Winter Feed Gaps: How to keep stock nourished and maximise profits
In these drier seasons where broadacre cropping can be less profitable, growers with mixed enterprises can rely on livestock production to balance income. But to maximise profits, it is essential to maintain and optimise the health of livestock. A significant component of this is to fill feed gaps throughout the year and get the right nutrients at the right time. Throughout our areas, the focus of most farm enterprises has been on broadacre cropping, with pasture paddocks taking a back seat.
However, putting more time and effort into our pastures is vital to securing their productivity and their quality for stock feed. In recent times, we have seen more areas cropped for broadacre use and fewer areas dedicated to self-regenerating pastures. This has created feed gaps in livestock systems which open up in autumn and early winter when lower temperatures slow down the growth of winter feed. However, there are methods available to fill these gaps.
If your farm plan is capable of it, creating a feed wedge leading into winter can work well. This is done by allowing the supply of pasture to exceed the demand of stock over autumn, then allowing access to be eaten into the slower-growing months. To obtain this surplus of feed for early winter, supplementary feeding may be required during autumn. This isn’t a drawback though. Feeding during autumn, and letting pastures rest, will reward you with extra growth rates and additional feed compared to what you would get if you fed in winter. Furthermore, it could be beneficial to accelerate the growth rates of these growing pastures by applying nitrogen.
Grazing crops after they have become established is another option, particularly where some varieties suffer little or no yield loss. There are many advantages to using dual-purpose crops in mixed farming enterprises. It allows you to rest pastures while also giving livestock high protein, high energy feed. Cereal crops have shown to be able to produce far greater amounts of early dry matter than pasture legumes, with varieties such as Fathom barley averaging 37.7kg/ha/day growth in a study at Tarlee in 2015. Other varieties, such as Mace Wheat, averaged 37.4kg/ha/day and Mulgara Oats averaged 37 kg/ha/day. Compare these to Cavalier Medic, which averages 6.8kg/ha/day, and Morava Vetch, at 14.8kg/ha/day. Newer barley varieties, such as Moby Forage Barley, are also a good option to fill winter feed gaps. Moby Forage is an early maturing, 6-row awnless variety with excellent winter growth and rapid establishment, with the ability to tolerate multiple grazings until the first node. It loves the cold weather and will continue to push through when your general grain varieties tend to slow down. Pasture Genetics have done studies where they were able to get up to 44kg/ha/day over a 72-grazing period.
Another option is to plant forage brassicas. Forage Brassicas can offer a lifespan of 10-18 months for a short-term pasture, or there are also longer-term options of forage herbs, lucerne or mixed pastures, that can be left out as a pasture for 3 years, with lucerne being a minimum of 3 years if maintained correctly. These brassicas give options for early grazing and fast re-grazing potential. They are normally highly leafy and highly palatable to stock, and some have the ability to break up hard compacted surfaces with big taproots or bulbs. There are plenty of different varieties in this area that can be mixed to make a unique pasture that works for your farm.
James Cook from Pasture Genetics suggests a great option for filling the gap is one of their SmartSow blends, aptly named ‘Winter Gap Fill Blend’. It is made up of 75% Moby Barley, 15% Jivet Annual Italian Ryegrass, 7% Cavalier Burr Medic & 3% Bouncer Hybrid Forage Brassica. James says the ryegrass, given the opportunity (rain), can push right through spring and into early summer once the Moby has done its dash.
Hopefully, some of these options can get you away from supplementary feeding of grain and hay over this tough period and keep the livestock in the best condition possible.