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Five tips for grazing sheep on stubbles

03 December 2020

Did you know crop stubbles grown in Australia could provide about three billion ewe grazing days, or enough forage to feed Australia’s 65 million sheep flock for six weeks?

Most broadacre crops are grown in mixed farming areas, where cropping and livestock enterprises are combined. In these areas, stubbles make up an important part of the seasonal feedbase.

Why should producers graze stubbles?

  • Stubbles provide a substantial feedbase component, with ewes in mixed farms typically spending 20% of their time on stubbles each year.
  • Stubbles provide a high quality source of feed during summer.
  • Removing spilt grain from paddocks reduces risk of pests such as mice or birds.
  • Breaking down the stubbles makes the following cropping season easier as seeding into high volume stubbles can be difficult.

MLA and Australian Wool Innovation have co-funded the Modern Stubbles project to help producers understand how to effectively graze sheep on stubbles. Here, project lead researcher, Dr Dean Thomas from the CSIRO, gives his five tips for grazing sheep on stubbles.

  1. Maintain a good source of nutrition
    Grazing stubbles is often done when ewes are pregnant so it's important they’re kept in good condition. Producers should aim for a condition score of three and have them on a rising plane of nutrition.

    Stubbles are a feed source that starts as high quality but depletes quickly (as the sheep clean up the spilt grain) so producers need to keep this characteristic in mind to ensure a good source of nutrition is maintained.

    Grains and young green plants have a higher proportion of digestible carbohydrates and protein, so they typically have a higher nutritive value. Leaf and fine stem components are low quality but generally edible, and make up roughly half of the energy for a typical diet from dry stubbles (where the remainder is grain and green material).

    However, ripe wheat stems (that make up a large component of stubbles) have a high proportion of structural carbohydrates that are poorly digestible, making them lower in nutritive value and generally little of this material is eaten.

  2. Prioritise stubbles for grazing
    It’s important for producers to prioritise stubbles for grazing by:

    • providing ewes or finishing lambs with the highest quality stubbles, followed by pregnant ewes (or in preparation for joining)
    • allowing older ewes to graze on lower quality stubbles, such as wheat or canola stubbles, although provision of adequate       nutrition is still key.

  3. Keep an eye out for metabolic diseases
    There are a few risks associated with grazing stubbles, such as acidosis. Spread out any piles of grain left in the paddock after harvest to reduce this risk. Acclimatise ewes first by starting them on barley or lupin stubbles prior to grazing wheat stubbles.

    Vitamin E deficiency can occur if sheep graze stubbles for an extended period without access to green feed. Supplement with vitamin E (drenched or injected) or provide access to adjacent areas of perennial grasses and shrubs for a source of vitamin E.

  4. Have the right infrastructure in place
    Stubbles are a drier feed so producers need to have good fences and a source of water. Sheep will require 3–5L per sheep/per day to graze stubbles (more during hot weather).

  5. Select paddocks carefully
    Graze carefully on paddocks that are susceptible to wind erosion because grazing stubbles can break down ground cover, and sheep will often camp in susceptible areas such as hill crests and sandy patches. Extended grazing may result in sheep tracks that increase erosion risks.

Grazing stubbles made easy

The Modern Stubbles project will develop a stubble grazing calculator. This excel-based tool will allow stubble grazing scenarios to be entered so producers can predict the likely live weight gain based on:

  • the type of livestock
  • type of stubble
  • supplementary feeding.

Further testing of the stubble grazing calculator is now being planned to ensure it is ready for wide scale use by industry.