MANAGING ANIMALS IN A MORE SUSTAINABLE WAY
Sustainability aims to optimise the long- and short-term productivity of a property, whereas traditional farming has often aimed to optimise the short-term production of individual farm products.
POSSIBLE PROBLEMS OF LIVESTOCK PRODUCTION
- Degradation of pasture through trampling, introducing weeds (eg. in feeds)
- Destruction of habitats
- Competition of forage material between domesticated animals and wild animals
- Loss of biodiversity
- Pests, e.g. foxes, rabbits, escaped domestic stock (camels, pigs, horses, goats, cats, dogs, etc.)
To sustain livestock production on a property, the following must be done:
- Select breeds of livestock appropriate to the site.
- Control overstocking.
- Use an appropriate production system.
- Apply appropriate land care practices to sustain the condition of the land (eg. subdivision fencing according to soil types and land use).
Before selecting a breed, determine the type and quantity of feed and water available. Discuss any proposed selection with people who know the local area. Consider the way in which the livestock might need to be managed (eg. fencing requirements, frequency of moving animals, etc). You need to have the manpower, equipment and financial resources to manage the chosen breed in a sustainable way. If you don't have adequate resources, you might be better to choose a different type of animal (e.g. goats are good in a paddock for a while to eradicate weeds; but at a certain stage, they can start to cause degradation of land).
This refers to the number of animals that can be supported by a specified area (ie. head per hectare). The optimum stocking rate of a property may vary from month to month and year to year, according to seasonal changes and unproductive periods such as drought.
Supplementary feeding and watering may allow stocking rates to be increased on a property, or at least maintained during periods of poor pasture growth. Animals may also be put elsewhere under agistment at times, to relieve their influence on the property.
Problems can develop if animals are allowed total freedom on a property,. For example, they may congregate in one particular area, causing erosion, or they might only eat one particular pasture species, causing a change in the pasture composition. Generally animals are restricted to different areas at different times.
Fencing is necessary to contain stock, but it can also injure stock. Fencing is traditionally six strands of barbed wire, however most vets oppose using barbed wire because it injures stock, affects their health, and damages hides (making them less valuable for the hide industry). One or two strands of barbed wire will generally be adequate, with the remaining strands being plain wire.
The best fence is post and rail (four rails for small animals or two to three for large animals). In most instances, post and rail fencing is too expensive to be economically viable, except for intensive areas such as stock yards or feed lots. Post and rail may also be used to contain particularly strong or valuable animals, such as stud horses or bulls.
Electric fences are relatively inexpensive and increasingly popular. They can be moved with relative ease, providing much greater flexibility and allowing paddocks to be reconfigured frequently. Electric fences can, however, be a fire risk if the fence lines are not routinely checked.
All types of fencing require maintenance. Fences do move and need straightening, gates deteriorate and need to be repaired and restrung. Electric fences perhaps take less effort to maintain them than others.
There are no hard and fast rules about what production system is most sustainable for a particular type of animal. The following examples provide an insight into systems which have been used in the past; however the system you choose for your property is better tailor-made to suit the conditions on your property.
Rotating Uses of a Paddock
This involves using a paddock for different purposes at different times; for example, growing a cash crop in one season; grazing in the next, followed by a growing a green manure cover crop before planting another cash crop.
Multiple Use of a Paddock
This involves using a paddock for two or more different uses at the same time; for example, grazing under a tree crop, or inter cropping annual crops between permanent plantings such as fruit trees or vines.
Low Intensity Stocking
This involves keeping stock numbers at a level to be sustained by the poorest seasonal conditions. It works well on large properties where land is cheap, but may not be financially viable elsewhere.
This involves allowing animals to run free on a property, or part of a property. Productivity levels might not be as high, but it is a low input system, usually with significant cost savings on manpower, equipment and buildings. Predators can be a problem, particularly with smaller animals, and animals may be more difficult to handle because they are handled less. Pigs and poultry farmed under a free range system are often healthier, less susceptible to passing diseases from one animal to the next, and able to exercise better than in intensive systems.
This involves keeping animals in a confined area (eg. horses in stables, poultry in sheds or cages, pigs in sties, beef and dairy in feed lots). This system requires high inputs. With animals living close together, diseases can spread fast, so chemical controls are frequently used, water and feed needs to be brought to the animals, wastes need to be removed and disposed of, areas need to be cleaned and perhaps sterilised, and animals may need to be exercised periodically. Intensive systems do not use as much land, but they use more of just about everything else, and have a greater potential to develop problems such as epidemics or land degradation.
Integrated Farming - Grazing Crop Residues
Grow a crop such as corn or wheat, harvest the crop, then bring animals onto the paddock to graze on the crop residue. Concern is sometimes expressed that grazing between crops may result in excessive use of the land resource, resulting in degradation effects such as soil compaction, reduced soil organic content, and reduced crop productivity.
In the 1990s the University of Nebraska conducted studies into these concerns which showed no decrease in crop production; however there was an increase in soil compaction and a decrease in percent residue cover. It appears that the effect of grazing on crop residues is minimal (if anything) over three or four years, provided the ground is not excessively wet. Problems become exaggerated if ground is wet. Residue grazing is usually done with lighter, less disruptive animals, such as weaners and yearlings.
In cold winter climates, animals are confined over winter to protect them from extreme cold, then let out to graze in spring. Pigs or beef raised in paddocks are sometimes confined for a short period prior to slaughter to ‘finish’ and improve the final meat product.
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