ONE beneficial development to come out of the recent dry times has been the increased producer awareness of feed requirements for livestock, but also the realisation that stock may not be getting all the nutrition they need in the paddock, according to Mid North livestock consultant Deb Scammell, Talking Livestock.
Ms Scammell said last year, she spent a lot of time with farmers planning ahead, particularly feed budgeting, because of the ongoing dry conditions.
"Anyone that did feed budgets early and budgeted for a long period of time, are probably those that are sitting a bit prettier with hay in their sheds, than those trying to buy it back in at this point," she said.
"Scanning stock also helped to better manage individual requirements, instead of just blanket feeding.
"It also helped identify dry ewes, which could then be culled if necessary."
Another drought strategy farmers could be considering is early weaning, as it is thought to be more efficient to feed a ewe and a lamb separately.
"Early weaning can be from around the six- to eight-week mark (but dependent on the weaners' liveweight), instead of normal weaning at about 14 weeks," she said.
"Early weaning is more feed efficient as the ewe doesn't require as much feed, compared to if she was trying to produce milk.
"But this strategy does need to be undertaken with correct preparation to ensure minimal loss of condition."
Good preparation includes introducing the lambs to feeders and the feed they will be weaned onto before the actual weaning and ensuring their diet is nutritionally balanced with higher protein to boost growth rates early.
"Farmers also have to make sure they have the right pastures and/or pellets/grain, depending on paddock feed availability," she said.
Containment feeding was also a popular strategy used to maintain condition of flocks, particularly pregnant ewes.
It also helped to rest paddocks with little groundcover.
"A mixer wagon feeding into troughs was the most accurate and economical way to feed out to large numbers, but not everyone could afford that type of set-up, many had to work with what they had," Ms Scammell said.
"Ironically, containment ewes going into lambing this year have been in better condition than other years when they have just been left out in the paddock, because ewes were fed their exact nutritional requirements.
"Some may even consider containment weaning as bulk paddock feed remains lacking."
It is this new knowledge that may see more containment feeding in the future.
"Planning with producers for seasons in the future, we will look at including containment feeding in any year that might be slightly lower rainfall," Ms Scammell said.
"People are now aware of the advantage of doing it and could consider it as a year in-year out strategy - even just locking them up for 6-8 weeks and feeding them economically during pregnancy and protect paddocks in the process."
RELATED READING: Tieyon overcomes challenging conditions with hardy Angus herd
RELATED READING: China tour instills confidence in sheep
AgriPartner Consulting principal livestock consultant Hamish Dickson, Clare, said despite high feed prices, producers were still finding it worthwhile to containment feed sheep for production.
"Producers just need to understand what their production goals are and what their end point is for feeding," he said.
"Whether it is just for maintenance or if they are targeting a certain market because of the good prices at the moment, they must know the cost benefit of the feeding strategy.
"I think cost efficiencies today are quite different to droughts of years gone by.
"So even though feed prices are high, it has been reasonably economic for producers to continue to support their sheep and get good marking and wool cut rates."
But he stressed proper management was needed to achieve that.
"People just need to make sure stock are inducted properly into the containment area," he said.
"They need to get their sheep accustomed to the feed regime gradually, apply the appropriate health treatments, give enough space per animal, shelter, water and so on."
He agreed that early weaning could be the next drought management strategy, as it had been found to be a more efficient use of feed resources on hand.
"You just have to plan for it, as there are steps needing to be taken prior to that process, such as gradual feed introduction and having the correct ration, and maybe even yard weaning, depending on the feed sources available," he said.
One farmer that has seen the value in containment feeding, and not just for the dry times, is Chad Burbidge, who runs about 3600 Merino ewes on 5000 hectares, while also cropping 2400ha at Ettrick, north-east of Murray Bridge.
In better times, he normally runs 4000 ewes.
"Last winter was possibly our worst for feed production - we barely had 40 per cent of our annual rain for the season," he said.
"We had some crop, but no sheep feed in the paddocks.
"The sheep were fast losing condition, but we didn't want to cull too hard because we knew restocking would be expensive, particularly with our strong focus on wool production and high-end genetics.
"So we culled some, but put nearly half of our pregnant ewes into containment."
While hay was hard to source at times, Mr Burbidge said matching feed demand to stages of pregnancy made feeding out more efficient.
"In early pregnancy, the ewes were given a maintenance ration of 300 grams of barley and 1 kilogram of straw per head a day," he said.
"Then once we separated them into singles and twins, we increased the feed ration accordingly as the pregnancy demand got higher."
Containment will become a yearly strategy now, not only to save paddocks but to better manage pregnancy feeding.
He also ran a feed cart with scales, which more precisely distributed the differing grain amounts.
"Our focus was trying to maintain the ewes in a good enough condition leading into lambing," he said.
"We had to buy in hay, a semi-load a week. Thankfully we had some supplies locally.
"But as we got into May, supplies ran out, so the sheep went back out onto remaining stubbles in preparation to start lambing and we fed out more grain."
Mr Burbidge's July lambing, while not yet marked, is expected to be down 15pc to 20pc. He also lambs in April, when percentages were down.
"The ewes still weren't in good enough condition and there was minimal feed on offer in the paddock, so many of my twining ewes left one behind," he said.
"Containment will become a yearly strategy now, not only to save paddocks but to better manage pregnancy feeding.
"We may even use it during mating."
Mr Burbidge said he would also consider putting the ewes into containment a lot earlier.
"It costs much less to maintain condition rather than trying to put it back on," he said.
"That way I can use the paddock feed much closer to lambing when the nutritional requirements are much higher."
Data used to reduce workload
THE benefits of containment feeding are threefold for Ettrick producer Chad Burbidge.
Not only does it save his paddock feed until lambing and help maintain condition in his pregnant ewes, it also allows him to preserve the quality of his 18 micron wool.
"I aim to breed uncomplicated, easy maintenance sheep with really long wool staple, shearing every six months," he said.
"Generally in a poor year, the market gets flooded with low tensile strength, low yielding wool from stressed sheep.
"To counteract that tensile strength problem so more buyers want our wool, I shear my ewes six weeks before lambing. This generally coincides with the break of the season, which is a main cause of low tensile strength, so then any break that does occur in the fibre will be near the tip."
Mr Burbidge also uses custom-made trace element products year-round, to offset changes in feed and at lambing.
He also weans early, generally at six to 12 weeks of age.
"I find the recovery is quicker at that age and it reduces the feed demand on both the farm and on the ewe," he said.
To keep track of all these management strategies, Mr Burbidge is applying electronic tags on his ewes and uses software that keeps track of where the sheep are, how long they have been there and so on.
"The aim is to eventually collect data easily and reduce the workload," he said.
He also bought a Breed Elite autodrafter at the start of this year so he can draft sheep on any criteria with just one person and one dog.
- Start the day with all the big news in agriculture. Click here to sign up to receive our daily Stock Journal newsletter.