Feeding forages for the long-term

07 August 2015

High quality forages play an important role in the Austin family’s diverse Central Queensland enterprise. While his brothers Greg and Mike manage cotton and organic cattle enterprises at Baralaba and Theodore, Alan Austin and his wife Jocelyn background cattle at ‘Nonda’, Baralaba, for central and south-east Queensland feedlot markets. Alan drew on his prior cropping experience to develop cultivation for crops to finish cattle, which has had the added benefit of controlling couch grass.

He plants a cash crop of wheat, has an annual program of lablab and has established 180ha of leucaena grass pastures. Alan buys 270–280kg steers from Emerald or Gracemere, and aims to reach an average selling weight of 480kg. Stocking rate can vary, but a recent example of carrying capacity was 112 head of cattle on 60ha of lablab for 100 days.

When he established his leucaena grass pastures, Alan cultivated the soil up to three times and used Roundup to manage weeds. He planted the leucaena rows
three metres apart (future plantings will be expanded to 5m for more consistent growth) in January. The leucaena and inter-row sabi grass (perennial urochloa) was ready to graze around 15 months later. Alan said cattle achieved good weight gains on this system and ate all the leucaena leaf before consuming the grass. Ongoing management includes contract chopping leucaena, which is usually only required every two to three years following good summer rain.

Alan rotationally grazes leucaena paddocks through summer and into autumn. He introduces new stock into existing mobs to reduce the need to inoculate cattle with rumen bacteria. Establishment costs were low, at around $200/ha, thanks to ideal soils for leucaena, previous cultivation and access to planting equipment from within the family partnership.

He believes the lifespan of well-managed leucaena (at least 20 years), combined with its high protein diet for cattle, make it the best-value forage for his land and production targets.

“We weighed a mob of 270 cattle in late April and, after 44 days grazing leucaena, they averaged 0.8kg/day,” Alan said.

“Over summer, the daily weight gains increase up to 1.3kg/head.”

Lablab is also an important forage option. Depending on summer rain, Alan plants the summer forage between December and February. He introduces cattle when the green leaf forms around 60% of the total biomass – for optimal diet quality – and grazes the lablab over autumn and winter.

Weight watchers

Alan’s lablab was assessed in 2012–13 for a case study as part of Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (DAF) Queensland’s and MLA’s High-Output Forages project.

During this period, total beef production off lablab was high (156kg/ha) with daily weight gains (0.98kg/head/day over 111 days) and moderate stocking rates. The high cost of managing the forage ($113/ha), combined with the fact that cattle grew faster than expected and became too heavy for the feedlot market, produced a negative cattle price margin (sale less purchase price) for cattle of $-0.14/kg lwt off the lablab. The resulting gross margin for this crop was $50/ha.

However, Alan believes he would usually make a small profit when cattle hit the intended market.

“As well as providing income from grazing and grain, the lablab is increasing the nutrient levels in the soil,” he said.

Alan said a message from the trial was the need to weigh cattle more frequently to assist turning them off at the optimum weight for the target market.

He said participating in the DAF Qld and MLA trials gave him a better insight into the costs of production.

Information

Alan Austin E: jwaustin@bigpond.com

Read the full version of this case study in the July/August edition of Feedback due to hit mail boxes mid August.

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