Persistence pays off

Location: Euroa, VIC

Enterprise: Beef and prine lamb production

Producer: John and Mary Kelly

Soil type: Loam, sand

Pasture type: Annuals, phalaris, clover

A pasture demonstration plot may not sound like the latest ‘must have’ agricultural accessory but, according to John Kelly, it is one farming tool he can’t do without. 

The Euroa sheep and cattle producer, who’s also a sowing contractor, is acutely aware of the importance of pasture, and the difficulties of finding locally relevant information to help deliver more meat production per hectare. 

“Pasture renovation is an expensive caper. Demonstration plots give you a chance to see how a variety will perform in your soil types, rainfall and livestock system,” he said. 

“In our district, we have a lot of variation in soil types and rainfall. Even within 15km there is 250mm difference in the annual rainfall, so it makes it very difficult to form generalisations about what works. Now that I’ve got a demonstration plot established, I don’t think I’d ever get rid of it.” 

John and his wife, Mary, are members of the Euroa Grazing Group. From 2009 to 2012 they hosted a trial of perennial pastures, based on the EverGraze principles, which was funded by MLA and the Victorian Department of Environment and Primary Industries. 

Weaner cattle, weighing 280kg–300kg, were rotationally grazed on the plots from April, weighed at the end of each rotation (often weekly) and turned off in December at 550kg. 

“We had some fairly trying seasonal conditions at times. For instance, 2009 had low but timely rainfall but we had 40-plus degree days by October, while 2010 was an extremely wet year and 2011 was pretty good,” John said. 

John said the combination of perennial pastures delivered average daily weight gains of 1.5kg/head/day with the weaners gaining 2kg/head/day during July and August and up to 3kg/head/day during August and September. 

On the decline 

“In the first year, the stock did really well, but it came in dry and we had to get all the stock off the plots so they could seed,” he said. 

“The second year the stock did really well and in the third year they were going well until June – and then started going backwards (up to 0.6kg/day), even though there was plenty of grass. We drenched them and they still continued losing weight.” 

The group conducted soil tests and found the nitrate level had fallen from 22 to 10. 

“We applied urea and within a week the cattle were back gaining 1.5kg/head/ day. It was a really interesting lesson on the need to test soils and monitor nitrate levels,” John said. 

Weighting it up 

Even though the official perennial pasture project has finished, John wants to try other varieties of phalaris for something to provide persistence and production. 

“The Landmaster produced great weight gains and gave us a long grazing season, but I’m starting to question its persistence. However it did thicken up after recent rain,” he said. 

“The fescue, on the other hand, persisted well – but it gets to the end of August and runs to head and loses its palatability, unless you stock it really heavily. 

“There might be other varieties that will deliver more weight gain for a longer time, allow you to take more advantage of trade opportunities and not be so difficult to manage.” 

John said the cocksfoot varieties, chosen for toughness in arid conditions, didn’t impress him either. 

“We’ve got quite a few dead plants from the long, hot summer and the brome, which likes a wet summer, also failed to persist,” he said. 

“The clovers have improved dramatically in the past year, I think the wet summer in 2010 affected its regeneration.” 

The Kelly’s demonstration plot may sound like it has delivered a few failures, but John sees the whole venture as a success, as it is building his pasture knowledge and letting him know what to cross off the list. 

“It’s such a difficult balancing act getting all the elements right, and this is the only way of finding out what works,” he said. “I really hope these past three years are just the beginning – not the end – and we can find more funding to keep measuring the persistence of the plots while pursuing options for better pastures.” 

Lessons learned 

  • Try and try again. Even failures improve knowledge and while you’re crossing off the pastures that don’t work, you’re getting closer to finding the ones that do. 
  • Site preparation (two years in most cases) is essential to establishment success. 
  • Be prepared to renovate (eg spray out weeds and fertilise) new pastures early on to ensure their persistence. 
  • Sowing new pastures is expensive so sow down small test areas first to ensure you have the right species for your environment and needs. 
  • Low soil nitrate levels during winter can negatively impact livestock weights. A urea application, applied two winters in a row, immediately improved weight gains in steers. 
  • Don’t take shortcuts – there aren’t any.
Euroa, VIC
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