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BIGG benefits of containment feeding

04 April 2024

Key points:

  • Producers involved in containment feeding project achieved more than 10% lift in lambing rates.
  • Containment feeding supported more ground cover and improved pasture recovery.
  • The project found containment feeding had an economic advantage compared withpasture feeding.

When South Australia’s Barossa experienced a run of drier than average seasons, local sheep producers turned to containment feeding to meet the nutritional needs of their ewes and protect the value of lambing pastures.

MLA supported a Producer Demonstration Site (PDS) with the Barossa Improved Grazing Group (BIGG) to measure the effectiveness of ewe containment in:

  • increasing reproductive rates
  • maintaining stocking rates
  • protecting ground cover
  • improving ewe condition scores.

The project was facilitated by consultant Deb Scammell of Talking Livestock and ran across three major sites (each with at least 1,000 ewes in containment) and eight minor sites.

Confidence and control Deb explained how in 2019, many producers in the region had received only half their average annual rainfall and, while some had already built pens, didn’t have the knowledge or experience to contain their stock successfully.

“We started the PDS later that year to help provide the skills they needed to manage their containment feeding well,” she said.

“By the end of the project, we saw a 41% uplift in core producer confidence.”

As well as more confidence in their skills, the project also gave producers a sense of greater control in their business.

“Containment offered more choice in how they managed their stock,” Deb said.

“Instead of having to destock when conditions got too dry, they could put their ewes in containment and be confident their paddocks would recover quickly after some rain.”

Benefits of containment

  • Improved ground cover: The three major sites had 90–100% ground cover across the life of the project. The minor sites which contained most of their ewes exceeded the project’s 70% ground cover goal, apart from two where severe kangaroo grazing impacted ground cover.
  • Pasture recovery: Feed on offer from pastures on the three major sites was 570kg of dry matter per hectare higher compared to similar properties in the region without containment.
  • Increased lamb marking: The project aimed to achieve a 10% increase in lambing percentages. This goal was exceeded across most sites, with the three major sites recording an average increase of 12% over the duration of the project.
  • Economic advantage: The project quantified the time, labour and costs associated with pasture feeding in comparison to containment. As a result, it estimated a benefit of between $5.30 and $8 per ewe.
  • Improved stock management: Containment enabled better management practices, such as precise nutrition and opportunities for more frequent condition scoring, which allowed producers to get more ewes to their condition score targets for lambing. It’s likely the benefits seen in areas such as cost savings and increased lambing percentages are a flow-on effect of the improved management that comes with containment.

Improved ewe survival

When the PDS began in 2019, ewes had been on feed for an extended period due to the dry conditions.

As a result, ewe mortality rates rose due to calcium deficiency and hypocalcaemia.

Blood testing showed that while the younger ewes responded to calcium supplementation when they were deficient, this wasn’t the case for older ewes whose bone reserves had depleted over several years.

“We monitored calcium levels during every breeding season to make sure the ewes’ bone reserves weren’t being irreversibly depleted,” Deb said.

“By the end of the project, contained ewe mortality rates were equivalent to paddock-run ewes at 1.8%.”

Decision support

The project outcomes demonstrated the benefits of containment feeding and Deb said it will be a valuable tool in helping improve outcomes for those planning to adopt the practice in the future.

“The work that’s been done on the BIGG PDS has been really critical to understanding and overcoming some of those challenges, such as ewe mortality,” she said.

“For those producers now coming into containment feeding without much experience, the PDS has removed a lot of those hurdles and it’s going to make getting those great outcomes a lot easier.”

  • Meet one of the producers involved in this PDS here.

Is containment right for you?

When deciding if containment feeding is the right move, Deb suggested producers ask the following four questions:

  1. Is stock water available?
  2. Are ewes suitable for entry? For example, they aren’t in full wool or at the point of lambing.
  3. Is the ‘value’ of feeding the stock justified from an economic or emotional perspective?
  4. Do appropriate facilities for containment exist or can they be constructed?

If the answer to any one of these four questions is no, then containment may not be the right solution and destocking or agistment may be a more viable option.

If the answer to all four questions is yes, then containment may be a viable option to help retain stock and protect ground cover during the dry season. However, Deb said it’s important to get expert advice on pen set-up and the specific nutrition required before you make any decisions.

Four tips for site selection

It isn’t a perfect science, but there are four aspects to consider before starting to build containment pens.

  1. Proximity: Position your pen close to yards or feeding infrastructure to save time and labour, and encourage regular condition scoring.
  2. Size: Provide space for sheep to move, but not too much as you want the dirt to be compacted in order to reduce the likelihood of coughing (which can cause prolapse) and pink eye caused by too much dust. Allow 7m2 /ewe in early pregnancy, rising to 10m2 during late pregnancy.
  3. Slope: A slight incline of around 2–4% allows water to run off quickly and reduces mud during the break, but it won’t be steep enough to cause erosion or excess energy to be burned walking around pens.
  4. Trough space: Troughs need to be large enough that all ewes can easily feed at once to avoid shy feeders or skinny ewes

Containment feeding PDS projects

Four MLA Producer Demonstration Sites (PDS) with a containment feeding focus are currently underway. Contact the individual PDS facilitators for more information or to get involved.

Levy-funded PDS projects:

  • Which set-up? Implementing confinement feeding:This project covered three sites in mid-west WA. It helped producers understand why and when to implement containment feeding, as well as assisting with set-up design and overall management, and identifying the financial benefits.
  • Confinement feeding and deferred grazing management system: This project had two sites in WA’s Wickepin region. It demonstrated how supplementary containment feeding matched ewe nutritional requirements with pasture availability during the lambing period, to deliver efficiency and economic benefits.

Co-contributor PDS projects

  • Sheep containment in focus: This project established three sites around Cowra, NSW. It helped increase producer capability, increased adoption of best practice sheep containment, and encouraged the use of ag-tech to quantify the value of containment.
  • Assessing economic benefits of confinement feeding: This project established three sites on WA’s south coast. It set out to increase adoption amongst sheep producers and improve productivity of producers already using containment feeding.

Use the PDS Search Tool at search to learn