Collie cattle breeder David Rees is always looking for ways to improve his system.
“You improve most when things are hard because you’ve got to look at your inputs,” David told fellow farmers at a recent grazing group meeting. “I look for one percent improvements in each part of the business. Everybody’s looking for the big ten percenters but it’s the one-percenters that are easier to find and make the money. If you do that ten times that’s ten percent.”
The meeting was part of the Grazing MatcherTM initiative that facilitates two small groups with support from Meat and Livestock Australia’s Profitable Grazing Systems Initiative, Western Beef Association Inc and South West Catchments Council.
The groups visited David to find out how he applies rotational grazing and hear how he calves in winter instead of between February and May, which is more common.
David’s approach means he weans in March-April and has the flexibility to sell weaners when there aren’t many on the market, or carry some through if there’s an early break.
“We start selling into the store market in April-June. Selling calves in April, year in year out we are getting a premium price. We are selling cull cows at a different time when the main flush is mostly over.”
It’s a big change to calving in autumn when he had to book abattoirs up to a month or two in advance and try to meet tighter specifications. And there were other penalties to consider.
“We used to calve earlier years ago, around April, but when we put pressure on the stocking rate the cows went backwards. It was hard to get enough condition up to mate, whereas now we mate on the spring flush when cows are on a rising plain of nutrition.”
With April calving David weaned at about 300 kg per calf. Now the bulk are around 260-270 kg, but his stocking rate has gone up with the change to winter calving. In 2018 he ran roughly a breeder to the hectare. The kilos produced per hectare might not be much different, but his cost of production is now a lot lower.
Perhaps his biggest cost-reduction came after he calculated he was better off buying hay compared to making it himself. David now buys hay at about half a roll per cow-calf unit. The strategy means he can increase the chance of buying better supplement at a better price.
“If you pre-book your hay and buy from the same supplier, year in year out it’s not too bad. If the hay price gets too high (usually when the break is late), we soak lupins and put them on top of straw in a feeder. I can get away with it because we have weaned, and the cow is in-calf, so nutritional demands are lower because they aren’t lactating. If I had a calf on her I would have to do something else.”
David yard-weans in lock-down paddocks with oaten hay and locks the rest of the farm off. The system provides more flexibility to defer grazing early in the season, as breeding herd demand is still not too high, allowing pastures to establish and not get ripped out. Once they have grown 2-2.5 leaves per ryegrass tiller, he starts rotational grazing, making sure paddocks have had enough time to restore energy reserves before the next graze so they can maintain good growth rates relative to the season.
“We always rotate into paddocks with 2-2.5 leaves. The moment we get below two leaves I know we’re running out of tucker.
“You’ve got to do something, sell something, feed some hay, do something to get back to two leaves. I tend to just slow it down. If you rotationally graze you know exactly when you’re in trouble. You’ve got early warning signs (e.g. leaf emergence rates in spelled paddocks).
While David tries to limit grazing in one paddock to the recommended maximum of four days to avoid sapping plant energy reserves, he does sometimes exceed that in larger paddocks. But he thinks that an adequate rest period, where plants are able to grow at least two new leaves and restore energy reserves is the more critical aspect of the system.
Good grazing management has even helped with weed and erosion control.
“With rotational grazing you don’t get such big capeweed patches which erode in summer / autumn rains. I can leave pasture residuals on the hills over summer to avoid that happening.
One of the risks with rotational grazing is the chance that calves will be separated from cows during moves, particularly when the weather is bad. It’s a risk that David has had to adapt to.
“When you change paddocks, cows tend to rush through, leave a heap of calves behind and then try to come back. It can get messy. The easiest way to avoid mis-mothering is to open the gate and leave it open overnight. The next day, the bulk of the calves and cows will be on the new tucker, and those that aren’t will have paired up again and you can sneak them back through the gate. If a cow has just calved I will leave them behind and pick them up in a day or two.”
David separates 130 first-calf heifers from the main herd of 270 in mid-June for calving.
“You’ve got to look after these heifers to get them pregnant a second time. After that they are hardier.
The main mob start calving in the last week of July with the bulk coming down in August. This is the worst month for high birthweights, so David needs to monitor and manage cow condition to ensure they don’t get too fat and experience calving difficulties.
After calving, David monitors calf weights with one of his favourite accessories.
“I bought a calf-catcher for the side of the motorbike which is the best thing I’ve ever bought. We go around tailing and tagging and birthweight at the same time.
He artificially inseminates the first-calf heifers and two-year-olds, starting in the middle of September for two to four weeks.
One problem he is yet to fully overcome is scouring.
“Scouring can be a problem with winter calving. We give a bit of ScourbanTM if it’s bad. Electrolytes are probably the best thing. But we haven’t found a complete solution yet.
David’s system is based on the adage that you can’t control your price, but you can control your costs. It’s a lean system that is still productive.
He doesn’t need much milk for calves because they’ve got a lot of feed. He doesn’t spend money on seed, which is a more viable option because he doesn’t produce hay. The clover – ryegrass balance is manipulated with grazing intensity, and David believes that grazing at 2-2.5 leaves provides adequate control of red-legged earth mites. He retains good cover on hill tops to minimise capeweed outbreaks that erode over summer / autumn and only uses herbicide on firebreaks. And he likes to get the best bang for buck out of fertilisers.
“I look at fertiliser inputs if the price is low. I don’t spring applicate in all years, only if we get a bad break, a late season. Because I don’t cut hay I don’t use much nitrogen. I just use a bit of potash in spring. I don’t like the nitrogen in the low country because it ends up in the river. I don’t get a good response to it.”
Research suggests that the winter calving system is potentially most effective in breeding enterprises compared to finishing systems. Assuming calves are sold as weaners, it aligns feed supply and herd requirements better than autumn calving, thus requiring less supplementation and allowing higher stocking rates. If weaners are to be finished in the same property other factors need to be considered.
David Rees is certainly is a great example of how it can work in breeding operations, and how it can be combined with other strategies such as rotational grazing and a close analysis of costs and benefits throughout the enterprise to create a lean and profitable system.