Sheep producers share their experiences with confinement feeding

(Left to Right): Clayton South, Marc Deas (host), Richard Coole, Emily Stretch, Greg Hyde, Allan Hobley.

Sheep producers interested in confinement feeding were treated to a goldmine of information at the recent Rylington Park Annual Field Day when organisers engaged four farmers to talk about their experiences with the practice. We’ve put together a summary for three of the talks with a link to an existing summary for the fourth speaker.

Clayton South, Wagin

The first speaker was Clayton South who manages 5,000 ha in Wagin. Clayton first tried confinement feeding in 2018, feeding 500 dry ewes on the ground. In 2019 he progressed to using troughs on the ground and feeding all his dry ewe-lambs after pregnancy scanning in April through to mid-July. The trial went so well that in 2020 he committed to the practice, confining 3500 ewes & ewe lambs from pregnancy scanning in mid-April until lambing commenced in the last week of June.

Clayton found that there were huge feed savings by feeding in troughs and also less energy expended by sheep.

“They’re not walking around grazing all day. You can actually back their ration off a bit once they get comfortable in confinement.”

Other benefits included less time feeding, less fuel and wear and tear on vehicles and feeders, and also benefits to the pasture and cropping program.

“Getting the sheep off the paddock, getting weeds controlled with the first knock down spray done in time, less soil erosion, keeping stubble on paddocks and also letting the pasture get away were some of the benefits. For a long time, we’ve been putting sheep out when it’s not quite ready and the pasture never gets away. If you get that start in May or June it helps a lot with what you can grow and running a higher stocking rate.”

Clayton ordered about 60 troughs from a local engineering firm, each 4.5 m long at $102 each, and joined them together by screwing them onto 100 x 100 mm wooden blocks on the ground to create 270 metres of trough space over a few pens. The troughs can be accessed from both sides so he allows 20 cm per ewe, and then disassembles and stores them in the shed out of the weather. Dust is cleaned out with a leaf blower, but being low to the ground they also need to be cleaned for manure.

In 2020, Clayton fed a 50/50 barley/lupins ration with ad-lib straw, but said adult ewes may not need so much protein.

“This year we had our pregnant ewe-lambs in from preg scanning in mid-late April including all our older scanned singles, but we ran the twins in paddocks as per usual.  Different classes of stock can require different systems and different rations. Singles were getting 1.5-2.5 kg of feed per head per feed (increasing with energy demands of pregnancy), and dry ewe lambs a bit less. Our ewe lambs that were in lamb were confined on lick feeders with ad lib grain & straw with the singles & twins all mixed in together.

“We haven’t had any issues with over feeding ewe lamb singles causing dystocia as they’ve still got lots of growing to do themselves. However, my advice would be if you’re going to commit to feeding gestating ewes in confinement, you have to be on the ball & can’t miss the mark because of the value of stock.

“We feed every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, so a seven-day ration split into three feeds, and we feed straw Tuesday, Thursday and Friday afternoons. We have also used an ad lib loose mineral lick in some old water troughs.”

After the first two years Clayton saw that the system was working so bought a new sheep feeder with some scales to make sure he knew exactly what he was feeding.

Clayton found it quite difficult and stressful feeding in the same pen as the sheep and has come up with a skip pen system where he feeds into an empty pen and then moves sheep in from the pen next door, emptying that pen for the next feed.

“In 2021 we’re building a new site with eight pens that will be able to confine an additional 3500 adult ewes.  We’ll have seven mobs in eight pens, making it a lot easier for one person to do the feed run. We’ve got 100 m of feed trough per pen, so we’ll carry 500 singles per pen, with the capacity to run a few more of the dry ewe lambs per pen because they’re a bit smaller.”

Some of Clayton’s non-negotiables for confinement feeding were the need to vaccinate and drench if they need it on the way in to confinement, make sure stock are backgrounded going in and out, ensure they have enough trough space and to monitor stock closely.

“Get them used to the grain ration coming in and don’t put them straight onto only green feed going out. And if you’re only feeding three times a week, make sure each animal has enough access to feed. It’s better to have too much trough space than not enough. And keep an eye on them.”

Clayton commented that he wouldn’t even try it if he was going to struggle with water.

“If anyone hasn’t done it, just try one mob or some dry sheep that you’re not going to have a disaster with if you get it a bit wrong. Think of a system that suits your farm, your sheep type, market, staff and infrastructure. Use your own feeder and fence off a small area to get started.”

 

Greg Hyde – Ongerup

Greg Hyde started to look into confinement feeding after the 2018/19 season, eventually purchasing an auto sheep feeder from DE Engineers in March 2020. The feeder is 24 metres long and Greg set up two pens (100 x 25 metres) each side of it with 500 sheep in each pen. The lick style feed tray makes the sheep use their tongue, forcing them to walk away to get a drink and letting shy feeders in.

“First we had to pick an area to set it up in. We wanted somewhere close to yards, close to water and somewhere you drove past so if something was amiss you could do something about it. So we set it up close to the workman’s house because he drives past 2-4 times a day.

“We had shelter on the western side and the southern side and used a field bin for the pellets which were 15% protein and 12% energy. The auger runs over 24 metres three times a day and there’s always pellets there. There’s no great rush for feed and everything is content.”

After a severe wind event Greg increased shelter protection with hale bales on the perimeter.

Greg set up two 23,000 L tanks, one for each pen with troughs 75 metres from the auto feeder.

“Water’s very important, clean water, the troughs we’ve got have a bung in the bottom. We’ve got pumps set up on the troughs.”

Concerned about stock digging holes, Greg said the soil type was important. He also laid meshing under the feeder and filled it with blue metal instead of putting concrete down in case it needed to be shifted.

