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Managing sheep over summer

December 2018

Helen Smith, Agriculture Advisor

Stock water, sheep market prices and managing droughtlots were all topics covered at the recent ‘Managing Sheep this Summer’ workshops held across the Southern Tablelands, with renowned industry expert Geoff Duddy – Sheep Solutions.

Feed & finances

One of the biggest differences between this drought and those previous is the strength of all three commodity markets: wool, mutton and lamb. Gross margin budget data highlighted the profitability of sheep enterprises at present and their ability to absorb high feeding costs, especially wool-based operations. Data showed that fine wool enterprises would be able to remain profitable with current wool prices, even with significant drought feeding.

Most producers have already done some destocking, including a reduction in breeding ewe numbers. With any destocking strategy, the difficult part is deciding what level of destocking you are going to do and the impact on your business over time. StockPlan is a computer decision support tool, for sheep and cattle breeding operations to examine livestock numbers and cash flow impacts both during the drought and the “recovery” period. A 25% reduction in breeding ewes can be recovered within two years, while a 45% takes 6 years to breed back up! The bigger the destocking strategy the more important it is to have recovery strategies in mind!

StockPlan is currently being updated by NSW Department of Primary Industry. If you are interested in accessing the software contact your agriculture advisor at Local Land Services.

For those who do not have self-replacing flocks (eg. buying-in first cross ewes for prime-lamb production), a similar process for evaluating destocking options was discussed, using the AWI publication “Which sheep do I keep”:

With winter feeding behind and a possible extended summer feeding ahead, sheep producers are buoyed by continued high sheep meat and wool prices. While forward contracts for finished lambs are attractive, Geoff demonstrated that given high store/light lamb values; high ration costs and extra labour needed, feeding lambs to heavier weight categories may not be as profitable as selling light weight and/or trade lambs.

Selling weaners sooner – possibly before Christmas – may be a better option for operations where feed budgets, particularly pasture, are looking tight. Heavier weaning weights and achieving post-weaning growth rates of at least 50g/h/d (merino weaners) are important in in terms of increasing weaner survival rates and profitability.  Make sure you factor in Christmas shut-downs if you are thinking of selling stock.

The workshops emphasised that financial budgets are not the only consideration when keeping livestock. As well as cash flows and the price of feed, producers should consider home-grown feed on hand and the difficulties of sourcing feed. The condition and welfare of livestock must be a priority, as good ewe condition is essential to lamb survival and productivity.

Drought-lots

The importance of using a sacrifice paddock or drought lot to protect pastures, maintain ground cover and prevent erosion was a major focus of the workshop. Geoff Duddy has many years of experience working with sheep feedlots across NSW, and was able to provide valuable insights from his research, as well as practical examples of good sheep management.

Location, location, location:

Correct location for a drought lot or sacrifice paddock is key in ensuring it operates smoothly and minimises environmental damage. Medium clay loam is ideal, as sandy soil will blow away while clay becomes boggy with rain. A slope of 2-3% is ideal for drainage. Identify soil types across your property and if you have to locate the drought-lot on “tricky” soil, consider how you will manage it.

The drought-lot needs to be located where water can be piped, as well as close to feed storage and with vehicle access, in both wet and dry conditions. Producers at the workshop agreed they should be located away from homes and accommodation, due to the dust and smell generated - and to allow a “break” from thinking about drought-feeding when you have time off.

Infrastructure:

Pen designs, troughs for both feed and water, hay racks and shade structures were talked through. A minimum space of 5 square metres per animals is recommended and can help reduce dust, but animals are less stressed if they have a bit more room.

The workshops, held across a number of properties, provided attending producers with a range of different pen designs and infrastructure options. Examples of feed troughs made from a variety of materials including shade-cloth, conveyor belts and PVC/plastic tubing were on display throughout the day with feed trough space access a topical subject. Minimum space recommendations for double (15cm/head) and single sided troughs (30cm/head) as well as for self-feeder systems (3 to 5 cm/head) and benefits from increasing sheep and lamb access to the feed provided were openly discussed. While some producers found that trail feeding within a confined area allowed them to provide more space per animal factors such as the risk of increased grain loss/wastage and health issues such as coccidiosis, salmonellosis, dirt impaction, pleurisy and pneumonia should be considered

Photo 1: A drought-lot near Yass. This system consists of a 4-pen rotation design with 3 pens containing sheep at any one time. Feed is trail fed in the one vacant pen and ewes then moved on to the pen with feed. Repeating this process in each vacant pen allows the ration to be fed out without risk of injury to sheep.

Photo 2

Photo 2: The same drought-lot from a different angle. The site has good drainage,  tree-lines providing shade and shelter (that also screen the drought-lot from nearby houses) and is close to grain and hay supplies.

There are an increasing number of self-feeder options now available with some systems fully automated and able to supply feed grains and pellets, reducing labour input. The benefit/cost of such systems would need to be considered if only used as confinement feeding of stock compared to on-going commercial lamb finishing operations.

With respect to water on-site trough systems are preferred due to low water levels and contamination/quality issues in dams during times of drought. Flow rate and water quality are critical in confinement feeding systems with daily trough cleaning recommended to minimise contamination and maximising water quality.  Shading of troughs may provide some benefits in terms of intake levels and reducing evaporation loss but be wary of ‘bullies’ camping in these areas as this may impact on water intake in less dominant animals.

Feed:

A number of feed pen designs were discussed during the workshops. The pros and cons of a ‘rotational’ pen system (feed out in 1 pen, move mob to this pen); a single central feed trough pen (fill trough, move pens to this area until next pen is to be fed) and internal (double-side access) or external (along a fence line; single side access)  trough systems were discussed.

Daily feeding of grain or grain-based pellets is recommended to minimise acidosis and losses from engorgement. Many producers however found it possible to feed every second day without major issues provided they could control acidosis. The use and benefits of various buffers currently available were discussed in detail as was ensuring access to fibre on a regular basis to minimise gut problems and maintain rumen function.

Providing additional sodium and calcium was were recommended as all cereal and pulse grains and processed meals such as canola and cottonseed meal are low in these minerals. Geoff is also a strong advocate for magnesium supplements. This is widely recommended for cattle, and Geoff presented research showing it also benefits sheep, particularly by reducing stress. A loose lick of 2 parts salt/2 parts lime and 1-part Causmag should meet sheep requirements during confinement feeding. Mixing these in water until you have a runny consistency and applying to grain while augering into feed out bins will ensure the minerals ‘coat’ the grain and do not settle out or block self-feeder systems. Any animal eating grain will then receive the minerals.

The amount of feed, as well as the required protein and energy concentrations, can be found in the DPI “Managing Drought” Guide, and you can also use the Drought Feed Calculator, available as a free Smartphone App.

Have some fun!

Managing animal stress was an important message for all attending. Simple measures such as providing greater area per animal in each pen; providing more trough space and ‘enriching’ their environment by providing structures (hills; mounds; logs; tyres etc) for stock to investigate/play on or items such as chemical drums/balls etc to play with have been shown to reduce stress and improve performance (growth rates; feed conversion; meat quality etc).

Discussing what Geoff described as ‘Lamb Olympics’ – when young lambs actively play in the late afternoon - and the various antics/activities of sheep brought a smile to the faces of workshop participants.

‘Happy Sheep’ can lead to ‘Happy Sleeps’! Having a summer feed and management plan for your sheep can help to reduce stress for all involved.  Remember to consider and be aware of your own strengths, limitations and general health. The right plan will achieve good outcomes for your animals and your business, while including time for yourself to kick around a ball and have a bit of fun.

More information is available in this Australian Wool Innovation document.