Evidence-based training drives confident decision-making
10 November 2016
Location: Otway Ranges of southern Victoria
Enterprise: Prime lambs and forestry
Producer: Andrew and Jill Stewart
Soil type: Sandy loam
Pasture type: Perennial grass, legume and herb-based pastures
The EverGraze program’s evidence-based research has provided Andrew and Jill Stewart, who farm in the Otway Ranges, Victoria, with the confidence to make significant management changes in their prime lamb enterprise, in response to challenging seasonal conditions.
Jill and Andrew have participated in a range of MLA-supported training programs, including Whole Farm Grazing Systems (WFGS) and Lambs Alive. MLA was also a co-funder of EverGraze.
According to Andrew, the lessons learned from the programs have helped them strengthen the productivity and resilience of their prime lamb operation, despite an increasingly challenging climate.
“Both Jill and I work off-farm and we are conscious of keeping our operation as streamlined as possible," Andrew said. Andrew coordinates the Otway Agroforestry Network and is a director of the Australian Agroforestry Foundation, and Jill is a veterinary nurse and sheepdog trainer
Their prime lamb enterprise is dependent on a mix of perennial grass and legume-based pastures. In the past 23 years, the Stewarts have fenced their 230ha property according to land classes and planted trees along the divisions.
“We have an agroforestry system with connected shelterbelts to form wildlife corridors, and we manage trees for commercial timber saw logs,” Andrew said.
“We've revegetated the property, going from 3.5% (vegetation) in 1993 to 17%, which hasn’t affected our stocking rates."
Andrew and Jill join close to 1,270 first-cross ewes each year and sell all of their lambs, buying in replacement ewes as required.
Andrew credits the ongoing training he and Jill undertake for the health and productivity of both their sheep and feedbase.
“I think these programs certainly brought us up-to-date with the most recent research and knowledge in ewe management and pasture development,” Andrew said.
“The art of condition scoring has been significant, and understanding the ramifications of having ewes in good condition score during their reproductive life has been integral to our results.
“With the two courses (Australian Wool Innovation's Lifetime Ewe Management and WFGS) we were always talking about issues such as ewe condition, mob size and feed on offer (FOO), and bringing all of that together.
"In one mob of 30 maiden ewes we recently achieved the best results we've ever had. All ewes were scanned pregnant with twins and we marked 183%. It is just a small mob but it demonstrates the potential and even some of the bigger mobs were getting up to 170%.”
Andrew also credits good shelter and the high feed on offer (FOO) of 1,700-1,800kg/ha, as aiding the high marking percentages.
Training supports collaborative decision making
Andrew and Jill have attended the training programs together, and Andrew believes this has been beneficial when it comes to making decisions in the business.
“So we are critical in the way we allocate our time. We won’t do a course unless we feel it is worthwhile," Andrew said.
“It has been a particular advantage doing them together, because you can carry on an informed conversation over the dinner table, and we have been able to bring our daughters into the conversations.”
“Our youngest daughter, Kristy, has completed a Bachelor of Agricultural Science and is interested in the practical application of things learned in WFGS, Australian Wool Innovation's Lifetime Ewe Management (LTEM) and Lambs Alive. This lifts the level of discussion within our family.”
Andrew is most impressed with the hands-on format of the programs, and the back-up support of the facilitators, Geoff Saul (LTEM and WFGS) and Nathan Scott (Lambs Alive).
Andrew also appreciated the science behind the practical components of the programs.
“You learn about how different dry matter (DM) levels have different photosynthetic activity — it really helps to understand the plant physiology,” he said.
Broadening the offerings
The Stewart’s feedbase is predominantly perennial ryegrass with a sub-clover base. But as the seasons trend toward lower average annual rainfall, Andrew and Jill have been investigating a range of alternative pastures.
“As we move toward warmer and more extreme conditions, we have been looking for alternative pasture options to sow where our perennial ryegrass pastures are no longer persisting,” Andrew said.
“While our long-term average rainfall is 700mm, the past 18 years has seen this drop to 550mm and last year we only received 441mm.
“We've worked with the EverGraze approach of ‘right plant, right place, right management’ to try and find some alternative pasture species to match our drier conditions, particularly across some of our lighter, sandy loam country, where the ryegrass is no longer persisting.
“We have been experimenting with different mixes. We are currently using Uplands cocksfoot in combination with plantain and arrowleaf clover.
“The idea is to have the summer growth of the plantain and arrowleaf, and match the grazing so we don’t graze too hard during seed set. Arrowleaf will also provide nitrogen to the other species.
“We’ve also played around with chicory, but the plantain is bolting away and we know it is pretty productive.”
Andrew and Jill are currently getting three to four years' production out of the plantain, and are working out how to increase seedling recruitment for greater longevity.
“If it doesn't persist you still have the Uplands and clover, and maybe you can come back and sod seed plantain with minimal cost,” Andrew said.
Matching livestock demand with pasture growth
Lambing takes place in late July-early August to take advantage of peak pasture growth when lactating ewes are at maximum nutritional demand.
“We’ve just finished marking (early September), and pasture growth is really starting to get away just as the ewes and lambs need it most,” Andrew said.
The Stewarts aim to turn off all of their lambs as quickly as possible to ensure adequate feed is available to maintain ewe condition, or the next reproductive cycle.
“Last year every lamb was sold before Christmas, but that is unusual,” Andrew said.
“We usually sell quite a few during early December at 17–18 weeks and then hold the rest over on the plantain and sell them during January.”
“One thing the course has highlighted is that you don’t hang onto the lambs too long — the decision we made last year was supported by what we learnt about not compromising our ewes."
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