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Late Break Management

First and foremost,let’s recognise the human element here. While it is easy to outline some strategies to best manage late breaks from a keyboard and office, I fully recognise the debilitating process of seeing high workloads, compromised lamb survival, expensive feed going out and what can feel like a gnawing inside that can get overwhelming trying to keep stock that are worth little maintained. My recommendations come from years of walking in your shoes, so they are not theory but tried and tested processes. It is important to acknowledge that this article is not intended to be alarmist or to instil reactionary decisions, but more be an aide to help you manage through a late break season, no matter how you are positioned. Wisdom is planning for a tough outcome and putting in appropriate contingencies with hope that this does not eventuate. This is not a one-year strategy but rather how we should consider break of season management. Please take and leave what you see fit as advice will vary across individual systems and locations, these are my learnings that hopefully can help.

  1. Gird your loins – it is not fun when a late break eventuates but clear recognition of what can sit ahead is the best place to start – if you have a team that sit under you recognise that they will need encouragement as will you. The emotion is felt differently – for stakeholders it is financial and emotional, for those in the paddock it is very emotional and takes a toll so recognise you need to be reaching out for yourself and supporting each other.
  2. Sheep and beef prices are under pressure and reactive sales may hurt substantially – simply can’t solely use the saleyards (for sheep in particular) in the current market as it can be Russian roulette between one sale & the next. Booking space and clear marketing is essential. Have open and up- front conversations and keep the dialogue early and often with an agent – do not be the last piggy at the piggy trough.
  3. Feed grain stocks are tightening. I want to be as clear as I can here – you will take substantial risk if you do not have grain in silos or hay/ straw/silage on farm now for the winter months. The idea that “my mate is good for 200t” may not eventuate if they are facing the same seasonal pressures. This is happening already. If you need to look at cost of carry have the discussion with your advisor – this will be a simple supply/demand function and stock must be fed. Cost of carry of 7-10% annually is far better than what can happen in a tight feed market. What is often misunderstood is that when the rain comes, we still have 4 – 8 weeks before we have strong feed supplies and so feed price is unlikely to be a true cliff face after rain so do not panic about having some carry. Keep your grain marketer informed of your position so if you need to pull the trigger on purchases or sales they are working with clear lines of communication.
  4. The water situation is quite ordinary at present – both in level and salt concentration in some cases. In late breaks as the salt water is heavier than fresh water it sits low in the dam – following evaporation and stock use this can reach critical levels – must be testing regularly or else stock condition will drop substantially even while adequate nutrition is maintained.


Some of the don’ts…

  1. Don’t just hope – plan for the worst then hope for the best.
  2. Don’t lamb in confinement – absolute disaster for lamb survival.
  3. Don’t panic sell into saleyards – if you believe you need to exit then plan the exit clear and early.
  4. Don’t procrastinate decisions – they are really hard decisions but early clear decisions with sound economics are essential.


Some of the actions…

  1. Have a clear feed budget to a minimum end of July with full ration. Recognise that after rain you will need 4-8 weeks of feed and confinement will allow increased pasture production leading to increased lamb survival and calf weight gain. All grain must be secured and on farm.
  2. Ensure you have 15% roughage (ideally quality hay for twin bearing ewes and lambs – nutrient density is important for these livestock classes and is vital for creating a base via saliva to counter the acid from the high starch loading of barley and or wheat) – straw is ok for single bearers and dry hoggets.
  3. Recognise variations in lambing time/animal class requirement and how the nutrient requirements vary – I can provide a tool for this purpose where feed costs etc are factored in.
  4. The vast majority of feed barley (if pinched) will have adequate protein so you may not need lupins for the majority of livestock. Purchase on cost per kg ME and CP%.
  5. Conduct a feed test – you can only manage what you measure. Early sown varieties on low nitrogen will have lower protein in general than late sown long varieties on high nitrogen in a pinched off season.
  6. Feed daily – feeding high levels of starchy grains such as wheat and barley in confinement need regular feeding or else acidosis can take place and a whole host of other issues present – this is one of the most important measures to understand – irregular feeding is dangerous to animal health.
  7. Scan and isolate single, twin and dry – nutrition is specific to requirement so please make sure it is tailor made – over 2 months of feeding a custom ration to individual livestock classes is a large cost saving compared to blanket feeding. Please note for sheep, that post 100 days after first day of joining the scanner finds it difficult to differentiate twin and single. Keep in touch with your scanner to determine the best outcome.
  8. Please use confinement feeding (prior to lambing) – this can be cheap to establish and is a long-term profit generating tool as it drives pasture production. Lots of cheap effective options – can provide if requested.
  9. Feed one end and water the other for confinement construction – smaller pens will save up to 15-20% in walking energy off. Water quality and access is essential.
  10. Conduct FEC test on all stock on enter to confinement – do not waste precious feed resources feeding worms – consider cheap effective persistent activity while in confinement and give a tail cutter on exit if need be and concerned about resistance.
  11. Vaccinate ewes on entry into confinement to cover clostridial’s (particularly pulpy kidney due to high levels of grain and nutrition adjustments).
  12. Consider loose lick to balance long term grain feeding of calcium, phosphate and magnesium. Can look into urea-based licks up to 12% if protein becomes cost prohibitive – seek advice on Urea transition and management as can be lethal if not well managed. I would not advise this level of Urea for young stock – tread carefully here. Probiotics are having a very useful benefit in confinement also – seek advice in this space.
  13. Vit Efor young stock is vital and can present in young ewes also in rare situations given the extent of the dry.
  14. Consider using 50 kg of cereal sown into pastures for early feed, target varieties that are vigorous and price competitive – varieties such as Planet barley, Harpoon barley, Williams and Bannister oats (watch price point) etc.
  15. Utilise nitrogen to drive feed early if grass based. If it comes in cold, consider Flexi N(UAN) and Gibberellic acid. The hormone in conjunction of 20 units of nitrogen will enhance cold weather feed. This is not cost-effective on legume bases. Consider nitrate poisoning if applying high rates of nitrogen – I don’t advise over 20 units of Nitrogen.
  16. Phosphorus will drive early feed – price sensitive – only Phosphorus not Phosphorus and Potassium – Potassium is better applied late winter/early spring. Target 1 unit Phosphorus per ha per projected DSE. Hold phosphorus application to close to 7 day rainfall firming up in a perfect world – consider fixing soils and ultimate Phosphorus availability and logistics.
  17. Release sheep from confinement onto pastures at set Feed On Offer based on season and ewe requirements – ideally 10-14 days pre expected lambing – may need to be earlier if twin bearing ewes and having a distance to walk. Ensure transition is smooth – do not adjust the ration too abruptly.
  18. For those that are lambing earlier than end of June,lamb survival will be compromised and the best way to limit this is to ensure they are not in confinement – consider spreading lupins weekly at a set rate as ewes can run after a feed trailer and leave lambs – have hay over a number of spots so no central congregation of lambs and ewes which can lead to variations of survivability. Hay over straw in this scenario as you will need more energy than what straw will provide. Lick feeders can be used however seek advice on ratio of ewes per feeder and consider variations in feed rates achieved. Consider that the more centralized the feeding the greater the impact on lamb survivability due to miss mothering.


