZ advice and guidance on feed planning and summer management is available on and at DairyNZ discussion groups.

About DairyNZ
DairyNZ is the industry organisation representing New Zealand's dairy farmers. Our purpose is to secure and enhance the profitability, sustainability and competitiveness of New Zealand dairy farming. For more information, visit or


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