Key points - managing sheep in the poor season

Page last updated: Friday, 8 September 2023 - 7:33am

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Managing sheep in a poor season? This page provides some key points to consider, including feed budgets and transporting of ewes and lambs.

Planning ahead in every season

Ashley Herbert, Agrarian Management, and Ed Riggall, AgPro Management

It is important that sheep farmers have cues that trigger decision-making. One of those cues is whether rain has been received by the end of May. By making decisions in good time, farmers can keep their options open and make decisions at the best time when those decisions can add value to the business. Sheep farmers benefit from being proactive and decisive.

Decisions made by farm businesses with regard to sheep fall into two phases:

  • Phase 1: Does carrying capacity need to be increased (produce more feed)? 
  • Phase 2: Does demand need to be reduced?

It is important to recognise what phase the sheep enterprise is in: is it in the phase when the business tries to carry the current sheep numbers, or is it at the stage when the business needs to reduce the demand. There are key decisions that go along with those phases.


Table 1 Tactics that increase carrying capacity or reduce feed demand, and their outcomes
Tactics Outcome
that increase carrying capacity  
Increase supplementary feeding Maintain stock condition – sustain flock production, reproduction and sale value
Reduced crop- increase pasture Reduced winter stocking rate but less stubble area to graze following summer
Put stock in containment areas Preserve groundcover, protect top soils, defer graze pastures to increase growth
Growth promotants on pastures Increase winter and spring pasture growth
Control pasture insects Increase winter and spring pasture growth
Graze crops Defer graze pastures, reduce supplementary feeding
Strip grazing Increase winter and spring pasture growth
Rotational grazing Increase winter and spring pasture growth
Early weaning Maintain ewe condition to reduce the chance of carryover effects to next joining
that reduce feed demand  
Selling dry stock Reduce stocking rate, maintain core breeders
Agisting off-farm

Reduce stocking rate at home but maintain flock size for when the season breaks

Selling stock early Ensures surplus sheep don’t consume summer feed reserves – more for core flock

Every year a sheep enterprise will enter the first phase, increasing carrying capacity by feeding sheep. Some years sheep farmers might feed earlier, a bit longer or a bit more than others; the business might reduce crop to increase pasture area. This is all about carrying the sheep that the business has. 

Some years of poor seasons and late breaks the sheep enterprise moves into the next phase of offloading sheep to reduce the overall feed demand, utilising early stock sales and agistment to maintain a core flock of sheep.

What is the thinking process farmers need to follow?

  • Retain and feed medium and high priority stock
  • Sell the low priority stock
  • Priority for allocating scarce spring feed
  • What to do if cash flow is restricted.

What class of sheep is the priority to keep and feed?

John Young, Farming Systems Analysis Service

When paddock feed is limited and there is the imperative to invest in more supplementary feed than usual, it is useful to understand the priority sheep to feed or to sell and what the impacts of those decisions are on next year’s enterprise.

In past recent droughts, farmers that acted quickly to reduce stock numbers in a timely manner came out the other end looking best.

It may be that all classes of sheep can be carried over the poor spring and summer, but if there is minimal feed on offer (FOO) in the paddock and supplementary feed or confinement feeding of all of the sheep is too costly (or not an option) then the priority is the mature ewes.

Sheep to carry in decreasing order of priority (if sheep have a strong position in the farm business):

  1. Mature ewes 2.5-3.5 years old
  2. Rising maidens
  3.  Mature ewes 4.5 years old and older
  4. Ewe lambs (last year's drop)
  5. Wether lambs or wether hoggets.

Feed budgeting

For information refer to Supplementary feeding and feed budgeting of sheep.

Update your feed budget. If feed on hand or available for purchase will not meet stock requirements, consider selective feeding best feed to most productive animals.

Act earlier than later – maintaining ewe and lamb condition will pay dividends – wool production, saleable stock and lambs, more lambs next year, good animal welfare.

Weaners need feed of at least 12 megajoules per kilogram (MJ)/kg and 12% protein for maintenance and 15% for growth.

Lactating ewes need at least 15MJ/kg of energy per day. What they aren’t getting from the paddock, they must get from feed.

Feeding grain with some roughage, such as hay, if none is available in the paddock is advisable. Note that feeding hay alone is usually inefficient and not of enough energy to meet ewes and lambs requirement.

How do I work out feeding rates?

It is important to regularly monitor your animals (weighing or condition scoring) to determine whether the feed in the paddock is adequate for the targets you have set.

Until green Feed on Offer (FOO) is greater than 700kgDM/ha, sheep will need to be supplemented to maintain condition and to protect established pasture. Once green FOO has reached 700kg DM/ha sheep will tend to preferentially eat green pasture and not consume all of the supplement before the next feed. The best way to test this is to check on how much feed is left on the ground a day after feeding.

Visit the annual feed cost calculator to work out a general costing across the year so you can plan ahead for grain/feed purchases.

Example of amount of grain needed if a poor spring

Scenario 1:

100 dry ewes maintenance fed in full confinement from July until end of May. Feed 520kg lupins/day means 17T of lupins for the full term until next season’s break.

At $350/T for lupins it takes $6000 to get 100 ewes through in total confinement or $60 per head.

