Feeding cattle, sheep and horses has been tough given the weather conditions experienced this year. This has resulted in low pasture growth rates. SPCA and Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) inspectors have been busy investigating the welfare of skinny animals. The saying that we are what we eat is worth considering. Young and middle-aged animals usually have no reason to be skinny, other than not getting enough to eat. Often these thin animals have been underfed their entire lives, not just because of the hard winter we have experienced.
Many people are surprised and offended when other people “stick their noses” into their business. Frequently there has been a good effort in attempting to provide alternative feed for these animals. Unfortunately, a few people don’t accept that they haven’t done enough or believe they have done all that they could. Changing someone’s perceptions or ideas is more difficult in stressful situations. The stress levels experienced may hinder clear thinking and communicating. Human behaviour often reverts to baseline aggressiveness or negative thoughts in response to suggestions or advice. People don’t accept they have done anything wrong, they think they have been doing everything necessary.
I discussed this point recently with an MPI animal welfare inspector who reported that most of the serious cases of animal welfare violations involve some serious family dysfunction, family loss or illness (including depression) on the part of the animal owner.
The stress of other issues interferes with the owner’s ability to think clearly and manage their farm successfully.
If the animals under your care have visible ribs showing then they are at risk of being underfed. A good suggestion is to seek qualified help to assess your animals and the potential to improve grass growth or feed supply on your property. Simple advice for managing animal feeding levels includes reducing demand for feed by reducing stocking rates. This means fewer mouths to feed with the available food. Alternatively, improve supply of grass feed through the application of fertiliser in autumn to grow more feed through winter. Another strategy is to employ supplementary feeding by providing hay, silage or grain-based meal.
Some old animals may have dental issues that may reduce their ability to eat grass, especially when grass is short. Once the grass is longer, they may be able to pull the grass into their mouths with their tongues and put on weight. But next winter they will still struggle to get enough to eat.
Assessment of teeth is an important consideration when deciding to winter animals on pasture. Many horse owners will have their horses’ teeth assessed by qualified horse dentists or veterinarians. Cattle and sheep can have their mouths opened and their lower incisors (front teeth) assessed. Cattle and sheep have no top front teeth, only bottom front teeth. Ensure there are no missing teeth and that they are not worn down. Owning or looking after animals is a serious business. You are responsible for the animal’s welfare, which includes feeding them a good diet of sufficient quantity and quality.
Stephen McAulay, CEO and head vet, Wellsford Vet Clinic