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Animal Health in Drought
22 May 2017 - John Meban (BVSc)
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The most important thing you can do during extended dry spells is to have a plan.

You need a short term, medium term, and long term plan. I’m going to start back to front with the long-term plan.
A long-term plan is usually formulated after experiencing an adverse event while things are clear in your mind and anticipating it will reoccur in the future. It should be in place now before the current event is experienced. A long-term plan involves analysing what you did right and what you did wrong during the last event, particularly around decision making. Some decisions will have been right and some will have been wrong. The more decisions you make built around facts (actual measurements such as stock body condition scores, pasture quantities, water availability) the more right decisions you are likely to make. Long term decisions involve setting flexible stocking policies suited to your location. One of the key things is to get down to your winter stocking numbers as early as possible in summer dry area’s. This may mean selling store lambs by developing a long-term relationship with a lamb finisher. Also, you need easy to sell sacrifice classes of animals built into your system to reduce feed demand quickly without taking too much of a financial hit. That is a balance of breeding and trading stock. Another measure is to include some summer cropping, where possible, with dry tolerant crops such as Lucerne. We have all seen the way Doug Avery has turned his farm around. Some properties may even have area’s where irrigation could be investigated and numbers crunched. Long term strategic decisions need to be made to build resilience into agribusinesses. We are told adverse events are going to be more common and more severe so should be planned for. Monitoring for early warning signs such as soil moisture deficit, rainfall and wind run will help in making early decisions and those that follow, all helping to minimise the financial, physical and psychological impact. Post drought is also time to think about planting shelter trees for shade. Willows and poplars can provide both shade and forage. Plan to make hay, haylage or even silage for stockpiling when prices are right. Get all the infrastructure in place. Clean the dams, build more dams. Think about water reticulation, is it a goer? What has this got to do with animal health? It’s all about feeding, feeding, feeding.

Recent rain this week has brought a much-needed psychological boost but is far from enough to get us out of the proverbial. We still need a lot more gentle and regular follow up rain. Yeah right!! Now is when your short-term plan kicks in. Though stock water and stock condition are holding on in most places past experience shows that early responses pay off in the long run.

Short term planning is all around what decisions you make during or while you are in the event and should be monitored and reviewed regularly. This is right now as we still fast approach a drought being declared. Again, it’s all about feeding, water, shade, monitoring and revising decisions. Questions to ask. How much feed do I have now? How many animals can I feed and for how long? What animals am I going to feed? Do I have enough water? You need to have a clear and reasoned series of stepwise moves to either reduce feed demand (sell down) or increase supply (utilise crops, graze off, feed supplements). At this time of year there are often many alternative feed options available from horticultural waste/by-products. Many of these are good short term feeds. Be careful when feeding supplements. Introduce them slowly and build them up slowly. These feeds are often not complete diets but short term can make all the difference. If in doubt, ask for advice. Feeding high quality complete diets is usually the most expensive option in drought and the numbers need to be crunched and recrunched before you take the leap. Note: following this recent rain Nitrate poisoning is a potential issue when feeding fertilised and rapidly growing crops. If in doubt get them checked before grazing. Introduce animals gradually to transition them and allow the rumen bugs time to adapt.  As said before you should be down to winter numbers as soon as possible. You need to prioritise animals in terms of which to feed or sell. Usually older more productive capital breeding stock are ring fenced as the last to be sold. Fortunately, at the moment nearly all the stock I have seen are in good condition and holding up well. This year would be a good year not to put the ram out with the hogget’s but that’s a long way off. Perhaps that early lambing CFA ewe mob should be disposed of. One of the biggest challenges currently is we are fast approaching ewe mating and flushing is highly unlikely for all if any animals. Mobs should be drafted according to condition score and lighter ewes fed ahead of others. Keep chasing the tail! This is where you will get the most bang for your buck. Good conditioned sheep on maintenance will still take the ram well. You could consider delaying mating or splitting mating, and waiting for rain but if it doesn’t come you may well be worse off. The consequences of this at the other end of pregnancy need to thought through as well.

Something to consider is early weaning of cows if their condition score is suffering. It may be hard to find a place for calves. Introducing them to supplements while still on Mum is a good way of training them prior to weaning. This year may be an opportune time to scan cows early and sell down dry and late cows early. We can scan down to 6 weeks from bull removal. We could go earlier (by 21 days) and rescan dries if you want to sell down in a hurry. Talk to you vet about your options. If the dry continues into the autumn building winter covers to meet the nutritional demands in late pregnancy is always a challenge. This recent rain though a godsend does not come without potential fishhook’s. I usually recommend a barber’s pole treatment 10 days after warm rain. Try to avoid blanket use of such products and use an exit drench to minimise drench resistance issues. This recent warm rain coupled with lots of litter in the bottom of the sward is also ideal for Facial Eczema spores to take off. Watch the district spore counts and even better monitor you own. Unfortunately, a bit of a potential double whammy!!

This season has been relatively good from a fly challenge perspective. However, be on the watch as warm moist conditions are favourable for flies and challenge could increase. There is a common theme going on here. Warm moist conditions following dry are parasite and pest nirvana.

Lice can also take advantage and thrive on drought affected animals. Treatment should be considered where necessary. Off shears treatments are usually the best and cheapest options.

Your medium-term plan is all about recovery when drought breaking rain comes. It’s about giving areas of the farm a chance to regrow good quality tucker as fast as possible. It is often tempting to shift animals as soon as possible. However, if you have been feeding out, keeping animals on sacrifice paddocks is a great way of building covers quickly. Grass grow’s grass. Areas with some leaf and that are more fertile will recover quicker and though tempting should not be grazed too soon. These are also the areas that will respond to strategic nitrogen best. Targets are, setting up the winter feed levels, body condition recovery and getting back to a manageable carrying capacity as soon as possible. Post drought bear in mind animals will have been grazing in around snail habitat and we usually see a high liver fluke challenge in these years. Strategic fluke treatment/s should be built into your plan where necessary. Don’t forget to monitor trace element status of animals as well post drought as these can have a big impact on future performance and may need special focus.

Animal Welfare in Drought

As managers of animal’s farmers are required to meet the needs of their animals in both good and bad times. The clear majority of people have the animal’s welfare in mind at all times as healthy animals are productive animals. In times of drought it can be challenging to provide all the needs of animal’s short term and early sell down is often the most profitable way forward before animals loose too much condition. Maintenance feed, adequate quality water and shade are important for an animal’s welfare and is a no brainer. Enough said. Adequate planning and building resilience into you farm will go a long way to meet your animal welfare obligations. Keep an eye out for some that may be behind the eight ball and get in behind them.

You are not on your own out there. MPI is monitoring the situation and a drought committee is being convened on Monday to keep track of things and kick in if required. Build a team of trusted advisers around you, stick together with neighbours, share experiences, decisions and plans. Don’t hesitate to seek an outside and impartial opinion or more than one. Let’s hope more rain comes soon.

John Meban (BVSc)