Reducing the winter feed gap

A stock feed gap typically occurs when feed quality (pasture, grain, supplementary, etc) does not meet the energy requirements of livestock. If not identified and addressed early, stock may start to decline in condition and production losses may be seen. The length of this period depends predominantly on seasonal conditions and stocking rates.

For most, mid to late winter through to early spring is when the feed gap is most likely as the days are cooler and sunlight day length shorter resulting in slower pasture growth. Unfortunately, it is during the coldest part of winter that livestock energy requirements increase. Livestock quickly lose condition when energy requirements are not met particularly young and pregnant or lactating stock.

Understanding your feed gap can help to predict when one may occur and therefore assist you to maintain maximum productivity.  The ability to predict when a feed gap may occur gives you the opportunity to forward plan and make on farm management decisions early, be that reducing stock numbers or purchasing & storing supplementary feed. Decisions need to be adaptable and flexible as we rely on a variable industry and climate.

Factors influencing the feed gap

Aside from soil properties and nutrient availability, pasture growth is strongly influenced by water, temperature, light energy and day length. The traditional winter feed gap could occur earlier this year with floods, ongoing wet weather and cold conditions compounding pasture and feed supply issues.

Managing your livestock through the winter feed gap requires preparation and quick decisions to reduce the impact of seasonal conditions on their health and welfare.


Warmer temperatures promote pasture growth and can accelerate pasture maturity. You can expect pasture growth to be limited by cooler temperatures from late April until early September. Warmer temperatures between November and March promote higher pasture growth rates.

Rainfall and soil moisture

Water is an essential resource for plants, taken up by roots from the soil. Water demand by plants and water supply held by the soil are affected by factors such as soil texture, rainfall, humidity, transpiration rate (water lost by plant leaves) and plant root characteristics. Understanding your region's rainfall patterns and variances will help you also understand pasture growth.

Preparing for the winter feed gap

To effectively fill a feed gap there are some things to consider:

  • Due to supply and demand, supplementary feeding costs can be high. Demand for feed can impact prices early following poor conditions. Feed budgeting is an essential tool to assist you in making timely livestock feed management decisions. Calculate your feed requirement for a reasonable period and be certain that you have enough access to feed to get you through this period.
  • Be vigilant on the changing energy requirements of the livestock that you are feeding. Set yourself critical dates to reassess how things are tracking so that you don’t find yourself caught short for feed. The NSW DPI Supplementary Feed App is a very useful tool to help you calculate how much stock need to eat per day and the cost for different feeds see Drought feed calculator app (
  • March to early June is generally the window for sowing winter forage crops and pasture such as oats, wheat, rye grass or brassicas, while soil temperatures are still warm enough for seeds to germinate.
  • Livestock markets have come back a long way but prices are still reasonable, rainfall will likely increase demand for young stock. Taking advantage of these markets in the form of reducing stock numbers, early weaning and short- term trading and fattening of livestock may be an option for your consideration.

Considering the feed year

The feed year is a general term to describe the dynamic relationship between feed supply and livestock feed demand. Feed supply is influenced by environmental factors and pasture growth. Feed demand reflects animal feed requirements, and changes seasonally with animal maturity, size, growth, and reproduction.

Reducing feed gap risk involves decision periods where you must consider management decisions about:

  • stocking rates and densities
  • livestock breeding cycle
  • introducing new pasture species
  • grazing management strategies
  • animal fat reserves/body condition
  • system diversification (e.g., fodder crops, livestock enterprises or off-farm income)
  • conserve feed (e.g., locking up paddocks or making silage or hay)
  • buy in feed (e.g., complementing or substituting with hay, grain or silage, or supplementing with licks)
  • irrigation
  • soil nutrient and moisture management (e.g., fertiliser and ground cover), and
  • weed and pest management.

Remember, your aim is to match your livestock’s feed demand to your feed supply and make the beneficial forecasting decisions for your enterprise.

Livestock nutrition through winter

In winter, pasture quality becomes a priority and if not managed adequately, livestock nutritional demand is unlikely to be met. Historically, supplementary feeding has been the most effective means of filling feed gaps. If pastures are not meeting nutritional requirements, it is advised that you consider some form of supplementary feeding to boost your livestock’s health and condition.

During pregnancy and lactation, the energy demands of our livestock fluctuates as shown in the table below. Demand for energy increases during gestation, peaking during early lactation. This demand steadily decreases from mid to late lactation as the offspring begin to pick at feed on offer, reducing the pressure on the mother. It is important to know the stage of reproduction you are accommodating for, to help determine just how much feed they need to be consuming and whether or not there is enough feed sitting in the paddock for them.

energy requirements for cattle
Fig 1. Cattle Energy Requirements, credit:

It is essential to manage your system so that feed demand does not exceed feed supply, especially during feed gap periods which are experienced over winter months.

During stints of cold weather livestock require additional nutrition to assist in, keeping them warm and maintaining production. Once we start noticing livestock condition slipping, we are already on the back foot, so preparation is key. This is not only true for our pregnant & lactating livestock but also our young and growing livestock.

It’s worth getting out in the paddock in autumn and having a look at what you’ve got and determining whether you need to consider doing some pasture maintenance or implementing your winter supplementary feeding program early to maximise livestock productivity. Pasture assessment and feed testing is the quickest way to check on your pasture health. If you have not done pasture testing before, please give LLS a call to have a chat about how you can implement this into your current management program to monitor changes in pasture health and jump on any inadequacies early.

Assess your feed requirements and supplies

Firstly, consider how many animals you have on your farm and classes of stock:

  • ewes and lambs
  • pregnant ewes
  • weaner sheep
  • breeder cows
  • young cattle

Next, what feed do you have on hand?

  • estimate of kilograms dry matter per hectare available
  • pasture/ legumes varieties and their nutritional quality
  • hay on hand- quantity, quality and type (eg rounds, small squares, lesser quality, fresh cut, high protein, well-stored, grass, straw, lucerne, other mixed variety).
  • grain available (quality, quantity).

Calculating livestock feed requirements

Feed budgeting for the winter period is a good starting point and best done as early as possible to allow you to prepare should you need to adjust your management to meet critical nutritional requirements in a timely fashion. Calculate your feed requirement for a reasonable period and be certain that you have enough access to feed to get you through this period. Be vigilant on the changing energy requirements of the livestock that you are feeding.

Set yourself critical dates to reassess how things are tracking so that you don’t find yourself caught short for feed. Low quality hay, silage or pasture will require additional energy and protein to meet the nutritional requirements of livestock.

Online tools are available to assist with conducting a feed budget and assessing estimated feed costs including MLA Feed calculators & Pasture Tools and the NSW DPI Feed cost calculator.

Always introduce a new feed slowly (applies to pasture, crop and any form of supplementary feed), provide a good source of roughage (hay, straw or dry stand feed) and when supplementary feeding shandy feeds between batches even when it is the same product.

For advice on reducing the feed gap for your region contact your nearest Local Land Services office on 1300 795 299 or visit our contact page.


North Coast - download the pasture decision making guide for North Coast PDF, 493 KB.

Hunter - download the factsheet Grazing and livestock management over winter PDF, 123.11 KB.

Related information