Drought lotting sheep during dry season

Key points

  • Traditional dry season management practices are being examined with regards to their suitability for long-term sustainable production.
  • Short-term temporary relief measures need to be replaced by long-term management strategies that benefit the producer, the environment and the whole community.
  • 'Drought lotting' sheep allows producers to maintain their stock on hand without causing unnecessary degradation to the environment.

Introduction

Future trends in dry season management practices in semi-arid areas of Australia are likely to see a gradual reduction in government assistance, a general change in attitude to environmental sustainability and tougher government policy on the welfare of grazing livestock.

However, producers currently have only two acceptable options in a drought that incorporate community expectations. One involves taking stock off the property (i.e. selling, agisting, droving) and the other involves keeping stock on the property with large-scale hand feeding.

The decision to opt for one or the other option has huge financial, environmental and social implications and producers need modern-day alternatives that address community and government concerns.

The concept of maintaining domestic livestock in a 'drought lot' could provide producers, the community and governments with the opportunity to work together to provide management solutions that are environmentally, economically and socially sustainable.

Current management practices

In the past, industry and governments focused on developing systems that supported the short-term financial welfare of an agricultural enterprise during a drought, with less of a focus on the welfare of the animals and the environment. This approach seemed to discourage producers from taking their livestock off the property.

For example, the most popular option for a producer coming into a dry season has been to maintain the livestock on their property. This proved to be the best decision in those instances when relief rain succeeded in turning the season around.

However, if the dry season continued and the drought was fully established this strategy caused major difficulties as the option to take stock off the property had almost certainly been exhausted.

The producer would have missed the market and to sell would mean accepting a much lower price than previously expected. Agistment can be almost impossible to find in a widespread drought and there are difficulties in keeping stock great distances away from the home property. Also, taking stock on the road in Queensland is very difficult due to the run-down condition of stock routes.

Therefore, the only options were supplementary feeding or leaving the stock in the paddock to take their chances. Either option has a detrimental effect on the environment and serious animal welfare implications.

Future management option

Drought lotting sheep could become a popular dry season management strategy in the future. It allows producers to remove stock from those paddocks where the pasture can be maintained in fair condition, but at the same time keep them on the property. Producers benefit as drought lotting lets them maintain the stock on hand without causing unnecessary degradation to the environment.

Benefits of drought lotting

Better pastures

Research has demonstrated that better pastures are preserved in arid areas when ground cover is maintained at a level of 30% or higher. This promotes better infiltration of water when rain does occur, which reduces runoff and subsequent sheet erosion.

Grass tussocks in good condition respond quicker and more vigorously to small falls of rain than those that have been chewed down. They therefore provide pasture in time of drought when small falls of rain are inevitable and large falls are almost unheard of.

Sustained breeding flock

There is less need to restock after a drought when the breeding nucleus is maintained alive and well on the property in a drought lot. Because they are kept in a controlled environment, the production level of the herd can also be controlled.

Wool and lamb production can also continue at a level that will maintain property operations. Lambing percentages could be doubled in some circumstances and there is evidence to suggest that cleaner wool is produced from drought-lotted sheep.

Savings in time and travel

There are potential saving in time and costs when comparing the feeding of sheep in the paddock to feeding them in a drought lot. The time taken to drive around the paddock, along with the wear and tear on vehicles when feeding out rations, would far outweigh the time and cost involved in feeding sheep concentrated in a drought lot.

Flexibility in options

Major decisions made by producers under pressure during a drought more often than not cause long-term detriment to the financial operations of the property. A producer's hesitation in deciding whether to sell or agist quite often puts the future viability of an operation in a dangerous position. When decisions are delayed and the drought continues then drought lotting can be an option that will save both the animal and the environment.

The biggest advantage to the operation is that animals can be released as soon as sufficient pasture is available following relief rain.