Grazing away from home

Grazing hoggets off farm has benefits, reducing costs and risks, but there are negatives, Tom Ward writes.

In Livestock10 Minutes

Grazing hoggets off farm has benefits, reducing costs and risks, but there are negatives, Tom Ward writes.

The decision to graze hoggets off farm needs to be carefully thought out. It is determined by farm strengths and weaknesses, management priorities, and personal preferences. Any analysis is very sensitive to variations in pasture and crop growth rate.

Grazing hoggets off farm is useful in the following scenarios:

  1. As a drought response, benefiting both pastures and livestock.
  2. To reduce stocking rate in order to do the remaining stock better or to introduce a more profitable livestock enterprise.
  3. To improve the grazed off hoggets’ growth and fertility.

Drought

Grazing off is the cheapest with 20 to 35 cents per kg drymatter (DM) consumed, the cost depending on whether the rate is $2/head/week (25c/kg DM) or $3/head/week (35c/kg DM) respectively. At a pasture ME of 10.0, price/MJME is 2.5c.

The benefit to pasture of removing some animals can be considerable, and grazing off reduces the costs and risk associated with growing summer or winter crops in a dryland environment.

There are some negatives. One is the livestock owner will probably not be able to take the sheep off the grazier’s farm whenever he wants. At other times, he might not be able to get the hoggets on to the grazier’s farm exactly when he wants.

Another consideration is the cashflow cost of grazing off farm. This results in some farms, probably the smaller or more indebted units, choosing to sell their ewe hoggets in a severe drought.

The attitude of these farmers in this situation is to minimise costs and may be an entirely reasonable decision. The hoggets will be replaced by breeding back up (and reducing ewe numbers or retaining aged ewes in the short term) or buying ewe lambs or two-tooth ewes when feed allows.

Reducing stocking rate

Extra feed is left as a buffer against poor growth, i.e. standing hay. On some South Canterbury hill country farms the upper valleys are left rank and used for drought and other times of poor growth. In Graph 1 an additional 104,000kg DM, about 1000kg DM/grazed hectare, is available from the grazing off of 350 ewe hoggets from February to November. In practice this may be poor quality feed, and it is only 7.3% of total feed.

Extra feed can be used to try to increase production and profit from an existing enterprise or new livestock enterprises.

Where the extra feed is allocated to improving farm performance there can be considerable value. However this can also be a disappointing experience as the cost of grazing off is significant, even at $2/head/week, shown in Table 2.

The winter/spring period is the most valuable for the breeding ewe enterprise. While the grazing cost may be as low as 20 cents/kg dm, and fattening gross margins can exceed 25c/kg DM, a whole farm budget suggests significant increases in physical performance, and product prices, are needed to produce an adequate increased profit.

Graph 2 depicts a farm with higher altitude and expected summer dry. It shows a substantially greater average pasture cover, for the grazed off option (green line), at both start and end of the season. This reflects the hoggets being grazed off from February to November. In summer, due to the greater number of lambs finished before the end of December, and to the larger ewe size, the two lines are relatively close together. In this particular year, with February growth rates only 20kg DM/ha the average cover falls quickly (in fact remains barely feasible at its lowest point), and recovers, due to the destocking in January of the surplus ewe lambs and all the wether lambs, and the replacement ewe lambs going to grazing in February.

Grazing off the ewe hoggets, has utilised all the extra feed and improved the ewe enterprise performance, with the results shown in Table 3.

Improving ewe hoggets growth rate and fertility

If an animal receives sufficient feed it is really easy to grow a ewe lamb to 65kg LW by two-tooth stage, however many farmers do not. For some, growing replacements is always difficult, either due to high altitude (South Island), randomly dry summers (Canterbury, Marlborough), or animal health issues (Northland).

If Farmer A sent ewe lambs to Canterbury in a dry season he buys ewe replacements. Last year replacement ewe lambs went off in February 2021 at 27kg LW, returning in Nov 2021 at 70kg LW (too big). This year he would prefer to have the ewe hoggets at home but is in for the long haul so will work with the grazier. Benefits were bigger two-tooths, bigger other stock, less winter crop. A quite high altitude farm so replacements do well down country. A very good farmer with a lot of trading cattle.

Farmer B sends hoggets off from April to November, in a drought, the two-tooths returning much improved on what they could ever do themselves. As with Farmer A this freed up feed for the mixed-age ewes in winter and spring. If it had not rained this summer he would have sold the hoggets.

Farmer C, in a very summer dry area, has grazed ewe lambs off for no more than three months in a drought on occasion, as any longer he feels is throwing good money after bad – i.e. no later than February, as droughts can be long lasting. He sells the lambs and replaces them when the drought is over by gradually breeding back up. He is a very good stockman with two-tooths already a good size, and sells all lambs by mid December, mostly fat. The farmer is already mating the ewe lambs – if over 50kg LW at mating (750 of the 850 are), and of these 85% get in lamb and produce 110% lambing. Again, cattle are gone by Christmas.

Farmer D breeds replacements and in a drought would only ever sell the ewe lambs. His drought management is about not spending money.

Farmer E, in a summer safe environment, grazes 2000 hoggets off for 10 weeks from September to November at $2/head/week. That’s a cost of $40,000 and he needs only 400 lambs from those additional ewes to break even. He does not feel the need to factor in the full wintering costs of the additional ewes.

Farmer F is in the same summer safe environment and has a greater area of easy country on which to fatten and grow-out lambs. He keeps his hoggets at home and lambs them.

Our local Beef + Lamb Economic Service field officer sees an improvement in the physical and financial performance of farmers who move to grazing their ewe hoggets off. They produce better two-tooths and stay with the grazier so do not need to go looking for grazing in a drought.

  • Tom Ward is a South Canterbury farm consultant.