Managing animal welfare in the dry

06 November 2015

This is the third article in our series on planning for tough seasons and focuses on maintaining animal welfare.

A lot of the tough decisions have already been made around destocking and managing cattle and sheep through the ongoing dry, but maintaining animal welfare remains critical coming into summer.

Northern grazing industry consultant Steve Banney, of Grazserv, works with MLA’s Animal Health and Welfare Program and the industry-led Grazing Best Management Practices program.

He says planning is one of the most important aspects of dry season management to ensure rational decisions and to reduce stress to livestock, pastures and people.

“Planning for a tough season requires agility,” Steve said.

“Think ahead, plan for all the options and identify dates when decisions must be made. For example, what will your next move be if it doesn’t rain by a specific date?”

Part of this approach is the ongoing revaluation of the situation. This includes:

  • Condition scoring: Set minimum sheep and cattle body condition score targets to ensure livestock welfare is not compromised during drought conditions. If possible segregate, livestock early in the season on body condition and pregnancy status.
  • Nutrition: Continually assess pasture availability and quality, feed out supplements for energy and/or protein and monitor water quality/quantity.  Seek independent advice on least-cost supplements and understand that welfare can be affected by sudden changes in diet.
  • Animal health: Monitor surface water to ensure livestock do not become bogged in drying dams and water points, and avoid mustering and handling weak stock and stock during late pregnancy (especially in high temperatures) as this can create stress and fatigue.

“In some northern grazing systems, cows and heifers will be calving from now until Christmas, so it is important to have them already sorted into paddocks to reduce handling as the temperature rises,” Steve said.

“Weaning young stock should be an option as feeding calves is more cost efficient than feeding a cow and calf unit. During drought conditions, weaning calves under 100 kg can improve cow condition, ensure the survival of the calf and allow the cow to reconceive."

In southern Australia, many enterprises lamb or calve in spring and, with low rainfall in the traditionally high pasture growth rate months of September and October, producers need to plan ahead to ensure adequate feed and water to maintain livestock condition.

Click here for more information, including suggested weaning rations and here to read MLA’s guide to weaner management in northern beef herds.

Prepare for rain

It’s a cruel twist, but rain, after long periods of dry, can create new animal welfare issues.

Steve said now was a good time to prepare for a seasonal break, by considering factors such as:

  • ‘Storm chasing’: When stock smell the first storms of the season, they can walk extensive distances in search of water (and potentially perish if they are weak). Monitor daily to ensure livestock are returning to water.
  • Rain hazards: Regular monitoring is also necessary when the season does break, as weak stock can fall when the ground is wet and slippery.
  • Toxic weeds: Rain can kick-start weeds which attract cattle – especially young stock without nutritional wisdom – so monitor to ensure they are not grazing potentially deadly weeds.
  • Urea poisoning: Protect lick blocks and dry supplements from being diluted by rain, which could lead to excessive intake and urea poisoning.
  • Pasture response: Retain groundcover in paddocks to improve infiltration so that any rain is effective and produces a faster response from pastures.  Remember that feeding urea can increase animal intake by up to 30%. Think about how to manage the grazing pressure from kangaroos/wallabies so that pastures can recover as quickly as possible.

When livestock have to destroyed, ensure they are killed humanely and the carcase is not accessible to other livestock or native animals.

Managing a tough season isn’t just about animal welfare – it can cause significant stress to producers and farm workers as well. Resources such as the FutureBeef website has some tips for coping with stress as well as links to contacts who can guide producers through drought decisions.

Resources:

Is it fit to load?: This visual guide assists producers and transporters to assess if an animal is fit for transport.

A national guide to describing and managing beef cattle in low body condition: This guide provides an objective description system to assess beef cattle in low body condition and guidance on their management. 

FutureBeef: This website contains information on drought strategies as well as links to tools to guide producers through profitable and sustainable enterprise-management strategies.

Feeding and managing stock during drought: Links to resources such as drought feeding alternatives, evaluating supplements, early weaning and moving stock during drought.

MLA tips and tools – Managing pastures after drought: This MLA factsheet looks at pasture management tactics after drought to avoid potential problems with pasture survival, recovery and composition.

Drought preparedness checklist: This checklist outlines the important issues that should be considered with drought management.

More information:

Grazing consultant, Steve Banney, steve.banney@bigpond.com

MLA Program Manager for Animal Health, Welfare and Biosecurity, Jim Rothwell, jrothwell@mla.com.au

Read the other articles in this series on planning for tough seasons: 

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