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Keep it confined

21 February 2019

Daniel Dempster is quick to point out that he’s no expert on confinement feeding, but he’s happy with the direction and flexibility the system has given his family’s enterprise.

Daniel shared his learnings at an MLA Pasture and Livestock Update at Moora last spring.

The Dempsters – Daniel and his wife Emily; Daniel’s brother Robert and sister-in-law Jade, and Daniel and Robert’s parents Vern and Amanda – run a mixed cropping and sheep enterprise at Goomalling, 140km east of Perth. In 2017 they introduced confinement feeding to manage ewes through the difficult autumn period, when feed is scarce.

“Confining the ewes enabled us to sow crops and pastures without compromising timing,” Daniel said.

“It was logistically simple because the sheep were in one location. It also meant we could defer grazing the pastures until they established.”

The net result of confining the pregnant ewes for May and June was that the Dempsters were able to increase their stocking rate.

Setting up

“There are many ways to set up pens but we chose to do it with 14 pens holding (a total of) 5,600 head,” Daniel said. The pens are 40m by 50m and each hold up to 400 head, giving 5m2 per head with two feeders. Water is supplied from a 26,000-litre tank, windmill-fed from a dam, with town water connected as back-up.

“We built the pens down each side of a laneway and used the lane to drive down with a chaser bin to fill feeders.

“The ewes were used to lick feeders so they adjusted well. We fed a ration of two-thirds oats and one-third lupins, with barley straw provided ad lib as roughage. In the future, I’d like to be much more precise with how much feed they are getting.

“This harvest we plan to bale our chaff dumps (behind the header) and use them as the roughage source.”

When the sheep entered the yards, they were drenched with moxydectin.

The costs

Daniel estimated the yard system cost $25,000, taking into account buying a silo ($12,000), fencing ($8,000) and allowing $5,000 for labour. The overall price does not include pickets, netting or feeders, as they were on hand. Water infrastructure added another $35,000 in costs. The confinement system enabled the Dempsters to crop an additional 150ha. Between that, and the higher stocking rate, Daniel calculated the investment paid for itself in the first year. They also made an additional $20/head selling trade weight lambs in June and July instead of selling them as stores prior to seeding, as done previously.

Close quarters brings more flexibility

The sheep grazed stubbles before going into confinement and were inducted with trail feeding with grain for a couple of weeks. Other than some issues with pregnancy toxaemia in one group of ewes, the sheep had no trouble adjusting.

“Nursing the ewes through the preg tox took some time,” Daniel said.

“If it hadn’t been for that, we’d have saved labour by having the sheep confined.”

Daniel expects there will be labour-efficiency gains by having the sheep close at hand rather than spread across the farm, especially when supplementary feeding would be necessary in the paddock and labour is in high demand at crop sowing.

Daniel said the confinement system provided flexibility in terms of timing and overall farm management, and there may be more benefits in the future as they work to refine their system.

“There are also benefits in terms of better land management and erosion prevention during dry times,” he said.

“The confinement pens are close to the shearing shed, so it would be convenient to shear them while they are in confinement, but at present we shear in January.”

Lessons learned

  • Confining pregnant ewes during May–June enabled stocking rate to be increased.
  • Confinement offers greater overall farm flexibility and improved land management.
  • Setting up a simple system enabled it to pay for itself in one year.

More information:

Daniel and Emily Dempster