Scenario 2:

100 dry ewes maintenance fed in the paddock July until May without a spring will cost more because there is an extra energy cost to them walking around the paddock and not recommended due to erosion risks. Ewes maintenance requirements are 20% compared to confinement fed.

Scenario 3:

100 dry ewes in a poor spring, paddock fed with supplementation of some energy in August-December, means 13 tonnes of lupins costing $44 per head.

Getting your thinner ewes back up to condition score 3 for the next mating and keeping weaners growing are the priorities. For more details see

How do I choose a supplementary feed?

The type of supplement to use depends very much on the energy and protein requirements of the sheep, availability, cost and convenience.

Energy is most important for adult sheep.  Choosing an energy rich feed that has a basic (8%) level of crude protein is key. However cereal grains and any high starch feeds e.g. peas, faba beans and vetches must be introduced gradually to reduce the risk of acidosis.

For weaners and growing young sheep both energy and protein are important.

It is essential that your supplements (especially oats and hay) are tested for quality. Metabolisable energy, protein and bulk density are all variable and important in determining accurate rations to satisfy production objectives (maintenance or growth). If you haven't had your feed tested, view tables of common feed values here.

Some key points to consider when determining a least cost ration:

  • Feed Analysis – know what you are feeding
  • Cost feed per unit of energy on farm (c/MJ of energy)
  • Cost of protein supplement (if necessary)
  • Monitor stock by condition score and adjust feeding
  • Draft off poor performers
  • Allow non priority stock to maintain minimum condition scores (score 2)

Use the Feed Cost Calculator to work out the cost per mega joule (MJ) of energy and the cost per kilogram of protein for feeds available. The calculator also allows you to choose a feed mix and view the energy and protein levels and the cost of the mix.

Grain poisoning

For information refer to Grain overload, acidosis, or grain poisoning in stock.

Feeding barley and wheat

Wheat and barley are the most common causes of acidosis, but it occasionally occurs with oats and lupins. Plan ahead as two to three weeks will be required to introduce cereals. Introduce barley and wheat slowly, gradually over 10-20 days, depending on whether it is the total diet.

Introduction of barley or wheat

  • Day 1-2 feed 50 grams (gm) per head per day fed no more than two days apart
  • Day 3-4 feed 100gm per head per day fed no more than two days apart
  • Day 5-6 feed 200gm per head per day fed no more than two days apart
  • Day 7-8 feed 300gm per head per day fed no more than three days apart
  • Day 9-11 feed 350gm per head per day fed no more than two days apart
  • Increasing at 100gms per head per day for the next eight days.

Treating sheep with acidosis

Animals that appear very depressed after getting sudden access to bulk grain and which are not immediately treated, will usually die. Symptoms include; lying down, diarrhoea, dehydration and thirst, bloating (of the left side of the abdomen) and staggered or tender gait and 'sawhorse' stance.

Consult a veterinarian, as treatment will vary according to the severity of the disease. Treatments include intravenous fluids, drenching with bicarbonate solution or milk of magnesia, intra-ruminal antibiotic injections, thiamine or steroid injections, and surgery for very valuable animals.


For information on a worm control program for sheep refer to the Wormboss website.

Sheep in poor condition with a worm burden struggle and weaners are most impacted. Worms also affect growth rate and therefore it is important ensure the flock is treated effectively.


Treat at weaning with an effective drench and move to a paddock as 'worm-free' as possible and continue to check closely for signs of worms. In 4-6 weeks do a faecal worm egg test and treat if the worm egg count exceeds 200 eggs per gram.

Weaning weights are expected to be lower in poorer areas this season so it is even more important to ensure growth rates are kept above 1kg per month of liveweight in Merino replacements to reduce the risk of mortality. Weaners either need to be above 40% of their expected adult weight or must be growing at least 1kg/month.

Wean early or late?

For information refer to Early weaning of lambs in a poor season.

The feed requirements of a ewe with a lamb are higher than if the ewe and lambs are fed separately. Early weaning saves on feed costs and allows ewes to recover for the next mating.

  • Lambs should be 8-10 weeks of age and a minimum of 10 kilograms (kg) liveweight.
  • Lambs should be marked and vaccinated. If they have been recently mulesed, allow four weeks to recover before weaning to avoid setback.
  • ‘Train’ lambs to eat grain while still with their mothers.

Transporting sheep

To view the guidelines see Meat and Livestock Australia's Fit to Load guidelines.

At what age can I transport lambs?

Lambs less than 14kg should not be transported unless it is unavoidable. Special care must be taken in planning the journey for ewes with smaller lambs at foot to make sure ewes and lambs arrive in good health. Planning will include consideration for feed and water availability pre, during and post travel, segregation of ewes and lambs from other classes of sheep during transport (allowing lambs to suckle), loading densities and quiet and careful handling. Always seek other options. Ewes with lambs at foot should be rested for 12 hours post muster before transport.

It is your responsibility that ewes and lambs arrive in good health.

*Note calves should not be transported within first four days of life.

See our information page on Welfare decisions for Sheep and Cattle.

Contact information

Katherine Davies
+61 (0)8 9690 2169
Danny Roberts
+61 (0)8 9892 8535