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What to Do in the Autumn

Updated: Apr 26, 2018

Autumn leaves

The autumn rains have come and pasture has changed to the vegetative state. Growth rates have been above demand and some baleage/silage has been taken to protect feed quality. The summer crops are finished and have been re-sown. With the pasture, fodder beet and supplements on hand the farms I am involved with are all well set up to maximise MS production through autumn.

Autumn is a time of opportunity but there are some fish hooks waiting to ensnare the unwary. We need to plan in order to grasp the opportunities and avoid the fish hooks. Feed planning begins with a farm walk and predict wedges. This information is incorporated into a feed budget which gives an idea of the feed status through the autumn and critically, the budgeted average pasture cover (APC) at 1st June. All the farms that I am involved with have budgeted on significant quantities of supplements/crop over the next two months to protect the APC at drying off. (More on APC at drying off in a moment).

Autumn grass (especially with urea applied) has high protein levels (up to 30% crude protein) which is too high for cows to utilise efficiently. As a result the milk urea levels rise as the cow expends energy dealing with the excess nitrogen. What is a constraint can be turned into an opportunity by feeding a few kg of fodder beet. This introduces sugar into the diet which allows the rumen microbes to utilise the available protein and convert it into milk or bodyweight rather than excreting it. Be aware that the NDF (fibre) levels are low in quality autumn pasture as well as fodder beet so it is advisable to offer some hard fibre to the cows (straw or hay). I have a cow nutrition spreadsheet that allows a farmer to know the quantities of each feed needed to balance the diet (CP, ME and fibre).

I am consistently told that dairy farms in Southland need an APC of 1800 kg DM/Ha at 1st June. That may be so for some but I have not yet been involved with a farm where this has been sufficient. Obviously one figure does not fit every dairy farm as the feed required in spring depends on stocking rate, start of calving date, calving spread, quantities of supplement to be fed and growth rates. A quick and easy way to know the correct 1st June APC for your farm will be revealed by the feed budget – working back from the spring demand. When feed budgeting for spring, I try to minimise the use of silage/baleage in the first round to minimise the time pressures on farm staff.

I was recently contacted by a manager who told me that his employer insists that all their cows will be milked until the 1st June to maximise MS production this season. With the supplements available, if this plan is followed, their APC at 1st June will be lower than ideal and will lead to feed pressure in spring which could affect next season’s MS production and fertility. While it is tempting to maximise MS production this season, the reality is that planning should focus on setting up next season correctly. Ideally the sums (budgets) should have been done three months ago to ensure that the autumn was set up correctly.

The NZ seasonal calving system offers a new opportunity each winter to set the farm up to maximise production by getting the cows into the right calving condition (BCS 5). Winter should be seen as an opportunity – an opportunity to have your cows ready to produce for you next season and this requires some thought and planning.

Have your winter feed budgets been done? What do they show?

Have the crops been indicator weighed? Will there be enough crop?

How much supplement is planned per cow/day and is it suitable for the crop being fed? Will all the cows have easy access to the supplement?

How many kg DM/cow/day are budgeted and will your cows be in the right BSC to maximise their genetic potential when they calve.

DairyNZ has set benchmarks for feeding levels on swedes to achieve BCS gain (see website below). Be aware that 85% utilisation through a Southland winter is optimistic even with the best management (i.e. no cows standing on crop). It is critical to get the actual intakes (down the throat) right to achieve the BCS gains indicated. While this benchmark is for traditional winter crops, the actual intakes are a good indicator for fodder beet as well.

DairyNZ Farmfact Winter brassica crops – feeding to dairy cows (1-75)


  • Have you done an autumn/wimter/spring spring feed budget?

  • Are the nutrients in the autumn diet being balanced to maximise production?

  • What APC at 1st June do you need to fully feed your cows through spring?

  • Is your winter planned – winter feed budget, crop and supplements measured, winter feed management, crop utilisation, access to supplements?

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