Winter feed: What’s your Plan B to save soil loss in wet weather?

The icy blast in early June signaled an end to the kind autumn we’ve had this year.  It’s also served as a reminder for farmers to review their management stock on winter feed blocks – especially having a plan for if the weather is worse than expected.

Livestock, particularly cattle, can cause significant soil damage and contribute greatly to soil loss in wet conditions. Heavily pugged soils can take years to recover before an area is back to its full productive potential. 

Calculations from Environment Canterbury predict more than 50 tonnes per ha of soil can be lost off imperfectly drained soils and steeper slopes.

So, what is your Plan B to help safeguard the soil structure and soil loss that we have all seen in previous wet winters?  And take into consideration that we cannot make enough ‘new’ topsoil to replace the soil that is washed into out waterways, contributing to sedimentation, weed growth and overflowing streams on flats.

What can be done to reduce soil damage and loss?

Strategic grazing is the cheapest and most effective option for keeping soil in your paddock. It involves grazing down a slope towards the gully.

It does not work practically on steep slopes, where management practices are to leave a winter feed buffer of 30m parallel to the watercourse to filter run-off and to then graze across the slope above the buffer.

Here are some practical tips for wet soil conditions:

  • Reduce stocking rate to spread the stock out and reduce pugging and soil damage
  • Keep heavy vehicles out of the wet paddocks, where they further compact the soil and create tracks for water to flow down and erode more soil away
  • Shift stock to a drier paddock or another winter feed block with better drainage
  • Move the stock to a run-off paddock, that is still grassed and is more resistant to soil damage
  • Bring your feed pad (if you have one) back into service
  • Feed a bit more hay and bailage to stop cattle moving around so much
  • Harvest a week of fodder beet while it is dry that you can feed out and use as the main diet when you take cattle off the fodder beet block.  This will keep transitioning problems at bay
  • Don’t graze the gullies or the lowest areas of your paddock, and make sure you have good grass or crop vegetation downhill of the break you are feeding. Leave them as filters to keep your soil in the paddock

Plan now before it gets wet and have your options in place. Winter feed crops may contribute more than half the annual nutrient losses on a farm in an area of less than 25% of the farm.

Save your soil, your paid-for nitrogen and phosphorous and keep it on the paddock and out of waterways.

Help with managing winter grazing

Managing winter grazing is an important part of Farm Environment Plans, which many farms are now required to prepare under the Canterbury Land and Water Regional Plan.

Farmers are welcome to get in touch with a Land Management Advisor at Environment Canterbury for free advice on winter grazing via customer services on 0800 324 636 or contact their industry groups such as Beef and Lamb NZ or Dairy NZ.

Find out more about winter grazing