How to perform a livestock nutrition health check

25 September 2015

South Australian livestock consultant Hamish Dickson delivered strategies to optimise livestock nutrition when he presented a session at a Making More From Sheep (MMFS) event, supported by MLA, at an Upper North Farming Systems workshop in August.

Here are his top six questions for conducting a livestock nutrition ‘health check’:

1. Have I got the foundation right?

It is important to focus on the basic principles of ruminant nutrition first, long before making any tactical decisions such as mineral supplementation. Ensuring livestock have the right balance of protein and energy to start with should be the first priority. These are important for productive ruminants, as energy maintains fat cover and protein is essential for muscle development and milk production.

2. What specific nutrition requirements do my stock have?

Different classes of livestock have different nutritional demands. This Making More From Sheep tool provides a guide to the energy and protein requirements of dry sheep, pregnant and lactating ewes (twins and singles) and rams.

3. Is my pasture quality up to scratch?

Take feed tests at critical times throughout the year, such as pre-lambing, to assess the quality of pasture before setting a supplementation strategy. Feed tests cost around $50/test and are a good investment to measure the nutritive value of feed. These feed tests can also be used to assess mineral status of pastures and are a more accurate measure than using soil tests. Collect representative samples across the paddock and from the most palatable part of the plant that stock will be grazing. Check out these MMFS pasture assessment  techniques.

4. How will I correct any imbalances?

After assessing animal requirements against pasture quality, it is time to decide if any supplementation is required and/or is cost effective. Remember, sometimes you might need to ‘balance down’. For example, at this time of year many mid north South Australian producers have a flush of fresh green feed which is excessively high in protein. To optimise lamb growth rates often a small amount of cereal grain will balance protein levels down and result in a significant boost to growth rates.

Although minerals can be important, these supplementation decisions should follow after assessing energy and protein demands. If pastures are only deficient in one or two minerals, a broad spectrum supplement is not the most efficient product. Once again, the feed test is a tool to assess what minerals are required so you can make sound economic decisions for your individual business.

5. What will it cost?

At this point you should have an understanding of the type of feed that may be required and how much is needed per head. To determine the economics of feeding, review your options based on the expected production gain against the total feeding cost. Remember that feeds should be compared on the basis of cost per unit of energy/protein, not a cost per tonne. Consider costs for transport, storage, handling and feeding out.

6. What is on the horizon?

Now is the time to start looking ahead and make proactive nutrition decisions so livestock condition doesn’t slip. This could include feed budgeting after the spring growth to assess stocking rates until the break of the season; strategies for retaining grain at harvest; or preparing to graze stubbles over summer. MLA’s stocking rate calculator and feed budget planner  are useful tools in this planning.

More information

Hamish Dickson, AgriPartner Consulting,

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