Sheep producers facing challenges maintaining soil surface cover this summer (2023-24)

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Stock Journal Technical Column - December 2023

Author: Mary-Anne Young, PIRSA

Several factors are presenting challenges to sheep producers wanting to keep the soil surface covered for soil health and erosion protection this summer.

Dry spring conditions have limited pasture production, particularly perennial pastures in higher rainfall areas. There is less paddock feed for stock and less surface cover for soils.

A significant increase in the area sown to lentils on Eyre Peninsula will result in a larger area of sparse, rapidly-degradable residues that provide little protection against wind erosion.

An earlier than usual harvest has resulted in stock being turned onto stubbles earlier than usual.

The forecast for a long, hot and dry summer indicates little likelihood of soaking rains that can stimulate growth of volunteer cereals and weeds, and boost soil surface cover.

The greatest challenge lies in the costs vs  benefits of supplementary feeding sheep in paddocks or in containment areas. Livestock returns have fallen while costs have remained steady or even increased.

Getting sheep off paddocks and into containment areas remains one of the best ways to retain surface cover in paddocks, maintain soil health and protect soils from erosion. It also is a significant factor in maintaining stock in good condition during a period when condition can easily slip. It is harder and more costly to return sheep to good condition than continuously keeping them in good condition.

If sheep are to remain in paddocks, keep them off vulnerable soils as stock traffic loosens soils, causing them to move on the lightest of winds.

Ensure cool, good quality water is readily available for sheep so they do not have to track long distances walking to and from watering points or hang around waiting for troughs to fill.

Apply greater rigour in calculating feed rations. Inefficient feeding, particularly over-feeding, leaks money. There could be more savings to be made in efficient feeding rather than not feeding at all.

Plan for an extended period of paddock grazing or supplementary feeding that includes a late break to the season next year. It might be June or July next year before there is fresh pasture feed available.