Feeding Sheep in Dry Times

Feeding sheep can be a costly exercise. To maximise the benefit from feeding and minimise the costs, and not run out of feed halfway during the feeding period, careful planning is required. You need to know the energy and protein requirements of each class of sheep. Energy is the main limiting factor but lactating and growing sheep will also require their protein needs met. Sheep of different sizes will require different amounts of feed to maintain their condition e.g. rams vs ewes, small framed ewes versus large framed ewes.

The condition in which you maintain them in depends on what the aim is for those animals. For example you may want to feed your sheep to maintain ‘store’ condition until the dry period breaks. If you are mating during this time you should aim to keep those ewes in a more ‘forward store’ type condition. This will impact on how much you feed them.

It is often easier to calculate how much to feed sheep when they are fully hand fed, for example in a confinement feeding situation. It is more difficult to calculate the right supplementary feeding amounts if you have some paddock feed or stubbles on offer.  It is important to estimate how much of the nutritional needs can be met from pastures and stubbles. The amount of supplement offered depends on the class of sheep, the amount of feed offered in the paddock, type of feed being fed and what is the aim of the feeding.  If you are unsure, a good rule of thumb is to offer half of what the sheep would consume in total per day as supplementation. Adjust the ration up or down depending on the loss or gain sheep condition score over time. Sheep will consume approximately 3% of their body weight as dry matter.  Remember to keep adequate cover over your paddocks and do not overgraze them to give them the best chance to recover next year when the season breaks. Consider the use of sacrifice paddocks or confinement feeding facilities once paddock feed has run out.

Crop stubbles are a useful feed source for the sheep over summer but their value varies depending on grain spilled, type of crop, summer weeds present, leaf present, etc. Straw which is generally what is left once the sheep have eaten out the more nutritious components is not of good enough quality to maintain sheep and does require some form of supplementation.

Identifying which feeds are available and calculating which ones are the cheapest and most suitable is critical. Feed resources on farm are the obvious first choice. for drought feeding Understanding how this feed will fit into your feeding program and what may need to be purchased in to ensure you meet the requirements of sheep in general and the various classes of sheep is important.

Common energy supplements such as cereal grains often have enough protein in most situations. An example of where the protein would not be adequate is in early weaned lambs. Where protein will not be limiting compare the energy feeds on cost per megajoule of metabolisable energy basis. Ideally have a feed test on a feedstuff, as variations within feedstuffs can be high due to district, variety, and growing conditions. If a test is not done there are many references that contain feed tables with average values for various feedstuffs. It is important to compare feeds for energy and cost based on a dry matter basis. Feeds vary greatly in their moisture content and feeds such as silage and some alternative feeds can be very high in moisture.

Where sheep are fed in paddocks with some dry feed available roughage will not be limiting. However in a confinement situation a roughage source is important.
A simple feed budget calculator is available - click here

Minerals and vitamins are important but are often not the most limiting factor. Calcium, and depending on your water quality, sodium may be limiting in a drought situation. Cereal grains are high in phosphorus but low in calcium and sodium is deficient in most grains. These can be easily supplied via a lick. Whilst Vitamins A and E are important but generally deficiencies are unlikely to occur, particularly in adult sheep.

In some areas where water is a limiting factor assessing the water requirements of your sheep and doing a water stock take will be very important. Not only will the amount of water on hand be important but also the quality of water. Many areas are already facing major issues around water quality and its suitability for livestock in general.

Remember during a dry period start feeding well before the sheep become weak, introduce new feeds slowly (particularly grain), and do not cease feeding suddenly and release sheep onto paddocks once the season breaks as this will lead to digestive problems and in some cases death.

For further information refer to the 'Feeding and Managing Sheep in dry times