Coast farmers face feed challenges

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Brendon McMahon
A welcome turn in the weather has brought respite for dairying, but underlying worry following the cold wet season, on the back of last year’s poor payout, means it is not all hay and sunshine for West Coast farmers.
West Coast Federated Farmers’ president Peter Langford said the better weather from mid-February had certainly lifted spirits but the dry, warm days almost immediately “baked” waterlogged pastures, putting back grass growth.
Coal Creek farmer Andrew Robb said the weather had helped to tide things over, as did the improved advanced payout from Westland Milk Products.
The signs were more positive overall, although the dairy company was also still facing “a few challenges”, Mr Robb said.
“The weather has certainly improved a lot for the better, and grass growth for probably the last month is at levels that are slightly above levels that we need for the requirements. If this sort of weather pattern continues, it should help farmers set up for the winter.”
However, the delays in making supplements meant there would be winter feed shortages. The fine spell now was not going to salvage total production losses, Mr Robb said.
Mr Langford said the sudden transition from really wet into prolonged sunshine was not an immediate fix.
“It went from wet to 18 days of very hot sun before the next showers of rain came, so that really baked the soils hard.
“It was so sudden. Grass got a really, really poor transition. It’s taken a long time it really has. It’s just been slow.”
Many farmers, including himself, had switched to once a day milking before Christmas, and milk production had now returned to near normal levels for the time of season.
However, the real cost of feeding stock and producing milk for next season still weighed heavily. “The biggest problem for people is the lack of (feed) supplements they have been able to make on some farms.
“Winter and early spring are issues, from where we’ve been and where we are still at. Feed is going to be short.”
Winter feed crops were lighter given early crop failures and farmers now had to maintain milk production while also slowing down feed rounds in order to bank enough pasture to carry stock through the winter months.
Achieving adequate cow condition scores into next spring would be a significant challenge and farmers would do well to spend a small amount having their vets assess herds now for the record, Mr Langford said.
“Some may have to dry off early to achieve that.”
Many now milking once a day might continue that practice next year because of the lower fixed costs.
Mr Langford said it was almost a “no brainer” and if it became a West Coast trend it would have serious implications for milk supply to Westland Milk Products.
The company had given nothing away yet about the advance payout for next season and some stressed farmers would be finding that hard, given their need to negotiate with bankers to ensure a viable budget for next season.
Grey Valley contractor Jason Foster said they had been “flat out” since mid-February.
“There has been a lot of catch up, more re-sowing of crops that failed earlier on because of the poor conditions,” Mr Foster said.
Farmers had switched to quicker growing crops at this late stage to at least achieve some supplementary feed for the winter.
The lower Grey Valley and towards Rotomanu had particularly suffered earlier on with swede crop failures; oats or a quicker growing brassica crop had latterly proved to be better options.
Mr Foster said seasonal pasture renovation and post-crop grass sowing was “late enough” now and with feed crops like maize already behind time there was often “a rushed turnaround”.
“They haven’t even started getting the maize off, which is late. Everything has sort of been put back. Obviously crop yields are going to be down.”