How to avoid the pitfalls of lifestyle farming
Recent reports indicate that the SPCA is receiving more complaints about neglected livestock than ever before - with the blame being laid at the feet of inexperienced lifestyle block owners. With approximately 6,800 new lifestyle blocks registered each year, perhaps this statistic is not surprising. The usual (tongue in cheek – but accurate!) definition of a lifestyle block is, ‘An awful lot of work for very little return’. However, this should not become an excuse for poor management of land or livestock.
Nelson SPCA inspector, Craig Crowley believes that, ‘Most lifestyle farmers are doing a great job and when they are not it is usually because they do not know rather than do not care.’ This sentiment is echoed by Richmond vet, Roger Bay who believes that new and inexperienced lifestyle farmers can save themselves and their animals a great deal of stress by seeking advice and planning carefully.
Seven years ago, when we first moved to a lifestyle block, the grass was up to our necks and there wasn’t a lawnmower in sight! We began by leasing the land to a local farmer and this had a number of advantages. Firstly, it gave us time to familiarize ourselves with the land and to spend a bit more time around animals. Secondly, it gave us the opportunity to talk to the farmer who provided us with valuable information on the land, grass growth, drench resistance and stock numbers. Later, when we decided to ‘have a go’ ourselves, we were blessed with very helpful neighbours and a supportive vet.
‘Local knowledge is essential,’ says Roger Bay, ‘Talk to your neighbours, local farmers, local vets, local stock agents – learn as much as you can before you start.’
Unfortunately there is no single set of rules for lifestylers as every lifestyle block is different and successful livestock farming, of any sort, comes from a good understanding of your environment, your land, your animals and the delicate balance that exists between them. The following considerations may help new lifestylers to avoid some of the most common pitfalls:-
1. Know your land: Size, location, climate, soil, contours, aspect, irrigation and history of fertilizer application all affect grass growth which, in turn, determines sustainability of stock throughout the year. Remember that grass needs warmth, water and nutrients to grow and growing seasons may be relatively short.
2. Don’t overstock: Livestock vary as to their food/water/general health requirements and it is useful to consider all these factors before selecting your stock. Remember, livestock need access to food and water all year round so be conservative with stock numbers in your first year while you discover how your land works – it is far better to understock than overstock. If feed is short, be prepared to destock (even if livestock prices are not good). The alternative is to buy in feed or to grow your own winter feed. Be aware that there are numerous trace element deficiencies in New Zealand soil so it is useful (and costs little) to have your soil tested. You may need to give your livestock mineral supplements.
3. Set up a health maintenance programme for your livestock: Basic health maintenance will increase your productivity. Make sure your animals are appropriately vaccinated and have a strict control programme for internal and external parasites. Parasites can, and do, kill. Many parasites are now drench-resistant so you need to establish what drench is effective in your area. Be vigilant at all times. Remember, every time you bring a new animal onto the farm, you may be introducing new parasites or diseases so it is advisable to quarantine drench on arrival and keep the new animals separate for a couple of days. Foot care in goats and sheep is vital and livestock must be checked on a regular basis. If you are uncertain about basic health maintenance, discuss this with your vet (or other experienced individual). A brief consultation is likely to save you money in the long run! A vet should help you to set up a health schedule for your animals. This may also cover mating and reproductive cycles, rearing of animals, de-horning, tailing, castrating, shearing, dagging and other aspects of health care.
4. Sick animals: If you have livestock, you are likely to have deadstock! However well you look after your animals, there are times when animals become sick. The better you get to know your stock, the more quickly you will identify if the group or an individual is failing to thrive. Animals can go downhill very fast so be prepared to take action early.
5. Facilities: It doesn’t matter if you have one animal or a thousand animals, you need access to good facilities in order to efficiently and safely maintain good health in your livestock and to manage the situation if something goes wrong. You need an area where you can effectively and safely confine an animal i.e. a small set of yards. In a rural area you may find that you can negotiate with neighbours to build and share communal yards or to rent existing yard facilities. If you decide to build your own yards, take advice first (this will save you time and money!).
6. Unexpected dangers: Know your poisonous plants! Many plants become particularly palatable but very toxic when they have wilted (i.e. after you have cut them down or dug them out). Be careful if friends from town bring prunings out to your block for burning or if neighbours deposit plant clippings near your fenceline.
In short, ‘If you don’t know, seek advice.” Books, publications and the internet all offer valuable information – and if you want the rural environment but don’t want the hassle of livestock, lease your land and let someone do it for you!
Craig Crowley adds that new lifestylers are not the only inexperienced rural dwellers! Many of those who report ‘abused’ animals are often lacking in knowledge themselves and he says that, happily, many of his visits are ‘false alarms’.
So don’t take offence if your local SPCA inspector comes to call or if your vet makes suggestions. Be prepared to take advice if it is offered or to help a neighbour in need if asked – that’s what rural communities are all about!
My thanks to Craig Crowley of Nelson SPCA and Roger Bay of Town & Country Vets Richmond for their valuable contributions to this article.