Confinement feeding sheep and cattle

Confinement feeding is a temporary, proactive management strategy that has increasingly been incorporated into on-farm drought management programs.

Confinement feeding can help maintain livestock production during periods of limited feed availability and help maintain groundcover across other parts of the property.

The construction of a stock containment area to support confinement feeding is recommended as part of your on-farm drought preparedness plan.

What is confinement feeding?

Confinement feeding is when stock are confined in either small paddocks or pens for full hand feeding and management during drought. Confinement feeding areas can sometimes be referred to as sacrifice paddocks, drought-lots or stock containment areas. The primary objectives of confinement feeding are to maintain flock or herd productivity and to reduce grazing pressure across the property, two factors that become increasingly important heading into drought conditions.

All classes of livestock can be managed in confinement feeding areas. Young or dry animals can be managed in either pens or small paddocks, while lambing ewes and calving cows are best suited to small paddocks. For some classes of livestock, maintaining productivity can be achieved by maintenance feeding. This may be the case with dry sheep or cattle.

For breeding or young stock, confinement feeding should be at a level to ensure successful joining, pregnancy and growth. Survival feeding of young or breeding stock is generally not viable and has long term impacts on flock or herd productivity.

Maintaining a productive flock or herd is essential to allow enterprises to generate cash flow and recover quickly after drought. Reducing grazing pressure by confining livestock to a smaller portion of the property, allows for the maintenance of groundcover and the associated benefit of reduced erosion.

When to begin confinement feeding?

When to start using confinement feeding areas will depend heavily on seasonal conditions, stock condition, your pasture base and soil type.

It is generally recommended that stock be removed from pastures before groundcover declines below 70% to minimise the potential for wind erosion, excessive run-off, water erosion, and to maximise plant growth and pasture response after rain.

The groundcover threshold may vary depending on topography, soil type and location, however, retaining an adequate groundcover is especially important for the persistence of perennial pastures.

Continuing to supplementary feed or full hand feed livestock in large paddocks with low feed availability and groundcover can result in severe overgrazing and the animals walking very large distances trying to graze. The extra walking can significantly increase the animals’ energy requirements and makes supervision of the flock or herd more difficult.

Pre-training and backgrounding

It is worth investing time into pre-training your stock to a new containment area before seasonal conditions require a move to confinement feeding.

Sheep and cattle are ‘neophobic’ (scared of new things). Pre-training of lambs or calves prior to weaning can lead to a lifetime recognition and increased acceptance of grain feed and of infrastructure (such as feed, water and supplement troughs, self-feeders and hay racks). Doing so also leads to improved grain uptake rates and fewer shy feeders.

‘Backgrounding’ is where stock are grouped together in an effort to acclimatise them to a containment area or confinement feeding system. It can reduce stress by allowing social pecking orders to be established well before entering containment pens. Backgrounding improves feed intake, reduces health issues and allows ‘poor doers’ or ‘shy feeders’ to be removed early.

black cattle eating cereal hay at trough in confinement area

Advantages of confinement feeding

There are many benefits of confinement feeding. It can be used to:


  • grazing pressure
  • topsoil, groundcover and nutrient losses
  • pasture damage/loss
  • pasture re-establishment costs
  • livestock daily energy requirements (stock requirements can drop by 10-15%)
  • livestock welfare issues
  • the spread of introduced weed seeds in purchased grain or fodder
  • labour and running costs (for example less time travelling compared to feeding in paddocks).


  • core breeder base
  • genetic base
  • cash flow.


  • monitoring of stock
  • pasture response rates after rain
  • stock liveweight and/or condition
  • conception and weaning rates
  • weaner/adult growth rates or feed conversion efficiencies (FCEs)
  • dam and lamb/calf survival
  • wool quality (for example staple strength, position of break, yields)
  • management of stock back onto green feed after rain
  • overall enterprise recovery after drought.

Disadvantages of confinement feeding

Like all systems, confinement feeding can also have negatives. These may include:

  • the cost and quantities of feed required for full hand feeding
  • infrastructure costs (for example fencing, troughing, feeders, water)
  • the potential for an increased risk or incidence of health or disease issues
  • negative environmental impacts for poorly located or designed facilities.

When considered, the advantages of confinement feeding generally far outweigh the negatives, however, careful planning and management are required for a successful outcome.

Confinement feeding regulations and requirements

In NSW legislation, the State Environmental Planning Policy (Primary Production and Rural Development) 2019 (SEPP), confinement feeding areas are referred to as stock containment areas and they generally do not require development consent.

The SEPP contains provisions for producers to undertake necessary farm management operations to intensively hold, feed and water livestock during or immediately following drought, flood, fire or other emergency events without the need for development consent from their local council.

The SEPP defines stock containment areas as fenced areas where livestock are temporarily held, fed and watered to protect soil and pasture resources on the property. The policy states the difference between a confinement feeding (stock containment) area and a feedlot relates to their purpose and use.

Confinement feeding areas are used on a temporary basis and can be in response to emergency events such as fire, flood, drought or management of animal disease. Confinement areas do not involve the construction of permanent earthworks or new permanent structures that require development consent (such as sheds).

A confinement feeding area managed as described here may be constructed and operated without requiring development consent.

You can download this information and additional advice on confinement feeding pen design, feed requirements, health and welfare, and budgeting tools in the 2023 LLS A guide to confinement feeding sheep and cattle in NSW PDF, 5591.67 KB

When considering the use of confinement feeding in your sheep or cattle enterprise, you are encouraged to seek advice. Your Livestock Officer or Veterinarian at your nearest Local Land Services office can assist you.

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