Introduction

Most sheep-production systems in the world rely on sown pasture, natural pasture, or browse as the main source of nutrients. The nutritional management of sheep therefore substantially involves the management of the amount and quality of the forage resource, as influenced by the regional climate, seasonal weather conditions, and the plant species present. In most of the world's sheep-grazing systems, the main period of pasture growth is in spring/ early summer, during which pasture usually accumulates in excess of animal requirements. In winter, low temperatures will reduce or even stop pasture growth; however, the pasture that is on offer is still likely to be of moderate-to-high quality. By contrast, in climates with marked summer drought (e.g., southern Australia), there may be a large amount of forage available following spring/early summer growth, but this will be of poor quality relative to the needs of the animal.

On an individual-animal basis, the best way to optimize nutrient intake would be to match, as well as possible, the annual cycles of pasture availability and nutrient demand. However, in many grazing systems, profit derives from animal production/hectare (ha), and in order to optimize this, it is more profitable to increase stocking rates (sheep/ ha) to the point that for some of the year at least, the intake of individual sheep is constrained. For example, it may be more profitable to accept the nutritional stress that results if ewes lamb well before the spring flush of pasture growth, in order to ensure that lambs are weaned onto good-quality pasture.

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