Gone troppo

Location: Barraba, NSW

Enterprise: Beef cattle, spring calving enterprise and opportunistic trade cattle

Producer: Tom and Emily Bowman

Soil type: Basalt clay

Pasture type: Tropical grasses, oats, native grasses

Tropical perennial grasses have allowed the Bowman family to boost cattle numbers and improve soil condition on their northern New South Wales property. 

Tom and Emily Bowman started investing in tropical perennial grasses four years ago after seeing the positive impacts of the pastures on other local properties. 

“After conventional cropping during the 1980s, our production system is now focused on cattle production. Before the tropical perennial grasses, we relied on a combination of lucerne, native pastures and winter grazing oats,” Tom said. 

While lucerne provides some green feed during summer, groundcover is an issue, with patches of bare soil leading to significant compaction between plants and resulting in soil erosion from summer storms. Tom said they introduced the tropical grasses with the main aim of improving groundcover and reducing this erosion. 

“We direct drilled 40ha of undulating hill country down to a locally-recommended mix of premier digit grass, Katambora Rhodes grass, Bambatsi panic and Gatton panic during early November 2007,” he said. 

“Following this, we had a couple of heavy summer storms providing about 50–75mm of rainfall each. I thought the seed would be washed away, but two months later it was all up and we had weaners grazing the new pasture by the second week of February. 

“Our 600 weaners continued to graze the paddock from March through to April, which was a real bonus for us as autumn is a feed gap.” 

Getting established 

Since that first paddock, the Bowmans have continued to establish more country to tropical perennial grasses each year. Tom said the key to success was to make sure paddocks are weed-free before starting. 

“We establish our tropical perennials onto paddocks that have had at least two years of grazing oats and we control weeds throughout the crop and fallow periods,” he said. 

“We aim for a plant density of about 10 plants per square metre. Post establishment, we continue to invest in the pasture base through soil fertility to support maximum growth.” 

Tom soil tests each paddock and applies nitrogen and trace elements as needed. He said the cost of soil testing to determine appropriate fertiliser rates is nothing compared with the cost of fertiliser—testing allows him to supply only what is needed. 

The growth potential is spectacular, both with and without the summer rainfall, and the challenge is to ensure there are enough mouths to keep the pasture under control. 

Grazing management 

To this end, effective grazing management requires small paddocks and high stocking rates to maintain the tropical grasses at the leafy growth stage during periods of peak growth. 

“We have divided paddocks into blocks of 10–15ha using single wire electric fencing, with watering points supplied to each paddock,” Tom said. 

“It’s a significant investment in water and wire, but we achieve longer and better grazing than we did under lucerne and the results are worth the investment.” 

During the warmer months (November–February), when the tropical perennial grasses are actively growing, the Bowmans stock at a density of about 250 steers to 10ha, moving stock every three to five days. To achieve sufficient stocking densities during this period of rapid pasture growth, they bought in trade steers during spring and fattened them over summer.

“The key is to know the appropriate length of time the pasture will need to recover before the next grazing—this varies according to temperature and soil moisture,” Tom said. 

“We generally move stock when there is 1200–1500kg DM/ha left in the paddock and ideally place them into each new paddock before stem elongation commences.” 

He said it could be difficult to keep the grasses at the leafy growth stage as large stock numbers and strict rotational grazing were required. 

However by maximising the energy and protein of the pasture through fertiliser and careful grazing management, they have been able to achieve growth rates of about 1.5kg/hd/day. 

“We had a mob of steers that increased from an average weight of 400kg to 480kg after 50 days grazing perennial tropical grasses.” 

According to Tom, the grasses also helped fill the autumn feed gap for weaners. He said native pastures only provided lowquality fodder during autumn, which was unsuitable for weaners. 

“With well-planned grazing, the tropical grasses provide suitable feed right through late summer– autumn until oats are available for winter fodder,” he said. 

“Up until now, we’ve only had enough tropical grass pasture for trade stock and weaners. As we establish more we will put more cows and first calvers in these paddocks.” 

Barraba, NSW
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