Have clear strategies that are defined, and time bound. Work back from average break of season, each season. For this purpose, let’s use Mid May as the break of season……

  1. 4 weeks prior to the average break with no rain – develop a full budget to the minimum end of June with grain on farm – at this point any non-essential stock should be given market consideration particularly around wether or terminal lambs – don’t carry unless clear markets are in place with appropriate margins.
  2. 2 weeks prior to the average break (14 day forecast will give some indication of potential weather systems) – dry ewes should be identified (scanning may not take place for another 2 weeks however work on roughly 7%dry on a 35day joining) with booking space to cash out – need to consider adding 2 weeks of feeding to the budget to get into mid July.
  3. Ave Break – (if no rain yet and none on radar) dry ewes need to be off farm or scheduled to be and you now need to consider taking a class and cull out of the merino ewe hoggets. Markets should have been discussed 4 weeks prior with the potential to offload – these discussions should be ongoing – clear communication with a good agent is vital – use the full national network. Need to consider adding 2 weeks of feeding to the mid July budget to get to end of July.
  4. 2 weeks post ave break – you now have no non-essential stock on farm and the full previous years ewe lamb drop is considered for sale. You don’t have to pull the sale trigger, but conversations should be had by now. If you have used precision joining and you have an August drop of ewes mated to terminal genetics consider offloading this line now. Again, the agent will need to be informed 4 weeks prior to average break to keep this option in mind – these discussions should not be a surprise to the agent.
  5. 4 weeks post ave break and no rain – you should be looking at early weaning strategies and the implementation of a plan. You have sold all non-essential stock, still budgeted out to the end of July.


In the end clear pathways and set timebound decisions will see you most likely to handle adverse conditions effectively. Location and attachment to genetics all feature if and when something is sold. The outline above is more suggesting to make sure the impact of holding in a tough break is fully costed and considered – I don’t want anyone backed into a corner. Be kind to yourself – this is hard and emotionally wearying but will pass. I hope this is helpful and let’s hope for some cloud juice sooner than later. All the best enacting a late break sheep plan.


Cattle Specific Notes

I acknowledge that we have some cattle clients also and the opportunities/advice is slightly different but conceptually similar. Early, well thought out plans with detailed contingencies are vital. The most significant benefit is cattle can remain in confinement throughout calving – this is not 1ha paddocks, but an appropriate spatial density considering mob size. A probiotic lick coupled with urea is a cost-effective way of utilising subpar roughage sources. Seek advice before engaging in this practice as acclimatization is vital. Seek a feed test and ideally cost all roughage as a landed cost per tonne dry, rather than per bale. Recognise feeding high rates of silage for a sustained period without appropriate roughage can induce thiamine deficiency. In calf rates for maidens can be jeopardized with subpar nutrition so ensure the youngest calvers are prioritised with the best energy dense ration if isolation of mob type can be achieved. Be mindful of BVDV (pestivirus) and close contact if in confinement – I would recommend a blood test to have clarity prior to joining taking place. Maintain confinement until targeted FOO is achieved and where possible use similar early feed strategies outlined above – the greater the photosynthetic area the great the engine to drive production. Use rotational grazing strategies such as the 3 leaf target – 30-45 day rotations in winter down to 21-14 days in the peak of spring. Nitrogen rates can be greater than outlined for sheep where a rotation exceeds 30 plus days as the nitrates will be diluted over time – be mindful that nitrates should be managed carefully. Please seek advice from your advisor should you need more specific support in this area.