Feeding less to hit the target

By: Trevor Cook

In Business6 Minutes

Efficiency is very often applied just to the use of feed by the grazing animal. Feed conversion efficiency is a term used to describe that. In our grazing animals there have been only very modest gains in that, yet we have been promised much more. The biggest application of efficiency on our farms is in how we use feed. A phrase that I often quote is “use as little feed as possible to achieve the targeted production”. However, just utilising more of the pasture grown is being efficient. Given the close link between the level of pasture utilisation and profit it is probably the most important application of efficiency. So much of these aspects of efficiency are management based, so it should be easy in many farming systems to benefit from being more efficient. This is not even getting into the application of efficiency in managing greenhouse gas emissions. This efficiency focus is all captured by the practice of feed planning which seems to have lost some of its mana (prestige).

Techno grazing

Techno grazing must be the most efficient use of pasture. Pasture utilisation is absolutely maximised, grazing space is maximised, animal performance per unit of grazing area is maximised and profit per unit of grazing area is very maximised. This grazing system captures every aspect of grazing efficiency. For me it sets the benchmark of how any pasture grazing system needs to aspire to. Without going to the formality of a techno system, just applying the concept brings efficiency. The old term of controlled grazing systems was initially about controlling how much stock could consume. Or maybe just rationing the allocation of pasture. But the outcome is efficient use of pastures. Matching feed demand to feed supply is behind the concept and subdivision is the most effective tool for achieving it. Which is why our hill country farms struggle to get very efficient. It is being achieved a lot better on some farms than others. That difference can be because the hill country is subdivided more intensively than most. It is being achieved on other farms by running larger mobs. If making paddocks smaller is not possible, running bigger mobs gives the same outcome. Very often a compromise is being made to create the larger mob, such as running two tooth ewes with the mixed age. The two tooth ewes on their own would be of benefit to them, but allowing a more effective rotation usually delivers a bigger benefit.

Don’t feed the beast

Breeding animals are very inefficient because they consume so much feed just to maintain. This is a stock class that I mostly often apply my saying at the start – feed as little as possible to achieve the production objectives. This means clearly identifying the varying feed demands necessary to support good breeding performance and allocating just what is needed. Easy to say but can be difficult to apply in hill country. Nevertheless, just knowing the window when a degree of underfeeding can be tolerated and when it cannot, can go a long way to making these animals more feed efficient. We often forget that we are dealing with ruminants which are designed to accumulate fat and utilise that fat to fill the feed supply holes. They can do this very efficiently, but more than that they need to do that. The concept of keeping breeding females in the same body condition throughout the year is a flawed one and ignores the ruminant needs.

The practice of flexing body condition in the breeding cycle does need to be carefully managed. That’s because our breeding females not carrying enough body condition at critical times in their breeding cycle is still a very common cause of lower performance.

The age of calves or lambs at weaning is an area in which efficiency gains can be made. Weaning early so that breeding females can be fed less does make those animals more feed efficient. There are a whole lot of other issues that can interfere with this idea so bringing weaning earlier does have to be a considered and planned action. Of course, the much publicised suggested change to beef breeding by sourcing beef breeding cattle from the dairy industry has come from a need to be more feed efficient. What could surprise many beef farmers is just how well such dairy sourced cows perform.