Seasonal variation, environmental extremes, and changing consumer demands necessitate that livestock producers remain agile in an ever changing and unpredictable landscape, while always managing to produce more with less. Confinement feeding is a hot topic throughout the Australian industry with adoption rates on the rise – however the strategy requires careful consideration, thorough planning and a consistent execution.
What is confinement feeding
Confinement feeding allows for tailored management and nutrition to achieve specific production targets. The primary motivation is to contain mature breeding stock to defer grazing pressure, extend the growing season, prevent overgrazing and minimise erosion.
Controlled feeding enables nutritional management to be optimised for production to achieve a specific outcome such as strategic manipulations around joining for improved fertility, managing requirements through pregnancy or improving weaning percentages.
With industry lambing mortality rates estimated around 30%, the value to be gained through managing ewe nutrition according to their requirements is significant. Animals should be managed in groups according to their specific requirements depending on the class of stock, physiological demands and stage of production cycle (joining, twins or singles, stage of pregnancy, condition score, required growth, age). Confinement feeding makes this possible and creates opportunity for improved performance of the flock.
It must be noted that the term “confinement feeding” can encompass a wide range of strategies and techniques, and simply confining sheep to feed them does not spell immediate success. As with any management strategy, the success is dependent on thorough planning and consistent execution. In my role as a livestock consultant, I can work with clients in an outcome focused framework that can be broken into four sections: scenario assessment, identification of limitations, solution implementation and finally, the outcome.
The first step in deciding if confinement feeding has a place in your management system is to consider the following:
- What class of stock do you want to confine and what are the outcomes of you wish to achieve (for example: ewes pre-joining for increased conception, wethers/ewes over summer to relieve grazing pressure on pasture, backgrounding wether lambs)?
- What infrastructure do you currently have (paddocks, fencing, feeders, water supply), where is it, and does it meet the requirements of the stock and end outcome you’re working towards?
- What feed sources do you have available (are you self-sufficient or will you need to buy in additional feed) and what handling/storage and mixing facilities do you have (e.g. grain mix with additive vs pellets)?
- What is the relative cost of all required feed, infrastructure and labour, relative to the expected outcome (at varying levels of success and risk)
How to implement
When selecting the site, it is important to consider any impacts high animal traffic may have on the surrounds such as through the contamination of underground or surface water resources and the risk of erosion. Some soil types may need to be modified or prepared to withstand the stock movements and potential impacts on animal health. An ideal pad is smooth, stable, reasonably compact with a slight gradient for drainage (angled so drainage does not occur pen to pen). Repurposed materials or low-cost products can provide structure for sandy soils and high traffic areas, such as around the feeders and troughs, to maintain the surface integrity. Be conscious of the direction of prevailing weather, particularly wind, and the impacts in may have on the soil surface and animal behaviour. A sheltered, well ventilated site downwind of any occupied buildings is preferable.
From a convenience stand point, proximity to yards and a quality water source will help refine the choice of your site.
- Pen size will be site specific and based upon the available area and the number and class of stock to be housed. Recommendations exist for all classes of sheep (MLA 2011), but for adult sheep, 5m2 per head is a good target, with mob size of less than 200 optimal. Larger mobs can be feasible but will typically result in a larger number of shy feeders and thus a tail in performance.
- Feeder space depends on the type of feeder (bunk, self or automated) and the ration (concentrate + hay or total mixed ration). Always err on the generous side, especially with adult breeding animals as the relative cost of some extra feed space is negligible compared to impaired production from key breeders that have had restricted access.
- Water source and means of provision is critical. Water quality and intake directly relates to feed intake and thus the overall performance (and most importantly efficiency) of your livestock. Test water quality prior to providing it to sheep in confinement, and budget your quota/holding capacity to ensure you have enough. Daily water intake requirements for adult sheep are 4 litres/head/day, increasing up to 6-7 litres in hot weather or for heavily pregnant animals (MLA 2011). Be sure that whatever trough is used, flow rates can accommodate the total daily intake requirement for the mob. Trough design should be easy to clean as daily cleaning is recommended best practice. There are several trough options now for the tech savvy amongst us that have water reticulation and/or automatic dumping valves to ensure that water quality is maximised throughout the day.
