When to use a confinement feedlot
We recommend having a confinement feeding system as an integral part of a whole farm livestock, pasture and erosion management program.
Conﬁnement feeding of sheep is a useful option for:
- maintenance feeding during a dry season when paddock feed is limited
- maintenance feeding at any time of the year when ground cover falls below 50% or about 750kg dry matter per hectare – this lessens the risk of wind erosion
- deferred grazing of annual pastures during autumn in a normal year
- finishing lambs.
Indicators of a high risk are:
- the peak pasture biomass in the previous spring – if it is a dry spring, significantly less biomass accumulates, and the limits for wind erosion are reached quicker than normal
- the date of senescence/haying off – if it is an early finish, the critical limits for residual feed on offer (FOO) to prevent wind erosion will be reached earlier than normal
- seasonal conditions through summer – summer rainfall and high temperatures increase the rate of breakdown of dry pasture.
Periods of likely risk include the time between pasture haying off and post-harvest stubble grazing; and any time when the ground cover is less than 50% or about 750kg dry matter per hectare.
Deferred grazing at the break of the season allows germinated plants to establish a root system and reach a leaf area that maximises pasture growth rate for the rest of the season. Grazing sooon after germination increases the risk of uprooting small seedlings. We recommend deferring grazing until there is at least 500 kilograms of dry matter per hectare (kg DM/ha) of feed on offer (FOO).
Advantages of confinement feeding
- minimises soil and nutrient loss from bare ground (prevents erosion)
- preserves pasture density or allows pasture density to increase after the break
- preserves pasture composition, preventing overgrazing of one plant species
- prevents sheep 'chasing the green pick' and expending energy after the break
- enables close observation of stock in poor condition.
Disadvantages of confinement feeding
- cost of full-ration feeding
- animal health problems associated with confined feeding (for example salmonella, coccidiosis, pulpy kidney, grain poisoning and worms)
- infrastructure costs if creating a full intensive feedlot
- need to clean and provide adequate water in each pen or paddock used for sheep feeding (at least 4–6 litres of water per sheep, per day)
- effort and expense of effluent disposal.
The tables below outline minimum space requirements for different classes of sheep when confined in either a sacrificial paddock or outdoor feedlot.
Space allowance (square metres)
Ewes in late pregnancy
Ewes with lambs at foot
Space allowance (square metres)
Lambs up to 41 kilograms
Adult dry sheep
Heavy wether (fat score 5)
Ewes with lambs
Sheep should be introduced to any new ration slowly – over two weeks (especially on high starch diets). Rations can be tailored to sheep requirements depending on the class of stock.
Selecting a site
A conﬁnement feeding area needs to be:
- large enough to house expected mobs
- well protected from wind and water erosion
- on a slope of about 3–4% will aid run-off without causing erosion
- grade banks placed above conﬁned feeding areas on sloping sites will reduce run-off
- stable or sheltered soils that retain a ground cover
- trees or sheds outside of the area can reduce wind speed
- trees in the area can provide shade but have to be protected from grazing.
- well-drained soils that are not too dusty when dry or muddy when wet
- convenient to yards, silos and a water source.
- close enough to base to allow regular checking of animals and minimise travel, but far enough to avoid the potential effects of dust and smell.
- at low risk of nutrient run-off
- at least 50 metres (m) from intermittently ﬂowing watercourses and 100m from permanent streams or rivers
- away from dams so that run-off does not contaminate the dam
A guaranteed supply of good quality water is essential in a conﬁnement feeding system. The amount of water consumed by sheep depends on the weather, type of feed, quality of water and their physiological stage (for example pregnant, lactating).
- Provide a minimum of 4–6 litres per sheep per day. See livestock water requirements and water budgeting for more information.
- Design delivery so that peak demand in hot conditions can be met, and that accidental stoppages are always less than 20 hours.
- The delivery pipe diameter and water pressure must be adequate to supply peak demand.
