Host: Dr Jillian Kelly
Our district has been in a severe drought for a long period – many farmers have been hand feeding cattle and sheep for months, and in some unfortunate cases years. I spoke to one lady this morning in the hairdressers that has been hand feeding stock for five of the last seven years. We are not only a livestock producing area – many of the farms are mixed operations that also grow grain. This means that many farms usually (in a normal run of seasons) have stored grain on farm, or at the very least it is available quite locally.
This current drought is so widespread that it is affecting almost the entire state of NSW, and it has gone on for such a long time that most producers have exhausted their on farm grain and hay supplies and are being forced to buy in supplies at top dollar, and from as far away as interstate. I know producers who have had cereal grains buried in pits in the ground for decades that they have resorted to digging up. If buried correctly, it will be in perfect condition, but the fact that they’ve had to dig up grain they haven’t had to touch for 20 to 30 years shows how desperate the times have become.
Full hand feeding of cattle is not an easy or cheap task. Most producers understand the nutritional needs of the cattle and will provide a “calorie controlled” diet accordingly. It is controlled, because we want to meet the energy and protein needs of the animals, but we don’t want to waste valuable feed.
A typical ration will consist of hay, plus a grain (often cereal grains such as barley, oats or wheat will be combined with a pulse grain such as lupins). The access to the cereal grains needs to be restricted or introduced slowly – the high levels of carbohydrate will cause changes in the gut of the animal which will induce lactic acidosis which can be deadly. This is why we will sometimes put out grains in self-feeders with a regulator mechanism on it that limits intake. We are finding that most of the hay that we are currently buying in is too low in energy and protein to meet the demands of the cattle and they will lose weight without feeding grains as well.
This year, the cotton industry had a bumper harvest and we are also feeding cotton seed to our stock. This is an excellent feed – very palatable and high in energy and protein. It does contain quite a lot of oil, which means that it needs to be fed as part of the diet, not the whole diet. Some producers have resorted to buying in other sorts of byproducts – almond hulls, grape marc (a by-product of making wine) and apple pulp to name a few. They all come with their own set of tricks when trying to feed successfully to livestock.
Another thing that we try to do is split animals into groups with different nutritional needs. For example, heavily pregnant animals and lactating cows will need the highest amount of energy, lactating cows will need hay to help them produce plenty of milk, and weaners or young growing animals will need higher protein levels in their diet. We are constantly feed budgeting to work out how long the feed we have bought will last, what it is costing per head per day, and setting trigger points for when the cost outweighs the benefit and it’s time to cut our losses and sell the animals.
The longer the dry period goes on, the tougher sourcing and paying for stockfeed will become, and I wonder where it will all end. How depleted will our herds be? How long will it take to rebuild what we have sold and spent? And how long will it take us to forget?
NSW DroughtHub provides a one-stop online destination for information on a vast range of services and support available to primary producers, their families and communities to prepare for and manage drought.
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Examining some calving cows being fully hand fed.
Feeding weaner cattle in troughs and self feeders.
Happy Cattle – these are being fed cotton seed, hay and kurrajong branches.
Meals on Wheels – Delivering barley to lambing ewes.
Photos via Bernie Lehman on Twitter (@burndad).