When you have sat down and assessed the infrastructure requirements, you will need to address what to feed, how much and where it will be sourced. What you feed your animals will determine how well they perform, with the old adage of rubbish in and rubbish out ringing true. Factors to consider before deciding on your final feed source include:
- Metabolisable Energy (ME)
- Vitamin & minerals
- Additional processing requirement
- Storability/shelf life
Metabolisable energy is the main driver of production and growth and typically sourced through cereal grains. When choosing grain types, the relative starch content is important to consider, and how best to manage the risk of acidosis. Dietary protein is also critical for tissue deposition, wool production and reproductive performance, but needs to be tailored to the class of stock. Excessive feeding of protein results in animals metabolising the excess and excreting it, which is a very inefficient process. The relative energy and protein content of some common feedstuffs is shown in Table 1.
Table 1: Typical energy content of common feeds
|Feed||M/D (MJ ME/kg DM)||Crude Protein (%)|
Dietary fibre needs to be considered in terms of chemical fibre and physical fibre. Both play important dietary roles but will vary in inclusion rate depending on the form of the ration (total mixed or concentrate + roughage). Do not overlook the importance of low quality roughage for gut fill and overall entertainment of animals when in confinement feeding, particularly when feeding a restricted amount of feed.
Vitamin and mineral inclusion will vary with stock class, feed composition and water quality. However, there is a wide availability of feedlot premixes that will provide a broad-spectrum vitamin and mineral prescription in a feed mix. Copper, Zinc, Manganese and Selenium, along with Calcium and Magnesium are primary mineral candidates, with Vitamins A,D and E also a priority, and administered via the ration or intramuscular injection.
Rumen modifiers are useful to minimise the risk of acidosis, coccidiosis and bloat as well as improve feed conversation efficiency by reducing feed intake by up to 10% whilst maintaining live weight gain. Such products should be an additional tool and not an alternative to a proper induction feeding protocol. It is worth noting that some farm assurance programs do not allow the use of rumen modifiers, so be sure to check your market end point requirements.
Rapid change from one feed type to another can result in poor fermentation and an accumulation of acid in the rumen often referred to grain poisoning or acidosis. A strict 12-14 days induction feeding protocol should be employed when bringing sheep into confinement. Any drastic change in dietary composition should undergo a slow and steady transition to ensure that the rumen environment is able to adapt. Careful monitoring to avoid subclinical or acute metabolic disease will result in improved productivity and profitably as live weight gain opportunities can be lost through digestive problems and delay transition onto full feed (particularly important in production feeding systems).
Overall, feed ration composition should be driven by a least cost function. Meet the requirements for your animals in the above factors at a minimum, sustainable cost. It is highly recommended to engage with a consultant nutritionist to formulate rations for confinement, as the relative cost in seeking this advice is easily returned through optimal animal efficiency.
Once your base ration and protocol for feeding is set, then you can start to chase efficiencies through alternative products that may be higher in input cost but improve efficiency of utilisation or volume of output. Implementing appropriate data recording technology will enable you to record animal performance (growth rate, conception, feed intake) and thus determine the cost effectiveness and return on investment achieved from different strategies.
Animal welfare first
Whilst there are many recommendations around confinement feeding of livestock, ensure you are upholding the “Australian Animal Welfare Guidelines and Standards for Sheep-Edition One” (2016) in any aspect of management you undertake. Industry standards are available at a state level, but currently best captured in the “National procedures and guidelines for intensive sheep and lamb feeding systems” (2011).
Whilst the above is a lot to consider and may seem confusing at times, a consultant can support your decision-making processes by assisting with ration optimisation and assessing on farm feed sources to conduct an appropriate analysis of your scenario and determine the most efficient solution.
Nutrient Requirements of Sheep, Sixth Revised Edition (1985), Subcommittee on Sheep Nutrition, Committee on Animal Nutrition, Board on Agriculture, Nation Research Council, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.
National procedures and guidelines for intensive sheep and lamb feeding systems (2011). Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA). North Sydney, NSW.
Australian Animal Welfare Guidelines and Standards for Sheep-Edition One (2016). Animal Health Australia. Deakin ACT.