Diversity key to autumn-summer feed gap solution

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Adam PoulsenCountryman
Some cattle graze near Dardanup in WA's south west.
Camera IconSome cattle graze near Dardanup in WA's south west. Credit: Kelsey Reid/The West Australian

A leading WA agricultural consultant is urging sheep and cattle producers to diversify their year-round feed plans to help overcome the dreaded autumn-summer feed gap.

Phil Barrett-Lennard, a Gingin cattle producer and Agvivo consultant, said the gap could be filled by growing more pasture in spring using strategies including cultivating standing fodder crops and fodder shrubs.

Mr Barrett-Lennard made the comments at the Meat and Livestock Australia-funded MeatUp forum at UWA last Thursday .

“The autumn feed gap is a crucial limitation to our livestock systems in WA,” Mr Barrett-Lennard said.

“When you ask farmers ‘when’s the toughest period? When’s your feed gaps?’, everyone says autumn.”

Mr Barrett-Lennard said establishing more robust farming systems was critical to overcoming the summer-autumn feed gap and achieving high levels of livestock profitability.

He said the key lay in how the different elements of the system were managed.

“We can introduce a lot of these different elements, for example fodder shrubs for April and May; confinement feeding in May; crop grazing in June; and a standing fodder crop in November, December and January for weaning lambs,” Mr Barrett-Lennard said.

“Once you do that, you’ve partly filled the autumn feed gap, you’ve been able to get animals off stubbles earlier, then you can get into seeding and protect those soils, and you’ve also been able to defer the annual pastures.”

AgVivo Gingin consultant Philip Barrett-Lennard.
Camera IconAgVivo Gingin consultant Philip Barrett-Lennard. Credit: Bob Garnant/Countryman

Among the biggest challenges to achieving better spring pastures, according to Mr Barrett-Lennard, were the string of “bad years” over the past decade.

“Sometimes we’ve had them two in a row, and that’s really hurt our pasture density,” he said.

“I think there’s probably been in some ways a bit of a lack of pasture reseeding as well.

“People have taken their eye off the ball with that.

“For those that are in the mixed farming game, one of the really key players is how much stubble you have; a system with more crops and less livestock has a much bigger amount of dry feed.”

He said chaff heaps were an excellent way for mixed farmers to increase autumn and summer feed, adding there was an advantage to having feed concentrated in one area.

Another useful strategy was growing standing fodder crops such as oats, which could be left unharvested for weaner sheep to graze, Mr Barrett-Lennard said.

“It’s a great way of taking spring feed out and pushing it into summer and autumn,” he said.

“You’ve got the grain component, which is high quality, and typically when you’re using oats you’d supplement with lupins to build up some extra protein and energy.

“But I do know a few people that are growing lupin standing fodder crops, which is a bit novel, and they’ve seen excellent lamb growth rates.

“I don’t see this system working quite as well for cattle; you just get too much wastage, but it works to some degree. The other advantage of this standing fodder crop is it can be undersown with some clovers or ryegrass, and then you have an exceptionally productive pasture the following year.”

Other strategies touched on included swath grazing and perennial options such as fodder shrubs like saltbush.

Mr Barrett-Lennard said farmers who had undertaken significant plantings of saltbush generally saw a vast improvement in how they managed the autumn feed gap, but noted it should never make up more than a third of the diet.

“Saltbush is very high in salt, so we need to dilute the salt down by having really clean, fresh drinking water,” he said.

“We also have to add other feed types to that like stubbles on adjoining paddocks, or straw or hay or grain.”

He said subtropical perennial pastures and summer fodder crops both had great potential but were far less reliable.

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