Taking stock

Location: Manjimup

Enterprise: Mainly cattle with some sheep

Producer: Richard and Lee Shuard

Soil type: Gravelly loam

Pasture type: Predominantly annual pastures; about 20ha kikuyu and tall fescue

With the profitability of traditional cattle systems in Western Australia’s south-west under pressure, the Manjimup Pasture Group set out to test the theory that higher stocking rates could bring better returns.

Funded by MLA’s Producer Demonstration Site program, the group established a ‘farm within a farm’ stocking rate trial at Richard and Lee Shuard’s property ‘Deeside’. 

The trial compared a traditional low stocking rate (0.8 head/ha), low input management system (control) with a higher input, rotationally grazed system with a higher stocking rate (1.1 head/ha). The higher input system integrated annuals and perennials, used higher fertiliser and lime rates, and increased use of nitrogen. 

“We basically divided the farm into two – a 77ha block that we put 82 cows on, and a 71ha block that we put 55 cows on,” Richard said. 

“The mobs were the same – a mixture of the Angus X Simmentals – and the cows were mixed ages. The calves went with them, and the bulls came and went as normal. But the cattle and the pasture were managed differently.” 

The trial ran for three years and results show a $176/ha cumulative gross margin increase in the innovation (higher stocking rate) trial, despite the difficulties of the first two seasons. Of this, $122/ha came in the final year where calf weights in the innovation trial were more than 20kg/head higher than the control. 

“We think the higher calf weights in the innovation trial were because they grew more evenly, as they had access to better, and more even, pastures right the way through,” Richard said.

“The first couple of years were pretty tough. We had poor seasons and the perennials were just establishing. During that time, the control cows and calves were heavier, but the innovation trial still broke fairly close to even on dollars per hectare, and it didn’t cost us anything as far as production goes. 

“But in the third year, when the pasture was established and we had a better winter and spring, the innovation trial did much better. By then, it had paid for itself.” 

There was no loss to fertility, cattle condition or land condition during the study, despite the higher stocking rate. 

On the flipside 

Richard did find that there was more work involved with the higher stocking rate. 

“It was more intensive to manage, but once you get used to shifting the cows every four or five days and they get used to it, it’s pretty easy,” Richard said. 

He is clearly convinced the extra work was warranted by the increased income – which he estimates to be $60–$100/ha, depending on season – and is now implementing the same approach on other areas of the farm. 

Agronomist Paul Omodei, who supervised the research, said all members of the pasture group continue to report stocking rate increases, improved pasture production and enhanced knowledge of pasture and grazing management. 

“As with any project, over time new information and research becomes available and of interest,” Paul said. 

“The Manjimup Pasture Group became particularly interested in fodder crops (triticale, oats, oats/peas, turnips, rape) and where these could fit in the higher stocking rate system. This led to interest in cash crops of cereals and oilseeds (canola), which some group members trialled in the last year of the project. 

“Some were initially cautious, but they’re dipping their toes in the water.”

Lessons learned 

  • Higher stocking rates require higher inputs and increased labour, but lead to more dollars per hectare.
  • The cost of establishing the perennial pastures was repaid in three years.
  • If managed correctly, a higher stocking rate need not cause any decline in the condition of animals or the land.
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