He also fed straw which he said was very important and readily eaten by stock, especially if bad weather was coming in.

“If it was coming in wet and cold they would hit the straw and then huddle up for 6 or 12 hours and not need to feed.”

Greg said he used a lot less pellets than in previous years, which he thought was down to being locked up and not needing to walk long distances in search of feed.

He said the 24 horse-power auger was also capable of shifting barley and lupins, and designed an implement to clean the trough if rain got in.

Greg said there were some shy feeders in the young sheep and it may be useful to have a hospital pen for stock that need attention.

Greg agreed with Clayton that backgrounding was essential before putting them in confinement.

For more about Greg’s system, follow this link.

 

Allan Hobley – Nyabing

The third speaker was Allan Hobley from Wiringa Park in Nyabing, a poll merino stud with 4,000 breeding ewes on over 5,000 hectares, cropping 3,800 and sowing 800-900 hectares to pasture each year.

Allan started down the confinement path this year to manage the feed gap in later autumn early winter, sow and set up quality pastures (mainly sowing vetch and barley), allow pastures to establish prior to grazing, maintain ground cover, increase stocking rate and maintain or increase ewe condition score prior to lambing (from 20 June).

Allan’s current system is a trough-based system attached to the front of seven 50 x 50 metre pens in a line, allowing feed to go into a single trough 350 metres long (7 x 50 m), a run of less than 10 minutes. The troughs are made from 300 mm C purlin bolted onto the front of the pens (at mouth height) on a maxi post every 5 metres. Electrical conduit runs above their heads and they feed through the fence. There are laneways either side of the pens leading to yards, with gates and water troughs on the opposite side to the feed trough and with a slight grade down to the water trough side. He plans to incorporate a recently purchased Feedtech system into these pens for 2021.

Allan has a maximum of 270 ewes per pen and has a 200,000L water tank by the road uphill from the pens that can be serviced by a truck.

Allan weighs what he is feeding, with all pens getting the same amount, then adjusts the numbers in each pen to meet nutritional needs for each class of stock.

“Twin bearing ewes we had less in that pen, more in the singles pen, adjusting the sheep to the trough rather than the other way around. Singles might have been getting 500g and the twins 750-800g.

“We were pretty much a full pellet ration as this system virtually eradicates the shy feeders. There’s not a huge amount of lick feed in a confinement set up because of that reason. This is a simple way of knowing they will all get full access to the trough. Once you lock them up its your responsibility.

“We finished wether lambs in this system, scattered through the pens and gave them a kilo a day. As for lambing in there I personally strongly advise against it because if at some point you let them out, mismothering would be a mess. Mating in there would be ok but not lambing.

“Next year we’ll probably only put single bearing ewes in there because when we got to late pregnancy we did run into issues with pregnancy toxaemia with the twin bearing ewes. We didn’t have any trouble at all with single bearing ewes.

“Our ewe hoggets were having such a great start to the year we spun them in once the ewes went out ten days before they started to lamb. We scattered the ewe hoggets across all the pens, graded them so we had the worst and the best if we needed to start selling.

“The result was that we had good nutritious pastures, so ewes lambed with plenty of feed and had healthy lambs at weaning. Ewes were in great condition at weaning and ready for joining the following year or for sale. There was less reliance on supplementary feeding in early summer, and for us the big one was paddock cover and protection from erosion. That can be a pretty big problem if we don’t get seasons that are favourable.”

Allan’s conclusion was than doing a small amount of confinement feeding was better than none at all.

“Three or four pens is better than zero. It doesn’t need to be complicated. Confinement feeding gives you more options. Regardless if it’s a good year we’ll use it every year and make the most of a good start because you’re buying green feed. We can’t farm and hope for a good season. We need to manage the ones we’re given. You can’t hope it’s going to rain, you’ve got to have a plan.”

Allan agrees that backgrounding is vital.

“You’ve got to remember to background, start on 200 grams, 300, 400, 500 up to a kilo or whatever you want to do.

“Once you’ve got them in there, labour to feed and straw was probably a day’s work. The quality of the water in smaller pens was better with dust kept down because as they urinate, they keep the yard half damp. That’s the reason for the pen size and the numbers.”

Compared to one attendee’s description of a 76-kilometre feed run over 3.5 hours, Allan said the confinement feeding was very efficient with a lot less labour, diesel and wear and tear on equipment, especially valuable during seeding.

Richard Coole

See a comprehensive description of Richard’s system at https://sheepconnect.s3.amazonaws.com/media/newsletters/2/oct2020/GD2957_Containment_feeding_to_manage_a_feed_gap_-_Spring_2019_5_HR_nocrops.pdf

Conclusion

We asked attendee and livestock advisor Jeisane Accioly if there were any other points that need to be emphasized. These are her thoughts:

  • Vaccinate (5 in 1) in advance, to ensure immunity is satisfactory (two doses or a booster if vaccinated previously) prior to starting on feed.
  • Water supply, quality and accessibility is very important as it is a limiting factor for feed intake. The dry feed and hot weather will increase requirements.
  • Feed analysis of raw ingredients is very important as even grain has a wide variation in protein and energy levels. This can be used to adjust mixes and ensure they meet production targets. Advice from a nutritionist can assist with either using different mixes for each class of animal or coming up with a mix that better meets the need of all classes and adjust the feeding quantity. This will assist with meeting animal requirements and making cost effective decisions.
  • Silage can also be considered.
  • Draft on condition score. Given the sheer numbers, it can make big differences for underfeeding or overfeeding.
  • Very important to condition the animal entering and exiting the system as drastic changes in diets can be dangerous.

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