- Do not include dams in the conﬁnement area.
- Use troughs to supply water.
- Clean troughs regularly to remove contamination with faeces, dust and feed – contamination will reduce water intake.
- Shade troughs where possible – hot water will reduce intake
- Place water troughs at the opposite end to hay and feed sources to reduce fouling.
- We recommend a minimum trough length of 30cm plus 1.5cm per sheep (with one-sided trough access) for mobs of up to 500. For example, a trough length of 7.8m is the minimum requirement for a mob of 500 sheep.
Mob size and confinement area
Mob size should be no more than 500 sheep, and farmer experience suggests mobs of 200 are better for young sheep. Allow 5 square metres (m2) per head: for a mob of 500 dry ewes, the conﬁnement system would need to be 2500m2 (for example, 50m x 50m or 25m x 100m).
Adjust the mob size to the class of sheep run in conﬁnement. Having more than one pen allows for sheep to be separated according to class or age and allows for pens to be spelled.
Feed troughs are suited to maintenance feeding, where intake is restricted.
Feeding into troughs prevents feed wastage and reduces the risk of animal health problems (salmonellosis and coccidiosis). Troughs need not be pretty nor expensive - just functional. Troughs can be designed so that sheep have access to one side or both sides – it is important that the correct feed space is provided to reduce shy feeding.
- For double-sided access to troughs, allow 15cm per lamb or 20cm per adult of trough length.
- For single sided access to a trough, allow 30cm per lamb or 40cm per adult of trough length.
Raise troughs off the ground to reduce fouling. Lift the top edge up to 40–45cm for weaners and 50–55cm for adults. Adjust the height where a feed trailer has to straddle the trough
Troughs can be constructed of many materials: conveyor belt matting, galvanised iron, shade cloth, tarpaulin and commercial channeling.
Self-feeders can save labour in feedlots where the objective is to feed for production.
Self-feeders are more suited to ﬁnishing stock to a marketable weight – sheep can maximise feed intake.
Less trough space is required for self-feeders. Allow 4–5cm per lamb and 5–10cm per adult (use the upper end of this allowance for sheep with wool longer than 2cm). Sheep tend to arrange themselves better around circular self-feeders than rectangular self-feeders.
Lick-feeders can also be used in finishing systems but are more suited for providing supplementary rates of feed to stock for maintenance during drought or when pasture is limiting. They are also useful in stubbles. The ‘lick’ principle requires sheep to actively lick grain from restricted areas within a feed trough until ‘tongue-tired’.
Intake can be regulated to a few hundred grams of supplement daily, but intake rates can be variable. As with self-feeders, lick-feeders save on labour, wastage of feed, and reduce the proportion of shy feeders. There can be issues with blockages due to ‘fines’, and acidosis can still occur – lick-feeders are not a substitute for safe grain introduction.
It is important to provide adequate roughage to confined-fed animals. In addition to a balanced ration, a minimum of 10–15% effective fibre needs to be supplied. Roughage:
- stimulates and cleans rumen walls
- encourages cud chewing (35 000 x/day)
- maintains rumen motility
- reduces acidosis risk.
A general rule, if 40% or more animals are ‘cud chewing’ at any one time, fibre level is adequate. An inspection of manure will indicate if roughage is adequate – clean pellets indicate that roughage is adequate; soft or runny poo suggests that acidosis may be a problem; mucus-covered runny poo is an indication that acidosis is occurring and roughage intake is too low. See the photos in the MLA publication National procedures and guidelines for intensive sheep and lamb feeding systems, and the explanation of acidosis.
To avoid a large amount of hay wastage and injury, you can:
- chop and mix it with the grain
- surround large hay bales with weldmesh or panelling (such as portable sheep yards) – so that animals can still access the roughage source
- use hayracks for large square bales
- prevent sheep from climbing on top of hay bales or rolls – it is possible for bales to collapse and suffocate or crush sheep, especially lambs.