Werris Creek near Tamworth is feeling the pinch of drought, with failed winter crop turning alluvial flats dun brown.
Along the softer northern slopes, native grasses are doing a bit better but Jim Lomax, aged 92, has never recalled it so bad.
For Mike and Anita Lomax on Yandilla this is a season that requires forward thinking if they expect to retain breeders going forward.
Key to keeping cows healthy is to get their calves off early and that usually mean sacrificing kilos at sale time.
One way to counter some of the loss in weight that occurs during the stressful experience of marking and castration is by using pain relief.
In the two years since he adopted the practice Mike says his calves no longer take a backward turn.
Mike’s youngest daughter, Dr Sabrina Lomax, works with the Dairy Science Group at The University of Sydney and did her PhD on pain relief and helped trial Tri-Solfen (Bayer Animal Health) in lamb mulesing and castration with its inventor, Dr Meredith Sheil. The product has been used in calf castration for the past two years.
Dr Lomax’s enthusiasm for pain relief has rubbed off on her father who says the outlay in cash terms – about $3 a head – more than pays for itself at sale time with increased kilos on the scales.
Dr Lomax advocates two channels of pain relief beginning with Buccalgesic (Troy Laboratories), an anti-inflammatory which has an active ingredient called meloxicam (the patent for which has recently been released, leading to cheaper alternatives).
This is administered to male calves half an hour or so before castration. It’s role is to reduce swelling and discomfort, more appropriately termed the “inflammation cascade”, for the following 24-48 hours.
Dr Lomax recommends giving 2.5-5ml orally into the mucosa of the cheek (5mL per 100kg) not down the throat as the active ingredient is absorbed through the mucus membranes in the mouth.
Once the scrotum is opened Tri-Solfen is administered with a drench gun, at 2ml per testis, along the spermatic cord before testes are cut so that the retracting tissue, with all its exposed nerve endings, are bathed in a pool of anaesthetic and antiseptic. There is also less wastage from product spilling on the ground this way.
During her studies Dr Lomax was convinced of the efficacy of anaesthetic at marking and castration.
“During our research we found that lambs in pain had trouble mothering-up, she said.
“Lambs with pain relief were getting back to mum. They could walk and get along. Their wounds were less sensitive, and Tri-Solfen has a barrier effect to prevent the wound and scab cracking.”
In calves the result is similar. Mr Lomax has adopted the pain relief system for the past two seasons and says calves no longer lay on the ground as they once did. They are up on their feet more quickly and are able to suckle and move ahead.
That makes a difference to putting on kilos.
With dry conditions looming from the start of this year Mr Lomax sold weaners in January, rather than March, and turned them off at an average weight of 263kg (for an average daily gain of 1.17 kilograms), compared to the year before when they weighed 279kg (1.02 kg a day) at full term weaning.
This year he will sell in November and hopes to achieve a minimum of 180kg per calf.
Feed correct ration for efficient maintenance
To keep cows going through the drought requires commitment in terms of feed and nutrition, and it is no good wasting dollars giving more than needed.
Yandilla’s Angus cross cows have been needled with subcutaneous and intramuscular vitamins A, D, E and B12 to help keep them on their feet.
Vitamins are also placed in trough water although Mr Lomax says the injectables do a better job.
“We’re not losing any cows,” said Mr Lomax. “But of course their calves are pulling them down. That’s why we’re giving them nutrient.”
Feed is expensive and there is no point handing out any more than necessary.
Mr Lomax was fortunate to secure oaten hay from South Australia and Victoria before demand became intense, although he has paid up to $400/tonne.
High protein white cotton seed has also been secured and he can tell from manure in his paddocks – shiny and soft – that his cows are doing alright.
Mr Lomax sent his feed to be tested at Feed Central, Toowoomba, to determine its energy value which helps dictate how much is required per head.
Oaten Hay came back with a metabolised energy value of 9.9, while mulched rice straw was 6.1 and cotton seed with 21 per cent protein, returned at 13.
Department of Primary Industries advice suggests feed should fall between 5.5 to 6.
Mulching the rice straw was critical to prevent internal injury from the sharp stems.
Cotton seed was also tested for pesticides – in particular glyphosate – and came back below detectable levels, which means Mr Lomax will not have to tick the box on his National Vendor Declaration that states he fed with crop containing chemical residue.
He also places urea and molasses in lick drums and says his cows make that ball go round and round in their enthusiasm for the product.
The daily ration of 2kg cotton seed, 5kg Hay and 1 litre molasses mix comes to $787a day for the 300 strong mob, cows and bulls. Without a scientific approach that feed bill could be a lot higher.
“The way I see it feeding during drought is an investment,” says Mr Lomax. “But you’ve got be able to hang on.”