There’s more to wintering stock in Southland than meets the eye, says a farmer who views “bagging” of Southland farmers as inaccurate and unfair. Jo Cuttance relays her message.
When it comes to winter grazing practices – if farmers can’t see past the headlines and the photos, how can we expect townies to? This question was posed by Southland farmer Bernadette Hunt.
Bernadette, who farms a 650-hectare mixed operation just north of Gore, Southland, also responded to negative comments made by farmers in other parts of New Zealand about Southland winter farming practices, which she had seen in social media or news article comments.
“We’re really proud of what we do, (and we) try to do it right…It cuts really deep to hear and read comments from farmers in other parts of the country bagging farmers in Southland,” she said.
Like all farmers, the primary focus was to take good care of their stock and their land, she said.
Winter crop grazing was an essential part of farming in parts of this country, and Bernadette wanted the perception problem addressed.
THE PROBLEM WITH WINTER GRAZING PHOTOS
The photos below show the same paddock and same mob of cattle but taken 10 minutes apart by Bernadette. One of the photos made the paddock look “pretty average”: in the other, the paddock looked fine. She said when photos are published, the photographer worked the angles to tell the story they wanted to portray.
“The cattle help out by being naturally nosey, especially because people usually feed them. So, if you stand by a puddle or a muddy corner, the cows will come to you and pose while you take a photo!” she said.
This was how Southland farmers ended up with images that looked terrible.
WINTER GRAZING IN SOUTHLAND
Southland winters produced virtually no grass growth. What did grow was poor quality because of frosts, freezing temperatures and few sunshine hours. Winter grass did not maintain stock condition. Outside of northern Southland and river flats the ground gets waterlogged, resulting in heavy stock turning any paddock into mud in a day or two.
Brassicas and beet retained condition in poor weather. Farmers utilised the growing season to grow crops that held their condition throughout winter and could provide large amounts of feed on a small area, limiting the extent of damage in poor weather.
The method of feeding a crop began at the start of winter. The crop was measured to assess how many kilos there were in total. Samples were taken and dried and a calculation made to determine how much dry matter there was. This ensured farmers knew the amount of dry matter they were feeding in one day. With stock on crop, the animals were given a measured area of forage in a controlled manner along with supplementary feed to balance the diet.
GOOD WINTERING PRACTICE
Good wintering balances:
- animal health
- environmental impact
- regulatory compliance
- topsoil protection
- overall farming system
- cost for owner and grazier.
Poor wintering comes at a cost:
- to the environment
- to stock
- to the farmer.
THE SUN DOES NOT ALWAYS SHINE
The photos on the right show a lovely winter day in Southland. Twenty-four hours later the same paddocks, same stock, but after the rain.
Bernadette said it does not take much to create puddles but when the sun returns they dry up pretty quickly in many situations. “But it certainly doesn’t look pretty,” she said.
Bernadette asked, “Are we suddenly maltreating stock though?”
The stock are still fed really well, they had full bellies, and when no people stood nearby to attract them to the puddles they (the stock) went off to the drier parts of the paddock to sit and chew their cud if they wanted to.
“Sure, it isn’t pleasant, but they’re absolutely not being maltreated,” Bernadette said.
If a paddock is set up well, sheltered, with plenty of available feed which stands up out of the snow, stock are often best staying in that paddock.
BERNADETTE’S FARMING OPERATION
Try to do it right and look for ways to improve – this is the basis for Bernadette and husband Alistair’s farming operation.
Bernadette and Alistair have a 650ha farm near Gore in Southland. They moved to the area 13 years ago, have high debt and are unable to spend the money for everything they would like to do.
The couple took over the farm in April with winter crops already established. At that time their understanding of winter grazing was to ensure animals were fully fed and maintained condition. They fed the stock every day, got them through the winter and were happy to have got the job done.
Later, new freshwater legislation started to gain prominence and the focus of conversation became the environment. Bernadette said everyone was now aware of the risks of winter grazing and what can and should be done to mitigate those risks. Always, though, the first focus of wintering grazing was to care for the animals. Now in the foreground of the conversation was sentience, Bernadette said.
“Farmers were shocked to be accused of not looking after their animals”.
Bernadette said obviously there were some days that were less than ideal and they could not stop animals getting wet. But what they could do was ensure their stock were well equipped to withstand the poor days.
Winter grazing for the Hunts began with paddock selection with winter crops being part of a bigger farming system. Crops formed part of a rotation to enable renewal of grass while managing pests. Thirteen years ago, paddock selection was almost entirely based on which paddock needed regrassing next. Now selection was more considered. With no flat paddocks they could not avoid slope, but paddocks where the risks associated with slope could not be well managed in the winter were no longer considered for winter crops.
Winter paddock management is considered before paddocks are sprayed.
Prior to spraying, the Hunts decide where to leave rank grass to capture sediment runoff. They use different methods depending on the paddock. In one paddock they had fenced off a 5m uncultivated strip. In another they felt grazing would be hard to manage with a fenced off area so they ensured the next paddock was left ungrazed with rank grass for the outflowing water to move through before exiting the property. Location of water, shelter, direction of weather, matching of stock class to paddock, and cultivation method and direction were all things that were manipulated to mitigate sediment loss from crop paddocks.
Bernadette said farmers needed to be allowed to make the right decisions for both animal welfare and the environment in their own farming situations. The MPI and the regional council, along with some other groups, had the luxury of focusing on one or the other, resulting in their often oversimplifying the solutions. The discussion about a “dry” laying area was a concern. In some paddocks their stock liked to move a long way back from their food to choose a favourite spot to lie down. If they were back fenced they could not do that. In other paddocks stock had no desire to move back, so back fencing made sense.
Adverse winter weather events were expected and planned for.
“Our usual practice was to plan well so that they would be well looked after on that (crop) paddock in bad weather,” Bernadette said. Increasingly, they fed without taking the tractor out of the shed to cause more damage. If you had set the paddock up well with plenty of available feed – feed which stood up out of the snow, unlike grass – had the ability to increase feed, had chosen a location that allowed stock to cope with the weather, and had mitigated sediment loss, why would you move them off in a bad weather event?
“In all honesty, only because it might make those who don’t understand feel better!” she said.
In most cases it was not better for the stock or the environment to shift them. It was not easy to move stock away from their feed. There would be extra soil damage, mud in the gateways, lameness problems, the impact on the next paddock – the list goes on, she said.
The Hunts have a small wintering shed and love it. Bernadette said it was a great way to winter stock, and Alister would love to double its size but wintering sheds were not the panacea for winter cropping problems and, if not managed well, the outcomes in sheds can be terrible. There were also some market contracts that did not allow their use because of New Zealand’s “grass-fed” story.
The Hunts select paddocks on slopes or heavier soils following the science of physiographics, which indicates the risk to water quality from a specific area of land. The Hunt’s farm is on one of the physiographic types most suited to winter grazing, with lignite below the surface. This means nitrates are far less likely to leach to waterways.
A block the Hunts lease might look more suitable for winter grazing because it was flat, stony below the surface with little mud, and looked more pleasant to passers-by. But the Hunts know there would be a significant nitrate challenge from wintering on that land so it was not a good option.
The risk to water on their rolling farm was sediment loss, which could be effectively mitigated.