When the immediate threat of bush fire has abated and thoughts turn to rebuilding your grazing business, the how and how much of keeping your livestock alive and setting them up for the approaching growing season become important priorities in the list of things to do. With so much pasture and livestock infrastructure destroyed, confinement feeding of your sheep and cattle is the best choice to help you navigate the next few months.
The benefits of confinement feeding are:
Confinement feeding has become a part of the annual program on many Kangaroo Island farms in response to less than average feed years. Many farmers know that their sheep and cattle will survive quite happily in confinement pens for months. The target this year is to get them through to the break in the season without losing your paddocks.
Death rates of sheep in confinement should be less than 1%. Most deaths are management associated – the majority being due to acidosis caused by poor feeding practice or failing to identify and remove the “tail end” sheep and manage them separately.
Setting Stock Up For Entry
All livestock should receive a booster vaccination against Pulpy Kidney. High grain rations increase the risk of this fatal condition.
All sheep should be jetted on the breech for flies - grain scour is very attractive to flies. Cyromazine will provide 12 weeks protection or use Dicyclanil for protection of up to 22 weeks.
Make sure sheep and cattle are covered for Selenium and Vitamin B12 – supplement by injection if needed.
If Worm Egg Counts are high, consider drenching the sheep before entry. However, if all of your sheep are going to be in confinement, leave some undrenched to allow for some worm refugia in your system. Burnt pastures are likely to have very low worm larval survival, especially if we continue to get hot and dry weather through January and February, and blanket drenching of all sheep in confinement could lead to severe genetic worm resistance to the chemicals used in the Summer drench. If you need more help with these decisions, please ask.
Coccidiosis and Salmonellosis can be a problem in confinement sheep, especially after a rain event and more likely in weaners. If its possible to leave weaners on pasture and feed them there, for example on paddocks sown to kikuyu, this is the best strategy.
Vitamin E will be required for weaner sheep in confinement (and in the paddock) - please talk to me about what is required here.
The most important thing is to have any unexpected deaths investigated
Maintenance feeding is an energy equation in adult sheep and cattle. Virtually all of the cereal grains that would be used to feed livestock have adequate protein levels to maintain dry adult sheep and cattle. The target for adult breeding livestock is to maintain an adequate weight / condition score to allow them to be successfully mated over the next month or two. Adult wethers and steers need to be fed at maintenance rates to maintain a condition score of 2 or better. Weaner livestock will require additional protein in most cases and the aim should be to achieve slow consistent growth whilst in confinement.
The risk of acidosis is decreased by feeding small quantities of roughage rather than an all grain diet. Straw or low digestibility hay is best as stock consume it less quickly allowing all stock access to it. Approximately 1 – 1.5 kgs per head per week of roughage is ideal and whilst the feeding frequency of roughage is not critical, it is best to be fed before grain feeding. Grain feeding can be carried out every second or third day once sheep become acclimatised to it – the more even the feeding regime the better.
Feed troughs or self feeders are not essential and add to the capital cost of confinement. Grain trails are fine if the ground is firm. Cheap troughs can be inexpensively made by using heavy duty shade cloth, tarpaulin, old galvanised iron, conveyor belting or commercial channelling – if possible raise the troughs 40-45cm above the ground to prevent fouling. If feed troughs are used allow 20cm per adult (double sided) or 40cm per adult (single sided). Studies have shown that inadequate trough space and the use of self feeders increases the “tail end” numbers of sheep that do not adapt to the confinement process.
A weighing feed cart, such as Yellow Kelpie, is a real asset as you know exactly how much grain you are putting out each feed.
Confinement pens need a guaranteed supply of good quality water. Do not create confinement areas surrounding a dam – stock will camp on the dam bank and inflow areas and cause significant fouling of the water. Ideally fence dams out and use troughs to water sheep and cattle.
Troughs need to be cleaned regularly as faeces, dust and feed contamination of water troughs leads to reduced water intake and has a negative effect on stock health. Place water troughs at the opposite end of the confinement pen to the feeding area to minimise food fouling.
Allow a minimum of 30cm plus 1.5cm per sheep of water trough length (single sided access) – this means 7.8 metres minimum for 500 sheep or 15.3 metres minimum per 1,000 sheep. When budgeting water requirements, allow 6 litres per day per kg of dry matter consumed for average daily temperatures below 30 degrees C.
Pen Size and Density
Survey work has shown that the ideal mob size is 1,000 head of sheep (mob size is less critical with cattle). The optimum stocking density at which deaths and poor doers are minimised is 5 square metres per sheep – so a 5,000 square metre pen (half a hectare) will hold 1,000 sheep. Larger mobs and higher densities can be managed successfully but have a higher inherent risk and so require a higher level of managerial skill.
