For this cattle couple, MSA graded organic grassfed beef is the future

30 October 2015

What was initially a ‘dream line’ in Dave and Bec Comiskey’s first business plan has become a reality, with their 8,500 hectare Alpha cattle property, ‘Melton’, now certified as an organic beef operation.

In 2007 they started their journey towards improving their operations by registering for Meat Standards Australia (MSA). In 2008 they stopped using hormone growth promotants (HGPs) in the herd, and in 2010 they were accredited for the European Union market.

Dave Comiskey says underlying the achievements of the past eight years is the couple’s passion to produce top quality, good eating beef from easy-doing, easy-finishing cattle run in an ethical way.

With the fundamentals in place, in 2013 they took part in a pilot program for the Pasture Fed Cattle Assurance System (PCAS) before becoming accredited, and in 2015 they gained full organic certification as grassfed beef producers under the global USDA National Organic Program and domestic Australian National Standard for Organic and Biodynamic Produce.

The pace of progress on Melton has been fast and furious since the young couple took the reins from Dave’s family in 2006 and turned the traditional beef production business on its head.

“More and more people want to know where their food is coming from and how it’s been produced, and for us that means finding a balance between managing the environment and staying financial,” Mr Comiskey said.

“We want to keep improving our herd and land management, within budget, and sell grassfed cattle from an organic system that works with nature.”

Consumer-focused production

They’ve been excited to see the first products on supermarket shelves branded with the Pasturefed Cattle Assurance System (PCAS) logo. PCAS is a voluntary system developed by the Cattle Council of Australia, to enable the industry to prove claims made about pasturefed or grassfed production methods.

PCAS standards govern the on-farm feed requirements and traceability of cattle as well as pre-slaughter handling practices which influence eating quality, and contain two optional modules to support claims relating to freedom from antibiotics and HGPs.

The Comiskeys run a herd of purebred Red Brahman breeders that are joined to bulls selected for meat quality attributes and fertility, to produce an early maturing hybrid calf. Half of the cows are joined to red Brahmans, a quarter to Simmentals and a quarter to Black and Red Angus sires.

Seasonal mating means the cows are joined in mid-December with bulls taken out mid-April. The cows have access to an organic mineral mix all year round in a loose lick form, to ensure optimal condition for calving and joining.

But the best form of supplementation, Bec Comiskey says, is early weaning.

“We wean the calves according to the cow’s condition, with the aim of having cows with a body condition score of 3 when they calve,” Mrs Comiskey says.

Depending on the season, the Comiskeys will reduce fattening numbers by selling Simbrah and Brangus feeder steers from 380 to 500kg to southern feedlots, and retaining the pure Brahman steers.

They’re more suited to the environment with easy fat-laying ability to fulfil market specifications, Dave Comiskey says, and are fattened to grassfed liveweights of 580 to 600kg.

‘Melton’ lies on the Belyando River 30km northeast of Alpha and covers a diverse range of country that is predominantly red sandy loam, with patches of black soil and brigalow through to more fragile sandy soils.

More water, more paddocks

The opportunity arose for Dave and Bec Comiskey to improve the young block that Dave’s family had purchased in 1993 with very little infrastructure or development. Continuing what the family started, their watering system now consists of more than 50km of poly pipe and more than 40 troughs, run by a series of solar pumps.

Their progress has been against a backdrop of fluctuating seasons, with 2012 producing big rains in a one-off event, followed by one of the driest years ever in 2013. Most of the water on ‘Melton’ comes from dams and two bores, as the Belyando River is not a permanent water source.

A quarter of the property is now watered and fenced for time controlled grazing, the result of strategic planning and the assistance of NRM funding.

The Comiskeys say time controlled grazing has resulted in a more consistent quality of feed, with more protein for longer providing a continual rising plane of nutrition for MSA compliance.

The change to more intensive grazing systems has also increased the amount of available pasture, allowing them to finish more animals on grass, and produced more grass species and legumes in the overall pasture mix.

The remaining undeveloped country on ‘Melton’ is set-stocked and spelled when possible.

Recently, due to grass budgets and a forecast Super El Nino, the Comiskeys chose to sell steers earlier and at a lighter dressed weight to leave more feed for the next line of cattle.

They have a series of markers in place to make decisions by, and know that by doing a visual grass budget at the end of April and adjusting stocking rates, they can carry cattle through to January. According to over 100 years of data, they then have more than 70% chance of receiving 50mm of rain.

These pasture measurement practices are key recommendations in the recently released producer manual from MLA, Improving the performance of northern beef enterprises.

MLA’s Matt McDonagh said the changes implemented at ‘Melton’ demonstrated the value of closely paying close attention to all aspects of the business, from the paddock to the office and through to the end consumer.

“By investing in water and paddock management, the Comiskeys production system optimises productivity while minimising the impact on pastures and their landscape,” Dr McDonagh said. “Improvements like this can go a long way towards bolstering the bottom line of beef operations throughout Northern Australia.”

Mr Comiskey says he’s always believed in the adage that healthy soil equals healthy grass equals healthy cattle, which ultimately leads to a healthy bottom line. But he’s also found plenty of benefit in listening to and learning from other producers.

“We spent many hours researching options to improve our business and found it really important to talk to other people about their successes and failures and learn from them,” he says.

One piece of advice the pair have is ‘Don’t be afraid of the office!’ They’ve both been involved in industry training days, regularly utilise private consultants and have quarterly strategic planning days to work on long term goal setting.

In line with their 20-year development plan and budget, their next steps will be to install more wire and water, market their organic MSA grassfed stock, and benchmark the financial, ecological and meat quality trends as a result of their changed business management.

Download MLA’s Improving the performance of northern beef enterprises.

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