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Trigger points required to manage ewes

Spring is the season that enables sheep producers to set themselves up for the coming year; it is critical to have flexible management and key trigger points that minimise the likely consequences of limited feed.

At the end of spring in higher rainfall areas the usual target is to have 2500 to 3000 kilograms of pasture dry matter on hand to get you through to the next autumn break. Working with a large number of producers last spring in the Lifetime Ewe Management program it was quite common to measure around 1500 kilograms of dry matter. On an 800 hectare farm this means you would be going into summer with 1000 tonnes less feed. Just shut your eyes and visualise 1000 tonnes of hay in the shed only to have it catch fire and go up in smoke. Well the poor spring had the same effect yet many producers carried on as if things were normal. I understand why they took this approach, burying your head in the sand can be a good stress management strategy but it does not solve the problem.

The trouble with this approach is that it will take longer to turn off lambs and they are eating the feed that should be on hand to set the ewes up for the following year. Selling stock before the usual time is unpalatable option for most; they need the kilograms of live weight to gain the required income. This in a lot of cases is ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’ and in the end there can be a big cost coming later to pay for hanging onto those lambs. Quite often in business your first loss is your best loss, if there is ever such a thing as a good loss. What I am saying is preventing a $20,000 loss has the same effect on the bottom line as a $20,000 gain.

The single most important thing that distinguishes the top producer from the rest is timing. Timing is not something, it is everything. Developing a plan with trigger points that link pasture availability, stock priorities, feed costs and cash flow implication needs to be documented. Once things return to normal it is essential that you review the way things panned out and then set about writing down the required changes. This document will prove invaluable the next time you are confronted with a poor spring. It needs to be written down because most of us do a lot of fast learning and fast forgetting.

Before you sell any stock you need to have a clear idea as to the long term impact and to know how quick you are able bounce back. Buying in replacements has many risks, unknown productive performance, biosecurity and high purchase price to name a few. Prioritise the order of sale from wethers to dry ewes to old less productive ewes, cull hoggets. Each one of these needs to have a trigger date linked to feed on offer, feed price and sale value.

Now that we are in the winter, all of last year’s dry feed is long gone and supplementary feeding is continuing. It is during winter that pasture growth rate is at its most consistent, consistently low. In the high rainfall area 10 kilograms of dry matter production per hectare per day is about the norm. In the more southern regions of the state lambing is in full swing and pasture levels are less than desired. There are many schools of thought about feeding lambing ewes. Some feed daily, other use feeders that only require filling one or twice a week, some feed and check the ewes at night and other will feed mid-afternoon when the least number of lambs are being born.

If there is one thing scanning has enabled us to do, besides getting rid of dry ewes as early as possible, it is to lamb ewes down in mobs according to pregnancy status so the twinners can have the best paddocks.

Measuring feed on offer and monitoring condition score are the keys to getting the feed budget right. Knowing the number of mega joules each class of sheep requires and costing each available feedstuff should place you in a position to decide when the next trigger needs to be pulled. A starved sheep never performs to its optimum so if your ewes are struggling you may need to consider weaning early and rely on spring pasture to get lambs to sale weight.

For further details contact Ken Solly at kensolly@rbm.com.au  or 0427 620895

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