Meat & Livestock News

Forward Planning and Livestock Health: Navigating Dry Conditions in Australian Agriculture

Young female veterinarian in labcoat and gloves looking at thermometer and talking to male worker of cowfarm during check-up of cattle

In Coonamble, NSW, as in many parts of Australia, the abrupt transition to drier conditions before Christmas 2022 caught many by surprise. By February 2023, the pastures had turned completely brown, with the area receiving less than a third of its expected annual rainfall.

Dr Jillian Kelly, a veterinarian with Animal Health and Nutrition Consulting, emphasises the importance of preparation and proactive decision-making for producers to manage the challenges of increasingly unpredictable weather.

Adapting to Dry Pastures

Dr Kelly advises that when pastures fail to meet the nutritional needs of livestock, producers must take action. Temporary weight loss in livestock can be manageable, but prolonged dry conditions necessitate tough decisions: either provide supplemental feed or reduce herd numbers through sales.

Informed Decision-Making

Making informed choices early can prevent significant weight loss in livestock and conserve feed. Dr Kelly warns against indecision, particularly during dry spells, as it can be the most costly.

She advocates for data-driven decision-making to support any course of action, whether it’s destocking, feeding in the paddock, or containment feeding.

Key Decision Points

Producers should consider several factors when making decisions:

  • When feed demand exceeds availability, reducing stocking rates can be done incrementally or in larger reductions.
  • Deciding on the best method to reduce stocking rates, whether through sales, agistment, or containment feeding.
  • Assessing the class of stock on hand, the degree of feeding required, and the infrastructure and skills available for different strategies.
  • Considering personal capacity and labour availability for long-term feeding.

Rumen Health for Resilient Livestock

In containment feeding scenarios, balanced rations are crucial for maintaining rumen health, which is vital for converting feed into meat, milk, and offspring. Consulting a nutritionist can ensure rations meet the energy needs of adult livestock and the protein requirements for growing animals.

Balanced Rations During Dry Times

High-energy feeds like cereal grains, pulse grains, or pellets are essential, especially during dry periods. Grains such as wheat, triticale, maise, and barley are rich in starch, which is converted into vital volatile fatty acids in the rumen. However, the risk of acidosis must be managed with careful dietary formulation. Oil can also provide high energy, but its use is limited to avoid disrupting rumen microbes.

Confinement Feeding Systems

Choosing the right confinement feeding system, whether yards, pens, or paddocks, is key. Methods like trail feeding, bunk feeding, or using self-feeders can reduce labour and disease risk. Automated systems offer convenience and precision but require careful consideration and investment.

Induction and Daily Management

The induction period onto new feed requires careful management to prevent health issues. Ensuring even feed distribution, clean water, and adequate space for all animals is essential for their well-being.

Containment Feeding Tips

  • Use sacrifice paddocks for containment feeding to protect pastures and reduce labour.
  • Be aware of risks like acidosis and ensure good water access and some shade.
  • Streamline systems to reduce labour and allow for breaks.

Seasonal Action Plan

  • Reassess your budget considering current livestock prices and decide whether to sell or feed through.
  • Provide adequate shade for containment feeding and manage the impact on trees.
  • Consider weaning to reduce dietary requirements and ensure weaners receive a safe, balanced diet.
  • Focus on the long-term health and quality of your herd, avoiding panic decisions.