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Emily King
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Weaning Innovation inspires Nuffield Study

Posted by Bestprac on Jul 23 2011

After some strong results and positive experiences with pen weaning, James Robertson of Chowilla Station near Renmark, is preparing to learn more about intensive livestock management as the recipient of a 2011 Nuffield scholarship supported by Australian Wool Innovation.

Leaving on the Global Focus Tour in September, James has deliberately left his individual study plans open, but his main objectives are to look at intensive livestock management systems, animal nutrition and reducing methane emissions.

After implementing a pen weaning on Chowilla in 2009, James says the system has changed the way they operate their business and made them more professional with their livestock operations. Already the Robertson’s have seen enough benefits to make pen weaning part of their operation plan year-in, year out.

The Robertson’s pen weaning system involves lambs of 10 to 12 weeks old being weaned over a three week period at shearing. During this time they are fed a high starch diet in a feedlot situation with the aim of producing a better, healthier lamb that can make more efficient use of feed and therefore go on to be more productive during their life.

“The idea is to artificially develop the rumen to a greater extent than it would have done so in a natural system” James said. “The key thing is that if you can develop the rumen at a young age it will be then more efficient for the life of the animal and that translates to higher productivity in wool production, weight gain and fertility. A future direction of improvements in rumen development is its impact on methane emissions, and as we are already weaning lambs now in the pen weaning system, should a carbon trading scheme be introduced we should be in the box seat to take advantage of it.”

James says that part of the reason for applying for a Nuffield scholarship and his interest in intensive weaning, protocols and systems has been a desire to do what they are currently doing better.

“The better we do it, the better the results” he said. “In other parts of the world, they are weaning earlier and if they can do it, then surely I can do it but I need to investigate how they do it, the costs and what they are achieving.”

Whilst there is some debate amongst livestock specialists regarding the optimal age for rumen development, James is keen to learn enough to be confidently be able to bring back the weaning date to as early as practically possible and still maintain the benefits he is currently achieving.

“Regardless of whether the results are due to improved rumen function, or simply that the high protein diet gives lambs a better start in life, we are seeing a tremendous improvement in productivity in the sheep that have been through the program.”

One key benefit on Chowilla is that of feed conservation. James said a lactating ewe with a single lamb at foot requires 300% the feed intake of a dry ewe, whilst a lactating ewe with twins requires 5 to 7 times that amount. By weaning earlier and reverting to a dry ewe and a lamb unit a large amount of feed can be conserved over that period.

James also says that they have reduced their weaning losses to below 1% whereas previously in rangelands environments this could be expected to be anywhere between 5-10% between weaning and first shearing.

“The first of our ewe lambs to have gone through the program in 2009 are lambing now and I’d expect that we’ll have in excess of 100% of lambs at foot by the time we mark. I suspect that it will be the best maiden ewe % that we’ve ever had.”

James estimates that they are gaining roughly $10 per head/per year in improvement in weaning % and in extra lambing and that isn’t counting the additional benefits they achieve from use of the pen weaning infrastructure.

“It paid for itself in the first year with the feedlotting we did for finished lambs and now we are looking to double the size of the confined feeding area to cater for 10,000 to 12,000 lambs” he said. “In its first year we used it to full capacity. Last year we could only do our ewe lambs and we ran at about 80% capacity. This year we’ll run at 100% capacity just with ewe lambs in there.”

James said that other people in the area have also experimented with pen weaning but tend to use it only when seasons turn ‘tough’.

“We’ve stuck with pen weaning because we want to see what happens over a period of time and in 5 years time if we’re not doing any better than we were conventionally then we’ll reassess” he said. “The fact is that we consider that the system is well and truly paying for itself.”

James will be a presenter at the upcoming Bestprac forum in August. He will be speaking about opportunities and experiences with Nuffield and the Chowilla pen weaning experiences.


Last changed: Jan 23 2012



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