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Drought Feeding and Management

BR Watt

Posted Flock & Herd May 2019
This article was originally published in Proceedings number 67 of the University of Sydney Post-Graduate Committee in Veterinary Science refresher course for Veterinarians: Sheep Production and Preventative Medicine, 1983

I have discussed drought feeding and management under the following headings:

1. Drought planning

2. Starting drought feeding

3. Maintenance feeding
i) What to feed
ii) How much to feed
iii) How often to feed
iv) Confinement or lot feeding
v) Additives
vi) Drought monitoring
vii) Hospital mobs

4. Management of young sheep

5. Joining strategies

6. Post-drought management

7. Drought-related diseases

The feeding of pregnant and lactating ewes has been discussed in these Proceedings by Janet Foot.


Crucial decisions must be made as the onset of drought becomes obvious. The most important decision is what to sell (or destroy) and what to keep (or agist or put on the road). The simplest way to make this decision is to estimate the following:

The difficult questions are what stock are likely to be worth at the end of the drought and when the drought is likely to break. Guidance as to post-drought stock prices can be sought from the various commodity newsletters. I think it is probably fair enough to estimate that stock will be worth a similar price at the end of the drought as they were in the normal market before there were any indications of drought.

In attempting to estimate when the drought is likely to break meteorological records need to be examined. The probability of effective rain falling in any one month can be calculated. Moule (1949) provided such data for Queensland and Morley (unpublished data) determined that the probability of effective rainfall in Western Victoria was about 0.15 per week from mid-March to May.

Once an estimate of the likely length of the drought has been made the total cost of feeding each class of stock through the drought can be arrived at. The cash or assets on hand at the end of the drought can then be determined for each class of livestock if they were sold or kept through the drought.

However in many situations this simple pre- and post-drought budget may not give a realistic picture of the impact on farm income of selling or retaining stock. In grazing areas where the cropping option is not available, and where replacement sheep will not be purchased for fear of introducing diseases such as footrot, then radical destocking before a drought may have serious implications. This may mean that no cast-for-age ewes will be available for sale in the following year. Wool production will be reduced and less surplus young ewes and wethers will be available for sale as the lamb crop will be depleted and more will be needed for replacements. On such properties a projected whole farm budget over 2-3 years may be worthwhile so that the full implications of selling or keeping stock can be estimated.

When the decision on what to keep has been made a cash flow budget should be prepared. This enables farmers to anticipate their financial requirements well in advance and allows them to make appropriate arrangements with their bank managers. Farmers commented during the 1982 drought that planning well ahead took a considerable amount of stress out of drought management.


I think sheep should be started on grain well before they really need it. A minimal amount of grain run out in a thin trail trains sheep to seek handfeeding and starts the introductory process. Most farmers judge the rate of increase in grain necessary based on the appearance of the sheep and the amount of feed observed in the pasture. Both estimates are unreliable and a better method is to regularly weigh and condition score a sample of sheep in the mob. Grain feeding can be stepped up only as required. We found that the Victorian Department of Agriculture's recommended program for introducing sheep to wheat worked very well. Minimal problems with grain overload and laminitis occurred (except in weaners). The Departmental recommendations were as follows:

Per head Per head Kg per 100 sheep>
1,2 Feed daily 2 oz 50 g 5
3,4 Feed daily 4 oz 100 g 10
5,6 Feed daily 6 oz 150 g 15
7,8 Feed daily 8 oz 200 g 20
9,10 Feed daily 10 oz 250 g 25
11,12,13,14 Feed daily 12 oz 300 g 30
15,17 Feed on alternate days 25 oz 600 g 60
19,21 Feed on alternate days 30 oz 850 g 85
23,26,etc Feed twice a week or every third day 50 oz 1400 g 140
Victorian Department of Agriculture, AGNOTE Order No. 308/79

If many cases of laminitis or grain overload occur it is recommended that you hold the ration at the current level, or revert to daily feeding, until the problem resolves. Where there is concern about grain feeding, one mob (of wethers for example) can be introduced to grain ahead of the remainder of the flock to see if problems occur.


i) What to feed

Feeds should be evaluated on the most likely limiting factor which is usually energy. However the protein requirement of young and lactating sheep, and the fibre requirements of lactating sheep,need to be considered. Evaluation of feeds on an energy basis simply involves dividing the cost per tonne (on farm) by the energy content to arrive at a cost per unit of energy. The energy content of the commonly available drought feeds is listed below:

Maize 13.5
Wheat, Sorghum, Barley 13.0
Oats 12.5
Sheep pellets 9-13
Hay 7-9
(Oddy 1978)

Other factors also need to be considered when 2 feeds are of similar price per energy unit. These include:

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