When facing a drought or industry downturn, making the right decisions will benefit your animals, your land and your lifestyle. Planning is the key to handling difficult conditions.
Don't do anything before you gather important information and make some plans. Ask yourself these questions:
- Do I have enough water to carry animals through until winter?
- Do I have the resources (money, time and equipment) to feed my animals on a daily basis for at least the next 6 months, or until adequate pasture is available?
- How much will it cost me?
- Is it worth keeping all of my animals until there is adequate paddock feed?
- What will it cost to replace my animals at the end of the drought?
- Will I be able to handle the emotional impact of selling my animals?
A cow will drink up to 90 litres of water per day, a horse up to 50 litres per day and a sheep up to 9 litres per day. This coupled with evaporation over the hot summer months means dams empty very quickly. Remember, you may need to plan for no significant rain to fill your dam or tanks before winter.
Our website has tools to help you calculate water and feed requirements, and guides are also available on calculating how long your dam water will last and calculating your water requirements. Work out if your dam water will last through to at least May. If not, seek alternative water sources or sell your stock now. Just because it rains, it does not mean there will be adequate run-off to put water in your dam.
Even if you have enough water to carry stock through, are you prepared to feed every day or every second day for several months while the drought lasts? This can be very time consuming and a real tie to the farm, especially over holiday periods.
During extended dry periods, paddock feed becomes nutritionally inadequate for stock. Your animals will use up their fat reserves, resulting in obvious loss of weight and condition. Good feeding management decisions made early will benefit your animals, your land and your enjoyment of owning animals.
It is important to recognise limited feed availability well before your stock become skinny, weak and susceptible to nutritional disorders. Providing supplementary feed that is well balanced and meets the needs of your stock is necessary.
Energy, protein and fibre are the essential components of feed for your stock. Roughage, such as good quality, clean hay is needed if there is little or no grass in the paddock. This is very important if grains are being fed in order to balance your animal's diet so they don't get sick.
Commercially prepared rations offer convenience but can be expensive. Seek advice from the manufacturer or retailer on amounts to be fed. Supplementary feeding should begin when there is still reasonable pasture feed in the paddock, and before animals lose too much condition.
Introduce new feeds gradually—sudden feed changes can cause death. Hay can always be fed as a supplement to grain to maintain adequate nutrition. Generally, allow two to three weeks to reach a full ration of grain. Check stock regularly, ideally each day. Low amounts of pasture availability may lead to stock grazing plants that are not usually part of their diet and may be toxic, such as some weeds.
It is important to ration your hay supplies as soon as possible, as hay will be extremely difficult to obtain in dry periods. You may need to feed grain to provide most of your animals' energy requirements.
The introduction of weeds can be a problem with buying in feed, and samples should be inspected carefully for weed seeds. However, it is not always possible to detect a potential problem, or even to refuse a feed on these grounds. One way to minimise a potential weed problem is to restrict feeding out of any suspect fodder to a limited number of paddocks.
There are several issues regarding feeding and management of animals during drought which significantly increases the risk of importing new weeds onto farms.
Grain feeding is a specific skill. Grain needs to be introduced very gradually so animals don't get grain poisoning (acidosis). Guides to drought feeding cattle and sheep are available on our website, or through our customer service centre (136 186). We highly recommend you read these guides before commencing grain feeding as the main component of your animal's diet. If you have further queries, the customer service centre can put you in touch with your local Animal Health Officer for further information.
Your most realistic option may be to sell stock when the drought starts and replace them at the end of the drought or next spring. You could save money, time, pasture and soil resources. There will be less stress on you and your family. At the very least you may decide to keep a core number of animals, such as breeding stock or your favourites, and sell the rest.
It could cost $550 or more to feed a cow and calf for six months, not including your time and travel. It could cost two or three times more than this if you are purchasing grain by the bag rather than by the tonne. Work out if you can afford this or make alternative arrangements, preferably early.
Overgrazing pastures so bare soil is visible increases the risk of your precious soil being blown away over the summer or washed away during thunderstorms. Your soil and pasture are valuable resources. Most of the important nutrients are in the topsoil—don't let it blow or wash onto someone else's property.
Decide how you will manage your animals and land. It may be better to confine your stock to a smaller area and hand-feed rather than having them waste energy wandering the entire property, further damaging the limited vegetation. Animals may damage trees and other native vegetation if they are hungry. You may consider fencing off or covering trees to prevent this happening.
The effects of parasites or disease on stock are often amplified in drought. Keep up your animal health program but remember, stock weakened by drought face extra risks.
Seek professional advice before feeding your livestock fodder made from crop by-products or plant-waste that may have been exposed to chemicals. Minute quantities can create unacceptable levels of chemical residue in food for humans.
This plant material includes vegetable by-products (e.g. potato peel), crop waste (e.g. corn trash) and by-products from the fruit-processing industry (e.g. citrus pulp).
You are legally responsible for the welfare of your animals, including adequate nutrition and water. It is not acceptable to let stock die or suffer. If you have concerns about stock on neighbouring properties or if you have any animal health related questions, contact the Animal Health Officer at your local office.