In Part 1, we spoke all about the role of financial management and farm management play in recovering from a bout of drought!

Now in Part 2, we’ll explore how to deal with those pesky weeds (gosh, even a drought can’t stop them in their tracks) and of course, animal health.

Specifically, in this article, we’ll tell you:

  • Why droughts actually increase your weeds
  • How to avoid livestock poisoning from weeds
  • How to use early weaning and culling to your advantage

So read on, and prepare to become a drought-fighter!

How weeds thrive during drought

Drought can destroy vegetation thus providing weeds with even more sunlight, nutrients, moisture and space, with which they grow rapidly. Weeds will germinate quickly once the first spell of rain comes around.

Drought also leads to mineralisation of the soil, which our little weed friends just can’t get enough if, and chomp up these nutrients thus becoming even stronger.

Important points to remember:

  1. Herbicide-resistant weed can be included in the drought feed
  2. Drought can extend the viability of the weed seed
  3. Livestock poisoning can happen after drought – due to excess nitrate in the soil
  4. Cropping areas are more vulnerable to weeds after a drought

Risks of bringing in Feed and Fodder:

When you bring feed and fodder into your farm, you could increase the chances of introducing new weeds from other parts of the country.

If you can do some research on the background of your feed/fodder and where it comes from, you could stave off biosecurity risks. In short,

  • Thoroughly check your feed and fodder
  • Keep your feeding areas limited
  • Monitor feeding areas
  • Monitor water sources
  • Control weeds immediately after germination
  • Identify all new plants

Did you know that drought extends the viability of weed seeds?

Drought causes dry soil. Fungi and bacteria that usually break down seeds need moisture to survive.

Since the soil is dry, the fungi and bacteria don’t have a happy ending, and can’t break down the weed seeds. Weed seeds thrive and remain fully viable.

There is also the risk of herbicide-resistant weeds finding their way into fodder and grain-like annual ryegrass.

Herbicide resistance is especially common in areas like South Australia and Western Australia and it so happens that large quantities of grain are obtained from these areas.

Pasture infested with weeds
Pasture infested with weeds.

Livestock poisoning due to weeds:

Weeds can cause livestock poisoning. Here are a few common weeds that cause livestock health issues are:

  • Panic species cause photosensitisation – usually in sheep
  • Rock fern causes blood in urine and sudden death
  • Marshmallow weed (despite having such an innocent name!) causes staggers and possible death
  • Green cestrum causes sudden death
  • Amaranthus species cause kidney failure in sheep and cattle
  • Thistles cause nitrate poisoning in sheep and cattle

So now that we’re on the topic of livestock, let’s explore the other aspect of coming out from a drought which is – Animal health!

Animal health & management

Drought is a tug-of-war between the amount of forage and water available and the amount of forage and water needed.

One of the most important decisions a farmer has to make is increasing the supply of forage by purchasing hay or reducing the demand for forage and water.

If the exact length of the drought was known, it would be easier to calculate exactly how much forage and water would be needed.

But unfortunately, as we both know, there is no timer on the drought situation and it’s over only when it’s over.

Early weaning: Once a calf reaches around 135 kilos on the weighing scale, it is considered safe to wean. Early weaning helps maintain the cow’s body condition.

The young calf can also then either be sold or fed dry feed that gives you a more efficient feed conversion.

Early weaning calves between 120 days of age to the normal weaning age is recommended. At this stage, the rumen is developed enough to support the digestion of forage and concentrated feeds too.

Culling cows: Culling cows is a tough decision to make. Now, we’ll tell you all about the driving factors behind the decision to cull your cows.

The first group to cull:

  1. Cull cows with bad temperaments, lameness, bad udders and health issues
  2. Cull cows based on their age – you can check their teeth for a better idea
  3. Based on pregnancy status. Cows that are found open (that is, not pregnant)

The second group to cull:

  1. Cull cows with poor production
  2. Late calving cows
  3. Extreme cows – depending on frame and muscling

Keep most or all of your 2,3 and 4-year-old females. This strategy makes sure the superior females are still part of your herd.

Younger females require good quality of ration but not that much of a quantity when compared to older females.

Younger female cows also usually have better reproductive capacities and are better at rebreeding and delivering healthy calves as compared to mature females.

Another strategy would be to keep the 4-8-year-old females – also called the ‘easy keepers’. 4-8-year-old females have already reached their maximum body size, so you don’t have to give them a high-quality diet.

They’re also easier to rebreed and calve compared to young cows, but, they would require a higher quantity of feed, even if not higher quality.

When you cull cows during a drought, you should cull any weak performing cows that you would normally keep.

Try to keep your emotions separate from the process and remember that this is a way to keep your herd superior.

This will in turn become your base herd, your starting herd, that you will rebuild to recover from the drought.

Body condition scoring: This also plays an important role in the culling decision. You know that the ideal BCS for a cow is 5-6.

During drought, it is common to find BCS scores of 3 where all the ribs will be visible. The norm is to let cows lose one or two BCS scores and then give them attention and nutrition.

But, this nutritional intervention should happen earlier. Thin cows will not breed back till their BCS is back to normal. And selling them won’t be of any use because they will be sold at discounted rates due to their low weight (especially in the case of beef).

Since your entire region will also be experiencing drought at the same time, the market is going to be saturated with farmers who are all trying to sell skinny cows.

So, you either sell early or don’t sell at all.

A cow with a low BCS
A cow with a low BCS.

You could also connect with the authorities for more information on tax incentives that you stand to benefit from because of drought, which could help you make better decisions on the sale and replacement of your herd.

Drought is a time of hardship for farmers. A bad drought can reduce your production by up to half. Matters may get out of hand if a drought further causes other damages like bushfires.

Some dairy farmers have reported spending up to 19,000 dollars per week on hay.

It’s a stressful situation and no matter how well you've planned to tackle the effects of drought, there are a lot of tough decisions to be made.

But farmers like you are resilient people. The backbone that makes our economies tick and grow.

So the show will go on! Thanks to you.

- The Dedicated Team of Pasture.io, 02 November 2020