Is feeding the best option to keep your livestock operation viable?

It's crunch time for many cattle producers as spring calving arrives and the skies remain constantly cloudless. They are faced with two options (agistment is not really available) feed or sell – neither are particularly palatable given the price of feed and the price at the saleyards. 

In the Upper Hunter where the drought began in the summer of 2016/17 total destocking has already taken place on many farms due to the combination of no feed and no stock water.

FARM TASKS: Bill and Nicole Hannah's property at Gundy where the catttle are being fed a pellet and cotton seed feed mixture: Photo Marina Neil .

FARM TASKS: Bill and Nicole Hannah's property at Gundy where the catttle are being fed a pellet and cotton seed feed mixture: Photo Marina Neil .

For many buying in stock water is one step too far although some have and are still undertaking this daunting task.

Why? Because finding replacement cattle once the drought breaks will be extremely costly and they have a herd based on years of selective breeding – genetics they believe they cannot replace.

Even if producers keep a handful of dry females or as the state government has suggested collect their genetic material and place it in a ‘nitrogen’ tank it will take producers many years and many good seasons to get them back to where they were before this drought.

For Martin Nixon ‘Merriwa Park’ Merriwa managing or really nursing his Angus breeding herd through the drought is no easy task.

But he wants people to understand and act on the fact that there is still a reasonable market for well conditioned cattle.

“Sell before your cattle lose too much condition, don’t let them slip, feed and wean early, that has worked for us here,” he said.

Sell before your cattle lose too much condition, don’t let them slip, feed and wean early, that has worked for us here

Martin Nixon

“Basically we are selling cattle to pay for the next load of feed for the remaining herd and will continue this management strategy until it rains or we destock.”

Mr Nixon said earlier this year he sold 24 heifers to a buyer from Rockhampton – proving well breed and well conditioned cattle still attract buyers and a premium price. Steer weaners sold in January returned $980/head.

From the original 280 cows he ran on his 823 hectare property pre-drought that figure is down to 150 cows and that number will drop in the coming months if the rains do not come.

He started to destock in October 2017 selling weaners he would normally grow out to feedlot weights and with each passing month he has made the difficult decision to sell more of his females. 

At the same time he started to supplementary feed his herd to ensure they remained in the best possible condition given the season.

Mr Nixon said lack of rain combined with high evaporation had knocked the life out of pastures. This winter he sowed 150ha of oats that came to nothing. His property has been involved in a sustainable grazing project, changing grazing and pasture practices on the mixed farm. 

Commenting on the project last year Mr Nixon said “Our aim across the farm is to improve pasture composition and diversity, increase herbage retention and organic matter, and reduce the potential for soil erosion, through better ground cover, soil structure and health.” 

However today he is concentrating efforts on his cattle and his message is sell and or feed early.

He also said the drought has made him even more determined to breed cattle that can handle the conditions which means selecting sires that carry extra fat and are not extreme in growth.

“I have always looked for over average fat in the sires and that is even more essential with the seasons these cattle have to handle,” he said.

His spring calves will be early weaned having learnt to eat pellets following their mothers. 

“We were geared up to supplementary feed which is also important to be ready and act quickly and be prepared to change your management as the season deteriorates,” he said.

Reflecting on what he may do post-drought, Mr Nixon said he may run less breeders and trade more stock.

To the east of Scone at Moonan Flat, Richard Bell, ‘Belford Park’ is flat strap feeding 450 cows as well as weaners.His property would normally run 600 bredders and their replacements.

Like Mr Nixon his 125ha winter oat crop germinated but came to nothing due to the lack of rain which equated to a loss of nearly $40 000.

“Usually in other droughts you can get a break within that drought which gives you some breathing space but not this time around,” he said.

“We had no spring in 2012-13-14 and the last effective rainfall event here of 25mm in 24 hours took place in November 2015.

“It means we have no hay and are now chasing more troughs to feed out molasses to keep the herd going.”

Commenting on the recent drought assistance packages Mr Bell said he would have already spent the $20,000 available in freight subsidies several times over.

“The freight alone for one load of hay from South Australia is $7,500 so you can see how I view their $20,000 limit as a token gesture,” he said.

He would have preferred the State Government, given the severity of the drought, be prepared to accept unlimited freight subsidies to save breeding stock.

Mr Bell spent many years on the board of the former Rural Lands Protection Board for his region and said today’s approach to drought management involved too much ‘red tape’ and was way too slow.

He was critical of the decision to say drought was not a natural disaster. His property was completely burnt out by bushfire on Christmas Eve in the 1990s.

“It was a terrible time but it started and then it ended and we reacted to the event by moving all the stock away on agistment. Its similar with flood – it has a start and an end. With drought it just keeps building and building becoming more insidious and we don’t know when it will end,” he said.