Farm Tech

Are you ready for El Niño?

What are the lessons we have learned from past droughts?

21 November 2002

(Adapted from Drought Recovery Strategies by Agriculture NZ Limited)

All the weather gurus are agreed: 2002/03 is going to be an El Niño summer. That means lots of drying winds and possibly drought on the east coasts of both islands.

We have no way of knowing how prolonged or severe such a drought might be, but in those districts which have endured a cold spring with little growth, even a modest drought could have a major impact on livestock health and performance.

So what have we learned from past droughts?

Well, first-off, we need fight despair. As feed dries up, we all tend to believe there are no options left. In fact, there are a number of positive things we can do.

It's important to accept that things aren't going to go to plan and that there will be a cost to your business. Then set about minimising that cost.

The earlier you start thinking this way, the better. You will have many more options if you think and act early, than if you delay accepting reality until later.

Droughts always break. Your management strategy should always be to focus on how your farm will be at that time.

How will you maintain your productive capacity to recover as quickly as possible? Aim to limit the impact of a drought to as short a time as possible.

The factors which determine the productive capacity of your farm business are in order of priority: Pastures, breeding stock, replacement stock, trading stock.

As drought goes on, progressively reduce this list by selling or grazing of stock.

Drought decisions

Buy feed or sell stock?

As feed prices increase in a drought it is usually more economic to sell trading and replacement stock than buy in feed. For capital stock, however, well-planned purchase and use of supplements can be viable.

No free loaders!

Capital stock without high productive potential (such as light tail end or old ewes) can be sold to prioritise the remainder. Pregnancy test cows early to get rid of empties.

Maximise future income rather than minimise costs!

Keep capital stock in good condition, look after pastures by spelling and continuing to feed supplements when rain does come.

Prepare options and timelines.

Prepare a plan with definite actions which will occur at pre-determined times. For example, if ewe liveweights aren't 58 kg by the end of November then we begin weaning. Or, if feed covers in front of 2yr cattle aren't 1800 kg DM/ha by 1 December, then we begin killing at lighter weights. Review this plan.

It is better to err on the side of caution and address current limitations ("I am down to 950 kgDM/ha") rather than future opportunities ("It might rain next month and then I will be able to finish the lambs").

Monitor stock and pasture.

In a drought, condition on stock is worth its weight in gold. Try to keep it there and monitor it by body condition scoring. Similarly, identify those pastures which should be looked after and those you can hammer (by using them as a feeding pad).

There may also be opportunities in droughts. If you have to sell stock anyway, is this the time to make the stocking rate or class changes you had been planning?

Talk to other people – farmers, farm consultants and others. Don't withdraw into your own problem.

There is a lot of value to be gained by using the observational powers and ideas of others, as well as simply sharing the problem/load.

Whatever you decide to do, it helps to do something.

The earlier decisions are made, the greater will be the benefit.