Feeding your sheep sorghum

Sorghum makes excellent fodder for livestock and can cope with dry conditions better than most other grain crops.

Feeding your sheep sorghum
Sheep feedlot trials in Australia have shown that young lambs on high-sorghum diets do as well as those given expensive maize and lucerne rations. Photo: FW Archive

Many communal farming areas have fallow maize lands that have not been used for years.

This is not only a waste of space; it leads to the loss of valuable topsoil, which can silt up village dams.

In many cases, communities do not replant their lands because the conditions are too dry for maize. At the same time, they believe that maize is the only grain of value as food for people and fodder for animals.

But there is an alternative: sorghum.

Sheep feedlot trials in Australia have shown that young lambs on high-sorghum diets do as well as those given expensive maize and lucerne rations. Sorghum can also be used as a feed crop for pigs, chickens, goats and cattle.

And one of sorghum’s great advantages is that it is drought-hardy.

When the sorghum plant matures and dries, the stalk can be used as hay for the roughage portion of the fodder, while the seed-laden portion will provide valuable grain.

The hay should be fed for about two weeks before the grain is gradually introduced. (Pigs should be fed only the sorghum seed, as coarse stalks can injure their intestines.) Pooling funds is a good way for the community to raise money to restore unused croplands.

Guidelines for planting and utilising sorghum as fodder

  • If planting a smaller area, collect as much kraal manure as possible in old grain bags. Empty full bags out in heaps 2m apart in a grid pattern. (If you have no access to tractors or implements, as a community, keep a large number of livestock on the land every night. After a few weeks, they will have loosened the soil enough for planting.)
  • Prepare a very fine seedbed using mechanical discing and a drag harrow.
  • Make sure that there is a certain amount of moisture in the soil, then sow the sorghum seed, either by hand or with a cheap fertiliser spreader. Plant at a rate of about 10kg/ ha (5kg/ha in drier areas). Between 5mm and 10mm of rain will enable you to spread and cover the seed to a depth of 4cm to 5cm. Pull a drag harrow over the seeded land to do this.
  • While some hybrid sorghum varieties can reach maturity in 60 to 70 days, others may take between 90 and 120 days. Ask your local seed merchant for the best variety for your area.
  • Once the plants have reached maturity, let them dry out (not bone-dry, though). Then cut them by hand as close to the ground as possible. Pack them in stacks of between 20 and 30 plants per stack; these can be used in the drier winter months as you require them.
  • Remove the seeded plant heads and store them in bags for later use (they should not be too moist as they may rot). Mill the stalk/leaf sections or simply cut them into smaller pieces with a pair of hedge scissors; the pieces should be a bit finer for sheep or goats than for cattle. When feeding stock, make a feed ration that includes one-quarter seed (do not crush or mill it) and three-quarters leaves/stalks. As mentioned, start the livestock on only the leaf/stalk ration for the first fortnight, then slowly add in the sorghum seed.

Vitamin supplement 
Add a protein-vitamin-mineral supplement such as LS 33 to the ration by mixing it in a 50:50 ratio with clean water. Use the diluted liquid to wet the feed at a ratio of 1ℓ to 10kg of dry matter (about half a grain bag of feed) for cattle, and 500mℓ to 10kg feed for sheep and goats.

Add the liquid gradually and ensure that most of the feed is wet before feeding it to your livestock.

This mixture should not be used on feed intended for pigs, chickens, donkeys or horses.

Source: ‘Sorghum grain for lot feeding of sheep’, Sheep CRC, Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, Australia.