Possible pen design. Each pen will hold 1000 sheep. Central feeding area allows grain to be fed without needing to avoid sheep. Grain is dropped in to a trough or trail on the ground, gate from 1 pen is opened, sheep come out and consume grain ration. They will then mostly find their way back in to their pen (water trough in each pen). Close the gate and repeat the process with the next pen.
Tail End Management
Management of the tail end is a critical aspect of successful confinement feeding. There are always some animals that do not adapt to the confinement feeding practice and the less “natural” the process, the larger the tail end is likely to be. In a large survey of confinement feeding practices, 18% of farms had a culling rate of over 30% of the sheep that entered which is really defeating the purpose of confinement feeding. The tail enders should be less than 5%. Ideally the poor doers in each mob should be drafted off before entry in to the confinement pen and then every month. Tail end sheep can be put in to their own pen at a much lower density – often these sheep won’t compete for access to the feed trail or feeder or they take longer to consume their full ration – and will do OK when run together or, depending on circumstances, run on pastures and fed. Not removing the tail end sheep will increase death rates as some sheep will never adapt to the confinement system.
Numerous studies have shown that the use of “lick” self feeders for maintenance feeding increases the variability of grain intake in a mob, increases risk and increases the percentage of tail enders. Self feeders are not required – the capital cost is better allocated to rebuilding farm infrastructure in preparation for the growing season.
Monitor your Stock
Monthly monitoring of your stock will allow fine tuning of the feeding process. Ideally identify 30 – 50 sheep in each mob and weigh and condition score these sheep at a similar time of the day and at the same time in the feeding rotation to track your progress. Be prepared to make adjustments to the feeding regime if weights and / or condition scores are falling above or below your targets. The same thing applies to stock being fed in paddocks.
Mating Ewes or Cows in Confinement
Ewes and cows will mate really well in confinement as long as their body condition scores are adequate. Rams and bulls will also need to be adapted to the feeding regime in the confinement pens before they are introduced. Mating ewes in large mobs of 1,000 or more is common practice and very successful when these basic steps are followed. If you experience a run of hot days with daily maximum temperatures exceeding 30 degrees C and warm nights, it is worthwhile extending the length of the joining period by a week as hot weather is associated with loss of embryos in sheep in the first few days after fertilisation.
Situate confinement pens away from houses to avoid dust. If possible shear long woolled merinos before entry to the confinement area as wool yield will be significantly affected if shearing takes place after the sheep have been in confinement for a month or two.
Pink eye is a risk, particularly if your pens are very dusty. Be on the watch for pink eye and if it occurs please contact us.
How Much To Feed?
High energy density feeds (barley, wheat) are more efficient at maintaining weight than low energy density feeds (hay, oats) due to a higher efficiency of utilisation of feed energy by the animals (less energy is lost as heat of digestion). The amount to feed is determined by the genetic size of the livestock, age, sex, physiological status and target weight or condition score. The weekly Net Energy intake will determine the weight or condition score that the livestock maintain. Click here for a table of daily feeding rates for different classes of sheep and cattle.
High percentage cereal grain rations can deplete Calcium reserves in the body over time. If the confinement period is likely to last for 3 months or more, the addition of finely ground limestone to the grain at 15kg per tonne of grain should be considered. Early lambing ewes should be given limestone supplemented grain from their entry in to the confinement area.
Adapting Stock to High Percentage Grain Diets
Cereal grains contain most of their energy in the form of starch. Starch is a highly fermentable energy source that can be utilised by ruminants but only after the rumen microbiological population is adapted to turn the starch in to useable end products and not lactic acid. In the non adapted ruminant, the majority of the starch ends up as lactic acid which acidifies the rumen, kills all of the bacteria and protozoa essential for the rumen to function, acidifies the blood and kills the sheep.
The rumen microbiology take time to adapt to fermentable starch in the diet. Wheat and Barley can be safely used as an efficient feed in sheep and cattle once they are adapted to it and this can only be done safely by introducing them to the grain in increasing amounts over a 12-14 day period. Rumen alkalinisers have little effect on rumen pH and will not prevent acidosis in non adapted animals. Click here to download an example grain introduction sheet that you can follow.
It is best to adapt your stock to the amount of grain that they will be fed in confinement before you put them in the pens if at all possible.
Confinement feeding is a very useful way of being able to manage your stock through the months leading up to the break of the season in a controlled and efficient way. Pens can be constructed relatively quickly and stock can be secured in them whilst work is undertaken to restore boundary fences then internal fences. A properly designed and managed confinement area can make life easier and free up time to focus on other important tasks in the rebuilding of your farm.