Feed crunch-time dilemma - what's best bang for your buck?

Grain or pellets? What's the best deal to save the herd, flock


Beef Cattle
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As stock numbers dwindle, livestock producers are weighing up the most effective feeding regimes to preserve what's left.

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After burning through their paddock feed and stored fodder reserves and culling livestock numbers to new lows, thousands of drought-whacked eastern Australia producers now face a crunch-time decision almost as complex as calculating when the big dry may end.

They are weighing up if it is worth paying pricey premiums for nutrition-enriched pelleted stock feeds to help what's left of their valuable herds and flocks survive the drought.

Or, would they be better seeking out more raw grain, or other feed options, mixing their own rations to suit their specific livestock nutrition and geographic circumstances.

Stockfeed pellets sourced from as far as Western Australia are increasingly in demand by sheep and cattle producers, particularly as calving and lambing season gets into swing, effectively doubling the nutritional needs of breeding flocks and herds.

These decisions don't always come down to obvious economics - it's also about what's practical - Todd Andrews, NSW Department of Primary Industries

But the convenience of pre-mixed and regulated pelletised feed products comes at a big cost - about $600 a tonne (depending on ingredient quality).

Tod Andrews

Tod Andrews

Feed grain options ranging from barley to lupins are worth anything from $400/t to $700/t on-farm in or northern NSW or Queensland where the sad 2018-19 harvest was the smallest in a decade.

In theory, a mixed grain ration is potentially more effective and adaptable for varying livestock maintenance or growth programs.

"Commercial pellets are a lot dearer, but these decisions don't always come down to obvious economics - it's also about what's practical," said NSW Department of Primary Industries beef development officer, Todd Andrews.

"Pellets can make a lot of sense in a grazing area like Armidale where most producers don't have much grain handling and mixing capability, or nearby crops to access.

"They are generally balanced for energy, protein and minerals, whereas individual grains often need mixing with others to achieve this.

"Manufactured product gives you surety of nutritional content, a stable supply network and larger pellets can be fed on the ground to sheep and cattle, although that's not ideal."

However, Mr Andrews said budgeting for a feeding regime which relied heavily on commercially milled stockfeeds may require making tough decisions, including sacrificing cows to cover the extra feed costs, or simply concentrating feeding efforts on a nucleus of weaner-aged stock.

"A lot of cows are not in good shape in the current season," he said.

"Early weaning calves onto pellets would also help their mothers retain condition."

Early weaned (12 weeks) calves in a drought feedlot.

Early weaned (12 weeks) calves in a drought feedlot.

Northern NSW beef consultant, Bill Hoffman, had numerous clients who were "first time feeders" this year, including some who recently invested in silos, augers and feed mixing gear to prepare their own rations.

Northern NSW beef consultant, Bill Hoffman, had numerous clients who were "first time feeders" this year, including some who recently invested in silos, augers and feed mixing gear to prepare their own rations.

"There's no easy answer to what feeding option is best, or what stock you should feed," he said.

Bill Hoffman

Bill Hoffman

"Farmers aren't gamblers, but some are punting on keeping steers for next season's market; others are focused on their breeders."

He estimated less than 50 per cent of the normal cow herd remained in the North West, New England and Hunter Valley and the situation was similar in southern Queensland and Central NSW.

"Many people are tired and water supplies are low, but they don't want to let their herd numbers shrink any further if they can avoid it," he said.

Fortunately, many livestock producers would emerge from the big dry with valuable skills and insights on production efficiencies from feeding, said Elders northern livestock production advisor, Adam Turnbull at Gunnedah.

"They've realised cattle are capable of eating more than grass and there are good production gains and breeder management options which wouldn't have been seriously considered before," he said.

Adam Turnbull

Adam Turnbull

"When it rains again I can see production will really start humming."

Livestock specialists have noted, in particular, how feeding early-weaned 80kg to 100kg calves had gained momentum and may become a more common post-drought strategy.

In the meantime, producers were urged not to scrimp on drought rations, roughage or mineral supplements, particularly prior to lambing.

"I'm a bit worried we may see some serious lambing losses because grain stocks are limited and ewes aren't getting enough feed when they need energy," Mr Turnbull said.

"If you're cutting back rations to make your grain supplies last, you're basically wasting your feeding effort," he said.

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Southern Queensland-based sheep industry specialist, Geoff Duddy, said good lamb and wool prices had so far helped cover extra costs involved, assisting feeding decisions for many.

He cautioned, however, even pricey pellets were likely to need support from 10pc hay, straw or other dietary roughage to stimulate livestock rumen activity.

Inadequate fibre to support pelleted or grain rations risked reducing vitamin absorption, poorer lactation, faster feed movement through the gut and the likelihood of grain poisoning.

Geoff Duddy

Geoff Duddy

Grain could, however, be fed alone to sheep because when swallowed whole the seed acted like fibre in the gut - and up to 70pc of grain was consumed whole.

"That's a useful fallback, given we're unlikely to see much good hay out of NSW this year," he said.

Elders livestock production manager, Rob Inglis, Wagga Wagga, recommended grain as the best stockfeed option, if it were available locally.

He urged producers seek the best energy bang from any stock feed buck, particularly when buying roughage.

Frosted crops or poor quality pasture hay and cereal straw were unlikely to yield much more than six or seven megajoules of energy/kg.

"Be aware, paying $300/t for poor hay is equivalent to paying $600 for barley - and be careful about other options like citrus pulp or grape marc (crushed skins, seed and stems)," he said.

Peter Boyd

Peter Boyd

Producers feeding grain should also be seriously looking at adding a vitamin supplement buffer product, or grain balancer, to effectively double the conversion value of their grain investment, said Central West NSW livestock feeder maker, Peter Boyd.

Mr Boyd's Boyd Metal Works has been working overtime to meet demand for sheep and cattle feeders, particularly a rush of interest in drought prompted lamb feedlots.

He said two years ago just 10pc of sheep producers were using a commercial balancer to enhance their grain feeding efficiency.

"Now it's probably the top 20pc of producers, but I'd suggest it's probably something 80pc should do," he said.

Grain balancer products were a dramatic improvement on "old fashioned" mineral powder supplements.

He particularly liked CopRice's VitaMinBuf, which in a 55 day lamb feeding trial on his own Cowra property last year delivered a higher total weight gain (2.06 kg) and higher gross margin per animal (more than $2.06/head) than a conventional feedlot concentrate, despite higher feed costs of about $3.88/head.

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