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Managing livestock in dry times - Part 2

By Adrian Smith
Senior Land Services Officer 
Mixed Farming Systems 

December 2018

In November, we discussed some general concepts around managing your livestock during dry times.

To recap, the critical points were:

  • Manage the welfare of your livestock.
  • Have a plan of how you intend to manage the current seasonal conditions – and continually monitor and reassess your position.
  • Act early and decisively to minimise your risk.
  • Make sound livestock management decisions.
  • Be on the look-out for opportunities.

When developing your plan around how you are going to manage your livestock during difficult conditions, there are really only three options – sell, feed or agist.

One of the worst things you can do is not develop a plan or have some strategies in place – the emotional and physical toll of not actually knowing what and how you are going to feed your livestock can be extremely stressful, and often leads to poor business and personal health and well-being consequences.

Each option has its pros and cons, and these need to be considered carefully. Quite often, it will be a combination (potentially of all three) that will provide the best outcomes. But remember, each farm business is different, will have different perspectives on risk, and have different resources available to it – work out what best suits your business.

Importantly, whatever decision you make, you need to have an eye on the future, and what impacts decisions you make today will have on your farm business six months, one, two or five years down the track.

1. Selling your livestock

This may involve selling all, a significant proportion or at least some of your livestock. Often this can be a difficult decision to make – as livestock producers, we have varying degrees of ‘emotional capital’ tied up in herds or flocks. However, early decisions will often result in the best outcomes.

  • Early sales while livestock are still in good condition will maximise your returns.
  • Opportunity to cull poor performers (e.g. cull empty breeders, older breeders etc.), cull on temperament, or get out of a problem enterprise (e.g. footrot in your flock).
  • What are the cash flow or taxation implications? Selling a significant proportion of your flock or herd will have some cashflow implications in the medium term – how can you replace this (e.g. trading livestock, more opportunity cropping etc.)
  • How do you value the ‘genetic merit’ of your animals – don’t under- or overestimate this.
  • Buying back in when conditions improve – what is going to be the value of replacement livestock?
  • Building up your core breeding numbers will take time if you breed replacements yourself.
  • Buying back in may have some associated biosecurity risks.

2. Feeding your livestock

Feeding your livestock can be an expensive and challenging management option – and will depend on the value of the feed (whether it be grain, hay, so-called ‘novel’ feeds or forage crops and pastures) and, importantly, how long are you going to have to feed them for.

  • Determine the likely cost of your feeding versus the replacement value of the livestock.
  • Allow an ‘earlier return to business as normal’ when seasonal conditions improve.
  • Water is essential – both its quantity and quality. If you cannot guarantee both, opting not to feed is likely to be a better option.
  • Do an inventory of the livestock (and the different classes) on hand, the feed stores on hand (or that you need to obtain), and the different feeding requirements of the livestock you have – do a feed test on any ‘bought-in’ feeds.
  • Are you going to feed for production, or just to maintain your livestock?
  • Are you set up to feed? Feed wastage can have a really significant impact on the overall feed cost.
  • Is early weaning an option?
  • Set up some ‘monitor’ animals to ensure your feeding regime is meeting your goals.
  • Determine your feeding budgets based on a worst-case scenario – if you manage to finish feeding earlier, that’s a bonus.

3. Agisting your livestock

Agisting some or all of your livestock can be a very effective option. Obviously, availability is an issue – it could even be talking to neighbours about grazing failed crops, for example. Agistment can certainly relieve some of the feeding pressure at home, but just be wary of some of the pitfalls:

  • It can be a really effective strategy.
  • Know what the costs are going to be – different classes of livestock, and the transportation costs.
  • There may be some biosecurity risks – know what they are before you send your livestock away.
  • Management and monitoring is more difficult – good relationships are important, and/or being prepared or able to invest in doing this yourself.
  • One of the big lessons learnt is to ensure all your livestock return home – otherwise, agistment can be a very expensive option.

Whatever decision(s) you make with regard to managing your livestock during tough seasonal conditions, three important considerations are:

  • Keep the welfare of your livestock front of mind.
  • Make the best possible decisions at the time based on the best information you have on hand for your business.
  • Have an eye to the future – understand the implications on your business about the decisions you make.