The dry-as-chips Rock Farm has been sweltering through the summer school holidays and whilst the boy’s have been busy restoring the old horse-float, we have all been busy feeding and managing our stock and watching our water supplies dwindle. I have spent some more time on big red trucks, most recently south of Canberra near Colinton. Thankfully on the day we were there, the fire was relatively benign and we spent the day watching for embers and spot fires ahead of the front.
Just after Christmas, the girls were visited by a bull, called Number 6. An impressive Charolais cross, we hope he was able to service our cows during his several weeks on the Rock Farm. We tried hard to get the cows in good condition to make the most of his visit.
We have been feeding the cattle without much of a break for months and months. Initially we started with some old pasture hay, and then more recently with some higher quality lucerne. The cattle have also really appreciated some willow branches that provide a bit of green pick. That said, it has been really hard to keep the weight on the cows, with them putting so much of their energy into milk production for their calves
After talking with some experts in the beef cattle sphere, one of the recommended strategies in drought years is to wean the calves early. This can be done anytime from six weeks of age, so our calves at nearly four months old are well ahead of the curve. It took me a couple of days to get the water supply upgraded in the yards and arrange feed pellets before we were ready to start the big experiment.
Bringing the cattle into the yards was the easy bit. Separating the cows and calves was also remarkably easy to achieve. The cows then followed the truck with hay back to the paddock and the calves got stuck into some fresh hay in the small yard paddock. It had all gone remarkably well… for the first few hours.
With fiercely hot days forecast, I wanted to allow the calves access to the small holding paddock behind the yards. Surrounded by trees, it has good shelter. Unfortunately the fences aren’t great, and by the first evening two calves had got out, and two cows had got in after crossing through two other fences… I was still mending and strengthening the fences as the sun set.
By the next morning, four cows were out and back with the calves. We returned them to their paddock and the calves to theirs. In the evening we repeated the exercise. By third day of this routine, a couple of cows had become regular offenders, and we decided that we would have to confine the calves to the yards, necessitating the rigging of an additional shade sail.
An old shade sail from a friend’s awning, given to us years ago was pulled out of the shed and rigged across the main pen. Whilst trees provide good afternoon shade over the yards, the morning can get hot with little shelter. As we had several days forecast with temperatures in the mid 40’s, the cattle quickly appreciated the shade provided by the sail.
Now the calves are contained in the yards, the most of the cows have settled into their new routine. A couple remain defiant, and still make their way through my other fences to the yards… except the sight of the hay on the truck makes them change their resolve and they happily trot back to their paddock to get breakfast with their sisters.
The calves seem to be settling into their new routine nicely, and now bellow more once they see me walk to the hay shed to start the big red truck than they once did for their mothers.
The biggest risk to the calves is pulpy kidney (enterotoxaemia), which occurs when a bacterium that normally lives in their intestines multiplies to toxic levels. This is caused by a change in feed, usually from a poor dry feed to lush pasture or a diet high in grain. To reduce the risk to the calves, we are supplementing their feed with mineral supplements, mainly seaweed meal and mineral salts. We are also gradually increasing the grain component in their diet, and giving plenty of roughage in good quality lucerne hay. The calves were also vaccinated at weaning, which provides some protection, however they are due for a booster which we will give them soon.
I am watching the little heifer in the middle of the above photo. She seems to have taken to the nuts far more quickly than the others – and she is watching me closely after I pushed her gently away from the pellets and back to the hay!
The aim of early weaning is to reduce the overall feed requirement, and increase the performance of both calves and cows. It should make it easier to get the cattle in better condition, and the calves should continue to grow quickly. The additional handling will make them extremely quiet which is an added bonus.
The strategy with the cattle as it stands is all dependent on rain.
Option A – Dam runs dry – If we run out of water – we sell all our stock and start again when we have a secure water supply. We cannot cart enough water to sustain our cattle if there is no water.
Option B – Water but no feed – If we run out of feed, we will have to determine whether to keep calves, or cows, or a combination. My thinking at the moment is to sell any dry cows, and all the steer calves in March or April. I may have to bring this forward if we have no autumn break.
Option C – Bring in hay – With the price of feed due to the drought and bush-fires – this is dependent on winning big at lotto!
With hay of any quality fetching very high prices, I can only be thankful that I am not trying to make a living from the Rock Farm. We are extremely fortunate that we are able to support our lifestyle with off-farm incomes, but even so, we can’t afford to make huge losses turning hay into manure. At the moment, we consider it a type of fertiliser, that is processed by the cattle and dung beetles.
I am not sure what the future holds for our cattle enterprise on the Rock Farm, but it really all depends on what happens in the next couple of months. Having a bit of a plan helps, even if it is a basis for change. Hopefully it involves a lot more sitting and watching rain fall than ash and embers! We could all do with a break.