Science to Practice 2023: Stock Containment Project – video & transcript

Vic Drought Hub - Farmland 1
Day 2 of the 2023 Science to Practice Forum aired this video, featuring Northern Victorian farmer Don Piper, along with Cam Nicholson and Sophie Hanna from two Nodes of the Victoria Drought Resilience Adoption & Innovation Hub.
The video was shot on-site at Earlston on 1 May 2023.


Containment feeding in Vic from DAFF Future Drought Fund on Vimeo.


[NB: on the map in the opening seconds, “Goulburn” should be “Goulburn Valley”]


Don Piper, farmer at Earlston in Northern Victoria: We produce largely meat sheep, and we’ve got a Merino flock as well. We do a bit of cereal cropping as well, mainly for our own use for sheep feed.

It’s a pretty terrific office. I really enjoy, in a way, the variability of being at the whim of Mother Nature and not knowing what the seasons are going to be, it’s a nice challenge.

When I’m three years into the next drought, I probably won’t say the same thing. The Millennium Drought was my first real experience with severe drought, and it was very eye-opening, very hard on the stock, the land, and the people. We just trail fed and probably sacrificed paddocks a lot more than we should have needed to.


Sophie Hanna, Livestock Project Officer with Riverine Plains, the North-East Node of the Victoria Drought Resilience Adoption & Innovation Hub: When conditions become dry and there is greater pressure on the pastures, containment areas are a very valuable tool for decreasing the pressure. It can also reduce energy requirements for stock by about 10-15%.

By maintaining ground cover, it can not only help the pastures persist, which is very important for perennial species, but also reduce erosion.


Cam Nicholson, Southern Farming Systems, the South-West Node of the Victoria Drought Resilience Adoption & Innovation Hub: The idea is that our soils can be very fragile, particularly when we don’t get rain. And therefore, you lose ground cover, you lose dry matter, and the animal performance isn’t there either.

So the idea of being able to contain them has a lot of benefits. One being the protection of the land, but also in the management of those stock because they’re closer together.

Quite often, you get better efficiencies in feeding because if you have stock that are a 20-minute drive away to where you have to feed them compared to if they’re in a pen like that, you can monitor their health better and it protects your soil and allows the pasture to get away better once we do get a break.

Riverine Plains, who are the farming group node in North-East Victoria, identified that containment feeding was going to be one of their priority areas for building resilience. It was identified also in some of the other nodes in Victoria.

So when we started talking, we thought we do have something in common, here is a way of doing something across the state. But as we were talking to colleagues in South Australia and Tasmania, it became obvious it was an issue for them as well. And we thought, wouldn’t it make a lot of sense to actually do cross-state collaboration? The Future Drought Fund [FDF] gave us the opportunity to collaborate between those other states so the three of us could work together on a common problem.

You can go back and find information on containment feeding from 1970, but what really struck us when we were looking at this building drought resilience, how few farmers actually had containment facilities in place, and they felt confident to be able to deliver on those.

So the beauty of the FDF funding was that it allowed us to take a fresh look at it. We could actually go back to square one and say, why aren’t people adopting? What are the barriers?

Sophie: Probably the most valuable way of accelerating innovation of new practices is hearing farmers who have taken that first step to initially set it up and then talk about what has worked for them and how they can improve it.

Cam: We did in-depth interviews and workshops with more than 170 farmers, which was fantastic because we could really understand what some of those key things were that they were struggling with. As well as that, we had farmers like Don who were happy to show what they had been doing.

Don: We make a judgment call when we look at our paddocks and monitor them closely. When the ground cover is getting to around that sort of 80% mark, we usually pull the trigger then and will separate the sheep into meat sheep or Merinos. Then we will have all our feed tests done of the feed that we’ve got, put them in the feed pens, and then start ration feeding, monitoring the stock that are in there, bring them into the yards to do condition scoring and just make sure everyone is happy.

Cam: Those pioneering farmers that we have engaged in the early stages have really been leading the identification of what we really need to do. The first one was around decision making, as farmers really were challenged with: “Do I sell stock or do I hang onto them in the first place? Then, if I do hang on to them, when do I take them off my pastures and put them in containment?” and importantly, it was “Well, what do we do once the drought breaks? When do we let them back out again?”

Sophie: To build farmers’ confidence in making decisions around when to put stock into containment areas and out from the paddock, Cam Nicholson led a few workshops with a small group of farmers to help identify what the critical factors are behind making these decisions: ground cover, labour, stock suitability, paddock availability. We then work to identify what are the tipping points for each of those, and by placing a value on these tipping points, it helps farmers have a structured matrix that they can refer to, to make decisions with confidence.

Cam: One thing that came up from a lot of the farmer discussions was that they said: “If I’m going to invest time and money into this, I want to get it right the first time.” And while there is a lot of information out there, they wanted it personalised.

So it was basically about having one-to-ones. So the one Don’s got here, suits Don. Someone else will have a different system, they’ll have a different landscape, and they’ll have a different enterprise. So customising that was really important.

Don: The biggest change now is using confinement pens, feed testing, knowing exactly what you’re feeding and how much you’re feeding and how many sheep and all that sort of stuff. Just to make it as easy on the sheep and mainly on the people as well and looking after the land a lot better. It means you can plan a lot more easily.

Cam: We are sort of taking a long-term view on this, and that’s really one of the beauties of the Future Drought Fund is that it has a long-term intention.

If we could get all of the things in place that we do, we anticipate that we’ll probably be able to help 9,500 farmers across southern Australia and not only give them the knowledge and design, but the skills and the confidence to be able to do it. And if we can do that, our calculations are that that will protect about 4.2 million hectares of grazing country across Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania, which will be a fantastic outcome, and from a drought-resilience point of view, would actually make a mark.


Read more here about the 2023 S2P Forum.