Better beef production: maintain grass cover and plan ahead

22 January 2016

In the past six years Dysart beef producers Brian and Judy Pownall have increased annual carrying capacity by an average of 30% and profitability by an average of 25%, thanks to their system of maintaining grass cover and planning ahead.

Mr Pownall says the key to coping with fluctuating seasons lies in having a written plan that can be monitored and fine-tuned or changed as the season progresses, along with a series of goals for long-term improvement.

“We keep records and checklists, from a whiteboard in the office listing mob rotation dates to spreadsheets of grazing calculators and financial checklists, because it makes you think about things constantly and discuss what works and what doesn’t,” he said.

“We have goals of what we want to achieve and by when, and while we don't always hit the time frame, we still have something tangible to work towards.”

The Pownalls run a breeder and trade cattle operation, joining 800 Droughtmaster and Brangus breeders a year with an average calving rate of 85%. They buy in mostly crossbred or flatback cattle from local sales to turn off to southern feedlots at between 380 to 480kg.

Their home, 12,000-hectare Leichhardt Station, lies 25km east of Dysart in the brigalow belt of Central Queensland and has been in the family since the 1930s.

Leichhardt comprises 10,000 hectares of grazing – flooded brigalow, brigalow, coolibah downs and box country, including 800ha of leucaena - and 2000ha of cultivation.

Pasture drives capacity

Carrying capacity is totally dependent on the season. The Pownall’s goal is to run an average of 4,000 livestock units (LSU) all year round and so far they’ve been able to achieve 3,500 LSU consistently for the past three years.

Up until this year the seasons have been good, enabling them to do feed budgets usually in May. But when conditions change, they bring the grass budgeting forward.

“Last year we destocked 800 head in April and May as our grass budgeting said we needed to, then we got rain in August and so we restocked again,” says Mr Pownall.

“It turned out well as we had grass from early rain that wasn’t widespread, so we restocked early when the prices were on our side.”

This year the rain cut out in February and the Pownalls destocked 700 head in March and April. They have a 70% chance of getting rain by 15 December, but if that doesn’t eventuate, the destocking has given them enough feed to carry the herd through to January.

“We feel that it’s very important, especially in a dry year, to be able to fairly accurately estimate the amount of feed in a paddock so we maintain records that tell us how much grass has been used,” Mrs Pownall said. 

”We use grazing charts to monitor and keep records of elements such as rest periods, rainfall, livestock unit calculations and the actual amount of grass eaten by livestock, to enable us to act early and manage risk.”

The grazing chart calculates the stock days per hectare per 100mm of rain, which when used in conjunction with their stocking rate benchmark allows the Pownalls to match their carrying capacity – the number of cattle they can carry according to the condition of the country and the season – to their stocking rate, or how many LSU they have on the grazing country.

After each graze, it also confirms their feed estimations by telling them whether they have over or underestimated the available feed, and this in turn helps them become more accurate in their estimations.

A grazing calculator spreadsheet is used to match the remaining dry season feed with the current stocking rates to decide whether they need to sell, hold or purchase stock.  

“It’s really a case of combining experience, like Brian’s knowledge of how many stock a paddock can run, with the facts on the chart and the spreadsheets so that we know what feed we’ve taken out of each paddock and can make a forward projection,” Judy Pownall says.

When the fencing and water development is complete on Leichardt, the Pownalls will raise their stocking benchmark and this will be reflected on the grazing chart.

Applying Leichardt Station’s learnings

These pasture measurement practices are key recommendations in the recently released producer manual from Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA), Improving the performance of northern beef enterprises.

MLA’s General Manager On-farm Innovation and Adoption Matt McDonagh said the changes implemented at Leichardt Station could be applied across northern Australian and greatly benefit the wider industry.

“By closely monitoring pasture cover and adjusting the carrying capacity accordingly, the Pownalls are in a much better position to respond to varying seasonal conditions,” Dr McDonagh said.

Time controlled grazing

Leichhardt is run in a time controlled grazing system with 60 day rest periods in the wet and 120 rest periods in the dry. The rest periods are critical, they say, to give the grass a chance to recover before the next graze.

Controlled grazing also takes into account stocking density, or how many actual head per hectare they put into a paddock for a short time to provide animal impact. On Leichhardt the cattle are run in three main mobs; one mob solely on the leucaena, a trade mob on the next best country and the breeders on the rest.

“This results in even grazing that helps stimulate grass, increase ground cover and decrease erosion,” Mrs Pownall says.

“It’s crucial that the mobs are in the paddocks for short periods of time, then the paddocks get a rest and the more palatable and productive grass varieties aren’t put under pressure.”

To this end, they’ve used property mapping to enable fencing of paddocks into country types, with the goal of reducing the size of leucaena paddocks to a maximum of 40 hectares and grass paddocks to 200 hectares by December 2016, so that cattle only have to walk a maximum of 1km to water.

The decision on whether to supplementary feed is made through sampling dung and visual monitoring. The Pownalls prefer breeders to be in score 3+ condition before calving and the bulls score 4 before joining, and use a 30% urea dry lick to maintain both.

They’ve just started feeding a free choice mineral supplement to breeders which gives the cows unlimited access to salt, copper sulphate, magnesium, calcium, seaweed, lime and sulphur. 

“You have to be very careful feeding substitute energy like hay as it can very quickly become unprofitable,” Mr Pownall says.

“We’re better off selling early and saving our grass so that we maintain ground cover, the grass responds more quickly to less rain and we can buy back in earlier.”

To make supplementation more effective, the Pownalls are aiming to set up water medication for the first time later this year, where urea is incorporated into the water meter that measures flow, and every beast gets the supplement when it drinks.

Willingness to change

Mrs Pownall said two things have made life easier for her family: education and being open to learning new things; and a financial back-up plan that involves putting a little bit away regularly, so that they have a financial buffer.

“We push ourselves to learn about and implement new ideas by getting out and completing courses and by talking with other people and visiting their properties,” she said.

“And while it’s not easy to put a financial buffer in place, we just started by putting a little bit away in farm management deposits when we could and built it up. The Farm Management Deposits (FMDs) certainly give us more security now.”

Download the MLA producer manual, Improving the performance of northern beef enterprises.

Brian and Judy Pownall share their experience about increasing their production in a new MLA video.

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