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2008 - the year to become smarter about sheep

2008 - the year to become smarter about feeding sheep and cattle

5 December, 2007

In 2008 there will be a nationwide push to improve feed planning skills and tools for sheep and cattle farmers.

Run by AgResearch and funded by Meat & Wool New Zealand and Pastoral 21, the FeedSmart workshops will explain pasture measurement techniques, new calibrations for measurement devices for sheep and beef pastures, new feed requirement tables and basic principles of feed planning.

"2008 will be the year to start integrating new feed planning techniques and technologies into sheep and beef farming businesses," says AgResearch Scientist, Dr Annette Litherland.

In more advanced workshops farmers will be presented with a pasture growth forecaster, a feed budgeting tool (Farmax-lite) and tools to determine the cost and value of pasture and supplementary feeds.

"Every sheep and beef farmer knows how to look at their pasture, judge their own stock, and plan future feed supplies based on past experiences.

"However, when faced with change outside the scope of previous experience, for example a new farm in a different area, a completely different class of stock or wanting to be prepared for unexpected extreme weather events, it is advantageous to have the ability to more formally manage feed demand and supply," says Dr Litherland.

Few would argue that change, whether it is financial, climatic, social, environmental or technological, is occurring at increasing rates, she says.

While dairy farmers have simplified their systems by using more supplementary feed to fill gaps, sheep and beef farmers are becoming more complex and diversifying revenue streams in the face of lower returns on feed consumed.

"Highly profitable farms are often highly complex. For example, lambing hoggets, running intensive finishing systems, and terminal sire mobs are ways farmers have for achieving increased returns from stock wintered. These have made feed planning more challenging and there is no reason why this trend will not continue.

"Financial changes, for example the recent, sudden switch in relative profitability of sheep versus cattle, are driven by factors largely outside our control. Factors such as fluctuations in the dollar, droughts in other countries, bio-fuel demand, costs of fuel and disease outbreaks have generated big changes in costs and returns."

Dr Litherland says when there is a big swing in cost and return structures, farm systems need to respond in order to optimise profit.

"The farmer with good knowledge of feed planning and good access to feeding planning tools will be able to evaluate their options and make more timely decisions.

"Our climate is changing; periods of extreme drought or flooding will increasingly stretch farmers feed planning skills. Feed planning will be an integral skill in the face of a more variable climate, both to minimise problems and maximise opportunities."

She says while farms are getting bigger and corporate farms are more common, all corporate or multi-farm companies have a similar problem - making decisions in a precise and timely manner.

Typically corporations are faced with sacrificing per hectare production and focussing on economies of scale such as opportunities to bulk purchase inputs.

"Adopting a more conservative approach to feed supply, with built in buffers and formalised feed planning, is the key to maintaining high feed utilisation. Formal feed planning allows information to be gathered and shared by all participants responsible for farm productivity, says Dr Litherland.

Novel sheep genetics for greater lamb growth, parasite resistance, disease resistance, fecundity and lamb survival are soon going to be available to New Zealand farmers.

These improved sheep will require higher quantity and quality of nutrition to reap the full benefits from the genetics. More importantly, the consequences of running out of feed will be more traumatic, says Dr Litherland.

"Simply put, without planning and modifying systems accordingly, farmers will not realise the potential of these new technologies and their higher cost will not be offset."

From retiring high slip risk areas, or caps on nitrate leaching by limiting the use of nitrogenous fertilisers, environmental constraints are increasingly being placed on farmers.

"All these constraints have effects on feed supplies. Farmers need to quantify and understand these challenges with feed planning skills and access to good feed planning tools."

Promising research programmes are currently underway to provide farmers with tools to measure mass (e.g. CDAX rapid pasture meter) and quality of pasture from the back of motorbikes. Another promising ongoing New Zealand research programme has shown that satellites can measure pasture covers in New Zealand dairy paddocks.


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