A leading livestock consultant believes there's a lack of clarity in the minds of a large proportion of producers when it comes to nutrition.
Speaking to producers and consultants at one of Australian Wool Innovation and Meat & Livestock Australia's Back to Business webinars, RaynerAg principal Alastair Rayner said during the drought, while "we got there in the end", "I don't know if we set smart goals in the way we were feeding".
Mr Rayner said a lot of programs had set unrealistic and unachievable targets.
"People had a tendency to either overestimate how good their feed was, or how well-conditioned their livestock were," he said.
"When you combine those two things, you end up with some very big issues.
"Over a course of time, livestock rapidly lose condition and body weight."
He said it was crucial producers realised livestock had varying needs, and you couldn't just "set and forget".
"Livestock will continuously change their needs over time in response to production status, weight, climate and environment," he said.
If producers wanted to make changes, the first step was figuring out where they got their advice from.
"With all due respect, a lot of the advice that producers get comes from the front bar at a local hotel," he said.
"Someone has had a good experience and has to share that with everyone.
"But a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing."
He said one of the key attributes of a successful red meat producer was their ability to assess advice and technology and be discerning about it.
The four key components of livestock nutrition
Mr Rayner said the most important component of livestock feed was energy.
"Energy drives everything in our livestock; if you're not getting sufficient energy down your animals' throats each day, nothing's going to happen," he said.
"And energy needs to be balanced with an intake of protein."
He said if producers got these two aspects right, then in most circumstances, livestock would meet the standards in place for them.
"But if we can't balance energy and protein intakes correctly, then we are really going to start to see our programs go off track," he said.
He said some producers spent a lot of time worrying about vitamins and minerals, and while they were both important for metabolic processes and other functions, they weren't the greatest influencers of animal performance.
"If you're panicking about whether you're addressing vitamins and minerals, make sure you get your energy and protein sorted first, and then we can start diagnosing if there are vitamin or mineral issues," he said.
When talking about energy, Mr Rayner said there were two main types.
"First there's maintenance energy, and that's the energy that we really need to provide everyday to allow an animal to be alive, to breath, digest, move, graze and maintain body temperature," he said.
"But maintenance requirements vary dramatically.
"It's important to remember your livestock's weight, sex, activity, and even the weather, can all influence the level of energy your animal needs each day."
He said if there was any energy left over, that would tip over to production energy.
"That's the energy that they use to grow muscle and fat or to grow wool or young lambs, but it only happens when energy intake exceeds the maintenance requirement," he said.
He said protein needed to be balanced.
"If it's imbalanced, there'll be excess protein which can't be used or stored, and that has to come out of their systems and that burns more energy," he said.
He said the faster you wanted your animals to go, the more protein and energy you needed to provide, but you had to be realistic about the feed you could provide.
"The amount you need to feed has to be calculated, and guessing isn't good enough," he said.
Don't forget to account for water
Mr Rayner said when making this assessment, it was crucial to look at feed on a dry matter basis.
"Every feed we provide contains a level of water and water can throw out some calculations if you don't allow for it," he said.
"Livestock need water for other metabolic processes, but they can't get fat on water."
He said a lot of people forgot to account for water.
"Which means the amount actually fed out is slightly less than what is actually required, so what you're doing is slightly underfeeding your animals everyday," he said.
"That might be okay for a couple of weeks, but as we saw over the drought, that gradual erosion each day meant they lost weight, condition, and we started to get into a position where animals couldn't cope."
Different needs for different sheep
Mr Rayner said livestock's needs changed over the course of their lives.
"Don't just think you can start feeding a ration and expect that that will be the same amount of feed and quality you'll need at joining, or when they start to lamb down," he said.
He said there were guidelines available, like the one below, to assist with the level of energy and protein needed at different stages of a sheep's life.
"For example, during pregnancy and lactation, you can see just how much that energy intake increases, but also how much protein has to come up to make sure they can function sufficiently in order to maintain the performance levels we want," he said.
He said it was important to note that these were minimum guidelines, "if you can provide more, that's excellent".
Make accurate decisions
Mr Rayner said you could make rough assessments of whether your sheep were meeting their daily requirements by checking them out in the paddock.
"But it's fairly rough, so you should only use that as a guide to then make more refined decisions," he said.
A resource producers could use to help with decision making was the Drought & Supplementary Feed Calculator, developed by the NSW DPI.
"This calculator offers great capacity to help make some practical decisions about livestock in a paddock environment," he said.
He said you could enter data about your livestock's weight and class and it would give you results to help you make decisions on feed budgeting and suitability of the feed to the class of stock you were trying to feed.
"It's a quick and powerful way to make decisions," he said.
Mr Rayner said if you knew cold weather was about to hit your property, you should make urgent adjustments.
"Feed rations need to be increased by about 20 per cent ahead of cold fronts," he said.
"Move sheep to sheltered paddocks and increase the energy in the rations that are available.
"Once you get to the lower temperatures, they're going to need that energy to keep warm."
He advised doing this before the cool change hit, rather than when it had already arrived.
The story How to improve the nutritional value of your livestock feed first appeared on Farm Online.