Sheep and beef under threat from too much grass

This season’s excessive grass growth throughout the country except for Otago and Southland has generally been a cause for celebration among sheep and beef farmers, happy not to have to worry about drought and ecstatic about livestock prices.


But this may be a two-edged sword, in the first place for those farmers seeking replacement stock for whom the store market is too hot, and secondly for all those with problems controlling their grass, including both those who are reluctant to pay the going rate as well as the ones who have a straight numbers shortage.


It will also be a problem for meat companies chasing lower livestock volumes and being forced to take part in a procurement war – not desirable – or stay out of the market – equally or even more undesirable. The continuing strength of theNew Zealanddollar combined with the potential weakness in the economies of our main lamb and prime beef markets make the current trend of both store and slaughter prices look pretty unsustainable with unpalatable conclusions for farmers and processors alike.


Farms have been understocked for some years, evident from the irresistible decline in the national sheep flock and prime beef herd and increasing dairy conversions. The inevitable results of the declining livestock population have been the increase in store stock prices, higher schedules than justified by market returns and, in good years, uncontrollable grass growth where dairy grazing has not taken over.


This year’s grass growth will be difficult or impossible to control with the amount of stock available which will result in pasture going to seed and losing its quality or metabolizal energy content, consequently compromising its future growth and capacity to rear good quality stock. This becomes a vicious circle of too much grass leading to lower growth rates and fertility problems.


We have now reached the stage where beef numbers at below 4 million and sheep at 31.9 million are at historically low levels, at least within our recent memory span, with little prospect of being able to achieve an increase without serious retention at the expense of cash flow and market supply. This strikes me as a problem that is peculiar to sheep and beef because there is sufficient momentum in dairy herd growth for the dairy industry to have no difficulty in consuming all the grass on existing dairy farms or land destined for future conversion. Also more sheep and beef farmers will take the easier option of dairy grazing which requires no additional capital.


The options for sheep and beef farmers who want to stay with their chosen farming occupation are to increase stock numbers, assuming they can afford it, by purchase or retention of stock, control their grass mechanically or chemically, or sow new grass seed which controls pests without causing animal health problems.


One central North Island farmer spoken to reports record weaning weights from the grass growth, but takes care not to overstock and rotation of ewes on short one or two day shifts which puts weight on without ingesting large volumes of toxins from the excess grass. Nevertheless this strategy plus using a large mob of mixed age steers hasn’t been sufficient to control the grass, so additional measures were necessary, such as chemical topping of the messy hill country with a light solution of Roundup and mechanically topping the flat paddocks.


Instead of buying replacements at inflated store prices, this farmer has kept all the ewe lambs and some of the older ewes and re-sown better grass on chemically topped hill country. This is good farming practice which will produce better long term results, but in the meantime lamb numbers won’t increase much if at all.


A challenge for farmers, farm consultants and seed companies is to improve best practice on farm, develop new grass types and find ways of controlling grass growth, all designed to achieve better livestock quality and fertility rates. Whether all this can be managed before the present cycle of high commodity prices come to an end is extremely doubtful. But it would be good to be prepared for when the next one comes round; otherwise the sheep and beef sector looks destined for further shrinkage.


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One Response to “Sheep and beef under threat from too much grass”

  1. Rural round-up « Homepaddock Says:

    […] Sheep and beef under threat from too much grass – Allan Barber: […]

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