Surviving extremes with sub-tropicals
Location: 17km west of Manilla, north-west NSW
Enterprise: Mixed farm – winter cereals, beef cattle and sheep
Producer: Stuart Lockrey
Soil type: Basalt-derived, light brown to heavy black soils
Pasture type: Sub-tropical perennial pastures and native grasses
"A big lot of wet followed by a big lot of dry" is how Manilla, NSW, producer Stuart Lockrey describes the seasonal conditions he and wife, Bronywn, have had to deal with for the past few years.
One of the management tools the Lockreys have employed to reduce the peaks and troughs in their cattle enterprise has been sowing more sub-tropical pastures.
“It goes from feast to famine up here all the time these days. We were told these sub-tropicals were the answer to the changing climate and they are. They have more than impressed," Stuart said.
The Lockreys planted their first paddocks of sub-tropical grasses in the summer of 2007-08 as a potential source of feed over summer – when their traditional native and winter-active pastures were not producing.
Performance in the dry
In February 2014, following a dry January, Stuart reported he still had green feed, his cattle were fat and he hadn’t had to supplementary feed “in a season that had most others beat”.
“We had the driest January on record and we didn’t have to destock or feed our cattle,” he said.
“That makes a big impact on your mental health and wellbeing.”
Performance in the wet
This year the story has been slightly different.
Following below-average rainfall over a cooler winter in 2014, the sub-tropicals remained dormant until early November.
“We had 34mm of rain in mid-October then it became very hot,” Stuart said.
“We had another 30mm on November 6 and that really sparked them off.”
Good follow-up rain of 50mm on Christmas Day maintained the momentum.
“We put cattle on them after that November rain and they haven’t been off. We’ve been rotationally grazing them all summer.
“We’ve got 100 cows and calves on 80 hectares at the moment and we’re just rotating them around the paddocks with sub-tropicals.”
Choosing the right variety
So far the Lockreys have planted 180ha of sub-tropicals, a mix of Katambora Rhodes, Gatton panic, Bambatsi panic and Premier digit grass, with a smaller quantity of creeping bluegrass.
They crash graze to manage the feed bulk but, according to Stuart, they don’t always keep up.
And while efficient grazing management is one of the challenges of producing such high quantities of dry matter, the other is nutrient supply. Tropical pastures need to be fed.
In the early days Stuart invested heavily in fertiliser for both establishment and production, but he’s now turning to companion legumes as a cost-effective source of soil nitrogen.
“Our strategy now is to sow clover into the sub-tropicals during autumn and hope seasonal conditions allow them to take hold,” he said.
“We initially direct drilled about 2kg/ha of arrowleaf clover and we had a great year. The clover established and produced about 5-7t/ha of feed.
“Since the clovers have been coming away they have produced enough nitrogen to sustain the grass production. We are working on the basis our clover will produce about 80 units of nitrogen per hectare.
“We have oversown about half our sub-tropicals with clover now and will keep going until they are all done.”
Paying the price
Establishing sub-tropical pastures was not cheap, said Stuart, but neither is buying feed for hungry stock.
“When we started sowing sub-tropical grasses the cost of preparation, planting and establishing the pastures was $325/ha,” he said.
“Since then, with better seed quality and plant breeding, our sowing rates have halved which has lowered the cost considerably.”
As well as providing feed during dry times, the investment has allowed Stuart to spell country or take the opportunity to earn agistment dollars.
“The sub-tropicals allowed us to rest half our place (500ha) in 2013 and hold cattle on the sub-tropicals for about 12 months,” he said.
“We were also able to agist a couple of hundred cattle on our native pastures.”
17km west of Manilla, north-west NSW
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