December and January are months to keep up with maintenance jobs, both with your animals and with your paddocks. Usually the weather is mild in December! I say this hopefully, as two weeks ago our cow had a calf. For the first two days of its life, flippers would have been more use than hooves.
Have you ever noticed how farmers often complain about the weather? This is because the weather can have huge effects on animal survival, the amount of grass available, and the ability to do seasonal jobs on time. It is not surprising that they complain, as adverse weather causes adverse effects on the bank balance. On a lifestyle farm, although the income comes from elsewhere, it is still important to make allowances for difficult weather, and have a Plan B in case of trouble.
The first thing you can do is not to have too many animals for the area you have available. This means that if it is terribly wet and muddy, or very dry with no grass growth, you will have more margin before you run into a serious feed shortage. Commercial farmers don’t have this luxury as they need to earn a living from their farm, but there is never a case for overstocking on a small farm.
The next thing to do is make or purchase sufficient saved grass (hay) for the winter months (June-August). Hay is not like groceries, available off the shelf. It can only be made in the summer, and when it is all gone there is no more until next summer. December to February is haymaking time, and you can look out for adverts in the “Grazing” column of the Daily News. Hay is made in “conventional” bales, or in large rounds or large squares, equivalent to 10 to 15 conventional bales. Unless you have a tractor with front end loader, go for the conventional bales, as you will be able to move these around by hand. Newly made hay smells “sweet”, with no musty odour, dust or black patches, and preferably without weeds. Most years you will need to feed hay for around 90 days of winter, and you will need quarter of a bale per cow per day, or half a bale per large horse per day. Sheep, goats and alpacas will need about one bale per 20 animals per day. Prices vary, as hay is a commodity, following the laws of supply and demand! The hay needs to be stored under cover and kept away from ground water. If it gets wet it will rot, and be completely inedible. Keep wild cats out of the hayshed too, to prevent Toxoplasmosis in sheep and goats. Haylage is hay wrapped in plastic to preserve it. It is better food value than hay, but more prone to spoiling if the plastic is punctured or it is stored a long time. It is generally more expensive than hay, but is good value as long as it’s good quality.
If you have enough grass to make your own hay, as a rule of thumb you will need one fifth to one quarter of your paddocks made into hay, to have enough for the winter period. This is if you are grazing your whole farmlet. One horse or two sheep etc will need much less hay than this. Haymaking is a skill, and you will need someone with that skill, and the machinery, to do it for you. Of course when the weather is right, everyone wants to make hay at the same time (remember “make hay while the sun shines”?) so you may have to wait until the contractor or neighbouring farmer has time to do your little piece.
As spring turns into summer, the grass starts to go to seed. This makes it less nutritious for the grazing animals. So the plan in December is to graze the rapidly growing young animals over the paddocks quite quickly, to keep eating off the grass stalks and persuading the grass to stay in a leafy form for longer. The other thing that can happen is that the weather suddenly gets hot and dry, and the grass stops growing, or slows right down. In this case you need to reduce the number of mouths eating the grass. One way is to wean the young animals (when old enough), and give them the best grass, leaving the less palatable grass for the mothers, who need half as much when not producing milk. Another way is to sell some animals, so they are not eating your grass at all. The third way is to provide extra feed in the form of hay or meal.
On the animal health front, keep up with drenching the young animals for worms as indicated by faecal worm egg counts, make sure they have the correct vaccinations on time, and prevent worry by flies if needed. Get the sheep shorn – I said this last month but it is so important that I am saying it again!
Another thought is to make arrangements well in advance if you are going away over Christmas. Your livestock will need some one to check them at least every other day, to make sure they have water and food and have not injured themselves or got stuck somewhere.
Not only the grass goes to seed in December, so do all the weeds! There is no space this month, but next month, something about weed control and about facial eczema.