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Five Considerations for Confinement Small Ruminant Production

Dr. Andrew Weaver, NCSU Small Ruminant Specialist

Photo courtesy Rafter W Farms

Confinement production systems can be an alternative to traditional pasture-based production for small ruminants. Confinement production simply means managing animals off pasture. In these production systems, animals are fed harvested feedstuffs and housed in either a barn or outdoor dry lot setting. There are pros and cons to these confinement systems and consideration should be given to potential impacts on animal well-being and farm economics.


Health Management

Confinement systems can have positive and negative impacts on animal health. Respiratory disease is a common concern with these systems and ventilation is a key component of a successful confinement system. Air turnover is more important than air movement. Old, dirty air needs to exit the barn and new, fresh air needs to enter on a regular basis. Simply moving old air around in the same area will not be sufficient to prevent respiratory issues. The table below outlines housing and feeder space requirements for confinement systems. Overcrowding can result in poor air quality and increase incidence of respiratory disease.

Confinement systems can have many positive impacts on animal health. For gastrointestinal parasites to complete their life cycle, small ruminants must consume the infective larvae off forages in the pasture. When grazing is removed from the production system, infection larvae consumption does not occur, eliminating reinfection, and decreasing parasitism in the sheep or goats. When parasite pressure in the grazing environment becomes so extreme other forms of prevention do not work, confinement housing can be a reliable solution.

Along with management of parasitism, confinement systems can reduce the incidence of foot rot and foot scald. These diseases result from anaerobic bacteria and they are frequently observed during times of the year when pasture ground is extremely wet. Moving animals into a confinement system with fresh, dry bedding can decrease disease occurrence, improving animal well-being, and lowering labor requirements associated with treatment.

Housing animals in a confinement system, especially around lambing and/or kidding time, can also improve newborn survival rates. Confinement systems can reduce exposure of young, susceptible animals to harsh environmental conditions and extreme weather events. The majority of lamb death loss occurs within the first week of life. Confinement systems allow for improved animal care, attention, and protection during this critical stage of life.

With proper ventilation and stocking density, confinement systems can provide healthy housing systems that minimize parasite pressure, challenges with contagious foot rot, and improve neonatal survival.


Predation

Parasites and predators are the two greatest challenges to small ruminant production. Both can be managed with confinement systems. Predation generally occurs on pasture. Young animals and extremely old animals are at greatest risk for predation. By housing these individuals in a confinement system, predation losses should be minimized. Predators, such as coyotes, generally do not like noise, disruptions, or unusual settings. Housing animals in or near a barn with lights and human activity will deter coyotes and diminish predation concerns.

 ©RafterWFarms
Photo courtesy Rafter W Farms

Nutrition

Nutrition is one of the largest costs to a livestock enterprise. The cost of nutrition will be greater in a confinement system when compared to a pasture-based system. This is due to the higher cost of harvested feedstuffs. Additionally, labor costs associated with daily feeding must be evaluated. With the increase in costs, there must be an improvement in animal performance to make the system economically viable.

Despite higher costs, nutritional management can be optimized in a confinement system. In confinement, all nutrients consumed by the animal must be provided to them. Therefore, specific rations can be formulated to meet requirements for different stages of production minimizing the risk of over- or under-feeding. Confinement systems improve diet consistency, especially when feeding a total mixed ration (TMR). On pasture, forage quality and intake change frequently throughout the grazing season. However, in confinement, ration formulation can be adjusted based on feedstuff quality to ensure consistency. Since feed and labor will be the two greatest costs in a confinement system, careful attention must be paid to these areas prior to getting started. Questions that should be considered include, “What feeds do I have available and what is the quality of those feeds? What infrastructure do I have to mix feed? How am I going to get the feed to the animals?”


Animal Productivity

Confinement systems also allow for improved animal productivity. Small ruminant production efficiency is best defined by the pounds of marketable lamb/kid relative to the number of ewes/does exposed for breeding. This metric takes into account fertility rates, prolificacy, milk production, mothering ability, lamb/kid survival, and lamb/kid growth rates. To improve small ruminant production, it takes high quality nutrition, housing, and management systems.

Confinement production systems can improve these components. By removing parasite pressure, environmental stressors, and providing improved nutrition, weight of marketable product should increase relative to the number of mature females in the flock. Additionally, confinement systems improve success of accelerated production systems. Accelerated production (more than one lambing or kidding per year), requires even greater inputs than a traditional system and can be challenging to accomplish in a pasture-based system. Confinement systems allow added inputs to make these systems successful.


Land Utilization

The price of land continues to rise as competition increases from urban development. According to a USDA NASS AFBF analysis, value of pastureland per acre has increased 180% since 2000. Despite the increase in land value, the number of animals and level of production an acre of pasture can support have not increased by the same margin. There reaches a point when prioritizing land for small ruminant grazing does not pencil out.

Photo courtesy Rafter W Farms

Alternatively, confinement production systems allow for greater stocking densities. Using a confinement system, one can maintain a similar number of animals on fewer acres or increase the number of animals in a production system on the same acreage. A pasture-based production system may support 2-3 ewes per acre (43,560 sqft). For comparison, that same square footage of confinement housing could maintain almost 2200 head of ewes. However, it is important to remember that infrastructure upkeep, production or purchase of feedstuffs, and labor to feed and maintain facilities will increase and need to be accounted for.


Summary

In summary, confinement production systems can have beneficial impacts on animal well-being, predator control, nutritional management and animal productivity. In the face of increasing land values, confinement systems can also allow for better utilization of minimal acreage and limited land resources. Even so, there are challenges to confinement systems. Costs of production do increase in a confinement system. The value of harvested feeds surpass that of fresh pasture and labor requirements increase for feeding each day. Additionally, investments in barn infrastructure result in greater overhead costs. Before starting a confinement production system, these expenses need to be evaluated relative to potential improvements in animal production and revenue.

 

Dr. Andrew Weaver, NCSU Small Ruminant Specialist



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