10 tips to cope with extreme weather events
While weather risk is a reality of farming, the multiple extreme weather events of late 2017 and 2018 really stretched farm resources – cash, labour and facilities.
The impact of such events can be reduced by having appropriate reserves in place – be that of cash, quality feed or labour. In 2018, having a reserve of quality feed in place compensated for weather induced reductions in grass growth.
So what are the lessons to be learnt from 2018? Teagasc interviewed approximately 60 dairy farmers, across six discussion groups, this autumn to gather their reflections.
“You need to push days at grass in a difficult spring”
While grass growth in spring 2018 was lower than previous years (especially in southern counties), farmers found that the Spring Rotation Plan worked, albeit with some adjustment in the final third of the first rotation. Farmers must start the first round on time each year, have appropriate infrastructure in place to allow for grazing in challenging conditions, practice “on-off” grazing and have a quality silage reserve to feed if needed.
“Quality silage simplifies feeding during deficits”
Any old silage will not do for milking cows. While quantity of feed may have been the immediate concern, farms that lacked a supply of quality silage were affected to a greater extent.
Filling the gap with lower quality silage led to lower milk solids output, increased concentrate feeding rates and increased labour or complexity of feeding arrangements. Where high quality silage was available, milk yield could largely be maintained by simple in-parlour concentrate feeding at moderate rates.
“Stocking rate is a separate, but related issue, to the requirement for a fodder reserve”
The optimal stocking rate for your farm should be aligned with the average annual grass growth rate of your farm. However, even optimally-stocked farms experienced feed shortage due to 2018 growth rates; the scale of the deficit ranged from 0.5 to 1.0 t DM per cow.
In future, farmers should plan to carry 50 to 70% of such a potential deficit (0.5 to 0.7 tDM per cow) as a rolling feed reserve. Surpluses can be gathered in high growth years and/or as a ‘once-off’ purchase of external feed.
“The value of the marginal cow needs to be questioned”
Adding cows where no grass reserve exists simply accelerates feed costs i.e. the extra cow is entirely fed on purchased feed. Marginal cows include late calving cows (with short lactations), high SCC or lame cows and low milk solids production cows. A key question for each farmer to answer is whether such cows are meeting the cost of importing the additional feed?
“Do not ignore small deficits in your winter feed budget”
Winter feed budgeting is a key management task, especially where cow numbers or stocking rate is changing. It is not being routinely carried out. Worryingly, there has been a tendency to ignore small deficits, even where budgets are completed: “if there is a good March, I’ll be fine”, “I’m only 10% short”.
“Avoid panic buying feed”
This was not always possible in 2018 but can be avoided by better planning and deciding to build feed reserves over time (including in years of good grass growth). The practice of buying crops on a “per acre” basis should also be avoided.
“Weather problems multiply the workload”
Coping with the various weather events added significantly to this year’s workload. The ‘me plus help for the spring’ model leaves no room for shock events such as we experienced in 2018. Farmers need to look at ways of increasing the number of people they can call on in the event of an extreme event.
Also to look at how they can be flexible in their use of people and services e.g. better use of part-time help on a year round basis, use of the contractor (or another farmer) for forage feeding and tractor work. Finally, it is important that everybody gets a break after working though the extreme event.
“Have adequate facilities in place”
Closely linked to the previous point is the requirement to have good infrastructure for feeding and handling stock. On many farms, facilities have not kept pace with the increase in cow numbers.
At a minimum each farm must have adequate cubicles and calving space, in-parlour feeding (a simple batch feeding system will suffice), 700mm forage feeding space per cow, a drafting facility and a back-up power supply (generator).
Interestingly, farmers did not identify forage storage space as a priority, but this may be required on some farms also, especially where currently available pit space precludes carrying reserves.
“Have a written plan for storm-proof milking”
In order to avoid problems with frozen pipes/ troughs/ pumps, make sure that everyone knows the steps to “storm-proof” the milking. This can be as simple as a list of steps to be taken when hard frost or high winds are expected.
“Farm you way through”
While you cannot manage the weather, you can manage your response to it. There are no “silver bullet” solutions to an extreme weather event, so you must identify the best solution for your farm...and face into the challenge. It is important to look after yourself, your family and your team – both during and after the event.
And afterwards, correct what didn’t work…so that you are better prepared for the next extreme event.
Tom O'Dwyer is Head of Dairy Knowledge Transfer, Teagasc, AGRI Centre, Moorepark, Fermoy, Co. Cork
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