Five Ways to Drought-proof your Lifestyle Block

With large parts of New Zealand teetering on the brink of drought and lobby groups calling for action on long-term prevention and mitigation, this summer is shaping up to be very stressful for many Kiwi farmers.

It doesn’t matter if you have six cows or 600; no-one wants to run out of feed for their animals. If this happens, the only options are to de-stock and get a lower price because everyone else is de-stocking too, or buy in feed at inflated prices because the demand is so high.

The knock-on effects of a drought manifest through the rest of the farming year and maybe into the next. So what can you do in both the short-term and long-term to ensure your lifestyle block can survive the big dry?

1. Irrigate

Irrigation technology has come a long way in the last 30 years, with irrigators now using and wasting less water and operating far more efficiently. The rise of the small-scale irrigation system means lifestyle blocks can also irrigate effectively and affordably.

K-Line irrigation systems are ideal for small blocks. They’re portable, suitable for hilly or lumpy terrain and they’re versatile – they’ll work just as well in an orchard or shelter belt as they will on pasture. They operate on low pressure, don’t use much water and are easy to install. Best of all, they’re reasonably-priced.

Make sure you irrigate in evenings, early mornings, or during the night to reduce evaporation and allow maximum uptake by your plants. There’s no need to keep stock away from K-Line pods and pipe. The equipment’s tough enough to handle their weight and cows seem to enjoy getting a sprinkle as well.

Tip: Inexperienced irrigation managers usually wait too long before starting to irrigate. Waiting too long usually means that some potential yield is lost and you will have to play catch-up to avoid losing more growth.

2. Plant windbreaks

Nothing will turn pasture from green to brown faster than a hot, desiccating wind.

Windbreaks protect your topsoil as well as your pasture. They also provide shade for livestock. While you may lose a certain amount of grazing land by planting windbreaks and fencing them off, it’s compensated by the increased growth of your grass and reduced stress on your animals.

3. Sow perennial pasture mixes

A recent Massey University study has confirmed what organic, biodynamic and permaculture farmers have known for decades: using deep-rooted chicory, plantain and a variety of clovers in pastures makes them more robust.

If you’re going to the trouble and expense of renewing pasture, do your homework first. The traditional Kiwi ryegrass/white clover combo is only one option of many. Other grass varieties may be better suited to your conditions and the more diversity you have in your pasture, the more likely it is to survive extreme conditions.

4. Grow alternative fodder sources and select browsing livestock breeds

Very hot, dry summer conditions prevail over large portions of our planet, so it makes sense to find out how these countries cope. Many of them don’t have pasture. Their animals browse on trees and shrubs instead.

The most commonly-used fodder trees in New Zealand are willow and poplar but there are plenty of other trees and shrubs that your stock will devour, given the chance.

Tagasaste (tree lucerne) is a popular choice because of its high palatability and nutritive content. It’s loved by sheep, cattle, pigs and horses. The pods of honey locust are relished by sheep, cattle, horses, pigs and goats but the tree’s nasty thorns can be an issue.

As far as New Zealand natives go, beef cattle will readily eat broadleaf and there’s a long farming tradition of feeding flax to calves to fatten them.

Some tree nurseries now stock shrub willow varieties grown exclusively for fodder.

If you want to use alternative fodder sources, it’s best to select livestock breeds that are known for browsing, rather than straight grazing. This was one of the reasons why we chose to farm Highland cattle and Wiltshire sheep.

5. Have smaller paddocks

Lifestyle blocks, by their very definition, don’t have vast amounts of land. You’ll never be able to support large amounts of animals, so it doesn’t make sense to have huge paddocks.

Four small paddocks make more sense than two large ones on a lifestyle block. By rotating your animals through four rather than two, the land has more time to recover and the smaller area means stock will eat the pasture down more evenly than they would by just cherry-picking their favourite stuff in a large space.

Obviously, you don’t want the paddocks to be so small that you can’t cultivate them or get a tractor through, so common sense should prevail. You’ll also be looking at the added expense of extra fencing and gates but if it results in greater food security on your block and less money lost in forced de-stocking or large feed bills, it could save you a lot of money in the long run.

If you don’t want to install permanent fencing, invest in electric fences that you can relocate to control the areas stock are grazing. These can be shifted at the same time as you move irrigation from one paddock to the next.