Grazing rotation means more pasture, less labour on Green Hills

04 September 2015

Georgetown beef producers Greg and Carol Ryan have lifted their carrying capacity by 250 animal equivalents in four years by investing in more watering points and single-strand electric fencing to enable rotational grazing.

Prior to the new infrastructure being installed, the continuous grazing system on Green Hills station had resulted in patch grazing and a decline in desirable pasture species, despite a conservative stocking rate.

Cattle were walking up to 4km to water, increasing the grazing pressure around water points and under-utilising pasture that was too far away.

Now with two thirds of Green Hills under the new system, cattle walk no further than 2km to water, and as a result of the more even grazing pressure, the more palatable, productive pastures have been rejuvenated despite three years of less than optimal wet seasons.

“It’ll be easier when we’ve got the whole property fenced but it’s allowed us to be much more efficient in our use of labour and fuel, because while we’re handling bigger mobs of cattle, we’re mustering a smaller area,” Mr Ryan said.

“The beauty of the system is that by second round of mustering in August we still have a couple of paddocks that haven’t had a beast in them for six months, so we’ve saved a bit of grass for the end of the dry and we don’t have to spend time monitoring paddocks with no cattle in them.”

The Ryans are following a policy of first expanding watering points then fencing the different soil types, to spread the grazing pressure of their 3,000-head Brahman herd evenly across 26,000 hectares of ‘Green Hills’, 25km southwest of Georgetown.

Since 2009, two new pumping stations have been set up, one from a new bore and the other from the Gilbert River, and 33km of poly pipe has been laid to carry water to a series of holding tanks that fill troughs strategically placed throughout the paddocks.

Fencing facts

At the same time the Ryans are halfway through putting up 70km of single plain wire electric fencing on steel posts 30 metres apart, to divide the country into smaller paddocks.

The new fencing cost approximately $1,350/km to erect compared to $3,000/km for the traditional fence of three barbed wires that makes up the boundary of ‘Green Hills’.

So far the fencing has resulted in five paddocks ranging in size from 1,000ha to 3,500ha, and the single strand has presented no problems with containing stock. Fence lines were cleared and suckers sprayed as for traditional fencing, and solar powered energisers charge the batteries that supply power day and night.

Lightning protectors were installed to prevent damage from strikes, and there’s been little pressure on the fences from native animals, with kangaroos and other wildlife able to duck underneath the single wire.

Breeders and heifers are run as a single mob in the rotation and cattle are moved twice a year, with the spelled paddocks having a six month rest period including the wet season.

Mr Ryan admits rotational grazing has been ‘a huge paradigm shift’ for the third generation cattle producers, but combined with controlled joining, feeding wet weather phosphorus, and selecting bulls with high fertility, it has proven very successful.

Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) is encouraging other northern beef producers to follow suit in order to boost profitability, with these practice changes all key recommendations in its recently released producer manual, Improving the performance of northern beef enterprises.

MLA’s Matt McDonagh said the changes implemented on Green Hills demonstrated the benefits of understanding the basic drivers of profitability on farm.

“The Ryans have clearly identified these and put in place a combination of changes that allow them to better manage their production and labour use across the year,” Dr McDonagh says.

“Those improvements to infrastructure, herd genetics and management have added value to each other and resulted in a substantial increase in production.”

Monitor and measure

In tandem with the expansion of watering points and fencing, the Ryans have been monitoring pastures at 14 sites for the past eight years. Ten of these are photo monitoring sites (one for each land type) that assess land condition and pasture quality and include indicators such as groundcover, species composition, pasture yield, soil condition and the presence of weeds.

Four of the sites have a 10m section where the grass and species are measured every April to monitor any changes. At the same time, the Ryans do an annual feed budget to give them a ‘ballpark figure’ that helps them to decide whether to carry cattle on or sell off.

Mr Ryan said the data has matched his observation that palatable and productive native varieties such as giant spear grass, blue grass, plume sorghum and golden beard have more opportunity to grow and set seed under the grazing rotation.

The average rainfall for ‘Green Hills’ is 800mm in a traditional wet season and the property is made up of a third granite and a third slatey spinifex hills, with red sandridge, red duplex, grey box and some black soils.

The Brahman herd comprises 1,200 breeders, 800 heifers and 900 steers, with steers turned off at 330-340kg for the live export trade and cull heifers sold to southern backgrounding and finishing operations.

Controlled mating from mid-January to August has reduced cow and heifer mortality by up to 5%, largely through stopping dry weather calves. Mr Ryan prefers to join cows and heifers then cull for fertility after pregnancy testing, which usually works out to be a cull rate of 15%.

Getting cows back in calf is dependent on the season. At the same time calving rates have been lifted by 8% through supplementation with a phosphorus-based dry lick that’s put out from the start of the wet season.

This allows cattle to absorb the phosphorus while going ahead in condition and has reduced the incidence of peg-leg, a sign of phosphorus deficiency, as well as improving body condition. Only weaners are supplemented during the dry season, with a protein mix followed by a molasses and urea ration which also helps prevent parasites.

With the system proving its worth, the Ryans’ goal for the future is to complete fencing and watering to put the whole of Green Hills under rotational grazing and continue to reap the benefits.

The MLA producer manual, Improving the performance of northern beef enterprises, is available for download.

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