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Feeding livestock - strategies and considerations

When seasonal conditions turn dry – as part of annual feed gaps or during periods of sustained below average rainfall - feed and water supplies may diminish and many producers consider supplementary feeding livestock to some degree. However, whenever developing a feeding program for livestock there are a number of important things to keep in mind.

Have a plan

If you decide to feed livestock, it is wise to start early and have a clear strategy in place. This strategy involves carefully thinking through what stock and when are you going to sell, what stock you are prepared to feed and other options such as agistment. All of the options have their associated advantages and disadvantages so take the time to think them through. In assessing the various options consider what it will cost to feed stock until the expected break (including labour requirements) and the value of livestock in the current market.

It’s also important to assess your property and identify paddocks with poor water, paddocks that are getting low in terms of ground cover and sensitive areas that are prone to erosion or need to be avoided. Paddocks that have limited water should be used first. If groundcover becomes an issue, consider confining livestock to a small area of the property to limit damage to pastures and minimise soil erosion. This strategy relies on good site selection, an appropriate stocking density and the provision of appropriate nutrition.

What do I feed?

What you feed and the amount fed will depend on a range of factors, including the quantity and quality of pasture in the paddock, condition of the livestock and the level of production you are aiming for.

Young livestock and lactating females have much higher energy and protein requirements compared to dry stock. For this reason, these classes of livestock need to be provided with good quality supplements that are well balanced for both energy and protein. Good quality lucerne hay, clover hay or silage can do the job. Alternatively, feeds that are high in both energy and protein such as lupins, faba beans, dried distillers grain and protein meals work well when offered in conjunction with roughage.

When introducing a supplement it’s important to introduce livestock gradually, especially if you are feeding cereals grains such as oats, wheat or barley. Failure to do so can quickly result in deaths due to acidosis. Refer to the NSW DPI Managing Drought guide for specific information on how to safely introduce cattle and sheep to grain. Grains are low in calcium – add 1.5% of limestone (superfine grade) by weight to rations that have a high grain content.

How much do I feed?

If you have very little feed in the paddock (i.e. there is no green pick and very little dry standing feed) then you are looking at a ‘full hand feeding’ scenario. In this situation, the DPI ‘drought feed calculator’ is a great tool which helps you calculate the amount of supplement required for both sheep and cattle. Importantly, the app also lets you compare different types of feeds so you determine the most cost effective option. This app is free and can be downloaded onto your smartphone or tablet.

Alternatively, the tables below provide a guide to the amount of supplement required for both sheep and cattle. These rates can be reduced slightly if stock have access to a reasonable amount of dry standing feed in the paddock, or if stock are in good condition and can undergo controlled weight loss.

Once a feeding program is in place, monitor pasture and livestock condition closely and adjust the ration accordingly. Continue to provide feed after the break so that stock can gradually adjust to the fresh green pick.

Table 1: Maintenance(a) feed requirements (as fed) for full hand feeding of cattle

Source: NSW DPI 2014 ‘Managing Drought’, 2014 edn.

Table 2: Maintenance feed requirements (as fed) for full hand feeding of cattle

Source: NSW DPI 2014 ‘Managing Drought’, 2014 edn.

Note: Block licks, fortified molasses mixes and urea/molasses/water mixes work well when there is abundant dry standing feed (> 2,500kg DM/ha), however in late summer dry feed often becomes limiting (i.e. <1000kg DM/ha) and these supplements are no longer appropriate.

Risk of chemical residues

Supplement feeds vary and during hard times people sometimes look at interesting sources. A risk during any feeding program is the potential for chemical residues in fodder, which can subsequently end up in the food chain. These residues are a direct threat to both overseas and export markets.

To reduce the risk of feeding contaminated feeds to your stock, always ask for a Commodity, Fodder or By-Product Vendor Declaration which will outline the chemical treatments applied to the fodder product. A Commodity Vendor Declaration template can be downloaded from the MLA website.

If you are unsure on what type of feed you should be feeding your livestock, contact your Local Land Services livestock officer or district veterinarian for specific advice.

It doesn’t rain grass

When the dry spell does finish there will be some considerations for moving animals back to green feed. Don’t retire the feed wagon immediately following good rainfall: animals should continue to be provided supplementary feed until a bulk of feed can accumulate.

Livestock may lose weight as they chase green feed that is still thin on the ground. Depending on a range of factors there will be a time lag for a locked-up pasture to reach the benchmarks to support lactating cows or young growing stock.

Livestock will be susceptible to clostridial diseases such as pulpy kidney, so be sure stock have had a recent 5-in-1 vaccination. There will be other seasonal considerations depending on the time of year that rainfall occurs, so discuss any risks with Local Land Services.

Further information and resources

NSW DPI Drought Hub.

Drought feeding’ on the MLA website.