Strategies and tactics for sheep producers in a poor season

Page last updated: Tuesday, 24 October 2023 - 10:27am

Annual pasture production is often severely affected by low rainfall 'dry seasons'. There are good economic and risk management reasons to retain sheep in a farming enterprise, and this requires early planning and timely management in a dry season.

This page provides a summary of experience and material for current and earlier dry seasons. The management information is relevant in every season, however the economics of options will change depending on current markets.

John Young, from the Farming Systems Analysis Service was commissioned to look at the economics of livestock decisions for the remainder of 2023 and into 2024. An executive summary of his report is provided below, and the full report can be downloaded here or under the Documents section on the side panel.

Report Executive Summary

Parts of WA have experienced below average rainfall resulting in feed limitations, with below average rainfall also predicted for the coming months. The feed shortage has been further compounded by limited slaughter space and reduced market prices for sheep.

WA sheep producers need to have plans in place early to monitor stock condition, and make decisions about which classes of stock to keep. This will also include the feed and water required to see them through, and the resources available to aid in decision making. The information provided is of a general nature, and producers should use this in conjunction with advisors and other support resources to formulate a plan specific to their enterprise and financial situation.

Key points for decision making from now through to the break of next season include:

  • Make decisions early. Previous dry seasons have shown that planning and early decision making benefits the business and everyone working in it.
  • Have contingency plans for best and worst case scenarios.
  • Seek support when making decisions. Use your network including livestock consultants, farm business advisors, accountants and/or rural financial counsellors to help in the decision making process specific to your enterprise and financial situation.
  • Consider your mental health and factor it into decisions made. There is support available for you and your family.
  • If stock is a minor contribution to farm income, the best option is likely to sell down to an easily manageable number and concentrate the management focus on the crop enterprise.
  • Conduct a feed budget in November for the December to June period which includes all the sheep that would normally be retained after the coming shearing (spring/early summer shearing).
  • It is much cheaper, only requiring half the amount of grain, to maintain weight than allow weight loss and then try to regain later. Therefore, start with low rates of feed early and gradually increase. Note – you may need to start supplementary feeding much earlier than you normally would.
  • Sheep will expend 1 to 2 MJ of energy per day walking when feed is scarce. If Feed on Offer (FOO) is low and quality is poor, then the energy used is not replaced by feed consumed. Consider reducing energy requirement by confinement feeding.
  • Joining ewes in condition score (CS) less than 2.3 is an animal welfare risk and a profit risk. Ewe deaths can be very high, which means it is recommended to not mate ewes in less than CS 2.3. Separate low condition score ewes at shearing.
  • Ensure the growth rate of weaners remains at least 1.5 kg/month. This lifts them to a low-risk region and increases survival over summer/autumn after pastures hay off.
  • An effective method for minimising the total amount of supplement required is to separate the tail of the mob, for both weaned lambs and ewes, and feed separately. Segregating ewes on CS and allocating feed appropriately will be a high value practice this year.
  • With current wool prices, 20% of the cost of extra grain fed for maintenance is recouped in wool income. It doesn’t include an impact on staple strength which could be important if the extra supplementary feeding is increasing wool growth during the weakest period of the staple.
  • If animals need to be sold, wethers and wether hoggets would be the first to sell, while mature 2.5 to 3.5 year old ewes should be the last group to consider selling.
  • For stock that are retained, the highest priority to get any limited green feed are the at-risk young weaners, and ewes too thin for mating (<CS 2.3), while CS 3 ewes being mated to terminals, and those being fattened for sale are the lowest priority for green feed.
  • 2024 will be a high value year for pregnancy scanning the ewes being mated, so the empty ewes can be sold.

Contact information

Katherine Davies
+61 (0)8 9690 2169