More takers for grazing canola

19 July 2018

The Jeffreys family were early adopters of dual-purpose crops in the traditional grazing country of NSW’s south-eastern highlands. Their latest experiment: grazing cattle on dual-purpose canola.

Brothers John and Will Jeffreys operate Delegate Station Pastoral Company over three farms in the southern Monaro. While it’s taken more than 10 years of trial and error and system and variety testing, dual-purpose cropping led to a unique farming system which matches the production and climate cycle.

“Dual-purpose cropping does two things: it allows us to sow early to accumulate dry matter prior to winter, and it pushes us out of the frost window at the other end of the season. This creates the potential to nearly double income per hectare through meat and grain revenue," John said.

Their enterprise consists of prime lamb breeding and trading (which contributes 60% to the enterprise), dual-purpose cropping (30%) and cattle breeding and trading (10%).

John and his wife Jen oversee the farms, while Will and his wife Meg live in Bungendore, where Will works in the meat industry and handles their lamb marketing.

The Jeffreys started growing dual-purpose crops in 2006 and learnt through trial and error, testing new varieties as they were released.

 “We introduced them to spread our production risk between livestock and grain," John said.

“Conventional spring-type cultivars are not as well suited to our environment due to our growing season length, limiting yield and increasing frost risk.

“The dual-purpose crops enable us to use longer-season genetics – most of our crops are in the ground for 11 months.

Grazing tactics

The Jeffreys turn-off lambs from Christmas to September, with the crops providing high quality feed through autumn and winter.

Canola is planted in February, grazed from mid-April to August, and harvested in early January.

Lambs are rotated through several canola paddocks over four to five months, grazing each paddock for one month at a time. Lambs are sold to domestic and export markets as they come off crop.

Canola is grazed as per guidelines – high stocking rates (up to 80 lambs/ha) once the plants are well-anchored with stock removed before bud elongation.

The crop is locked up in early spring, when nitrogen application and fungicide spraying begins.

Experimenting with cattle

Last winter, after the last lambs came off the canola, John decided to put some young cattle in.

“Carrying young cattle through winter can be a challenge here, and we only do it about one year in every three,” he said.

“We usually just feed enough to maintain them; they will grow a bit, but most of the fattening is done in spring on low-cost perennial pastures.

While the sheep had eaten about 80% of the available dry matter in the paddock, John said 20% was still available for the cattle and was predominantly stalky, fibrous material, rather than “rich green leaf”.

“It enabled the cattle to perform much better than I expected,” John said.

“They went in as 320kg animals with individual gains between 400g and 1.4kg per head per day over 70 days of grazing.

“They were at least 80kg heavier than they normally would have been coming into spring, and we were able to turn them off a couple of months earlier than usual.”

Grazing a fine line

John said there was a fine line between fully utilising a dual-purpose crop and overgrazing.

“You can’t overgraze canola early on, in the leafy stage, but you have to be careful as you get close to lock-up,” he said.

“As the crop matures towards the end of the grazing window, lambs tend to gnaw away at the growing point of the plant despite residual leaf material still available.

“The cattle were a good tool to utilise more dry matter in the paddock, while minimising damage to the growing point.”

John said care needs to be taken to remove cattle once residual leaf stalks are eaten, as they will go for the growing point once they are out of feed – unlike lambs, which tend to preferentially graze the growing point prior to lock-up.

“Damage to the growing point tends to promote tillering of the plant and leaves the stem prone to rotting,” he said.

“The crop looks okay well into grain fill but weak stems snap at the base and grain stops filling.”

John said the cattle did not trample the crop or damage the paddock, but it was a dry winter and they were grazing on a hilly, well-drained paddock.

“The minute it got wet the cattle had to be off the paddock,” he said.

The pay-off

According to John, a good grazing canola crop usually produces 3–6 tonnes of dry matter per hectare (t DM/ha) and grows 400–600kg of lamb/ha.

“Last year the canola produced about 3–4t DM/ha and we grew about 350kg lamb/ha and just under 100kg beef/ha, without changing our lamb program at all,” he said.

“Grain harvest on these paddocks grazed by the cattle averaged 1.7t/ha in a dry spring, however heavily grazed crops have previously yielded over 3t/ha.

“We’re predominantly a lamb enterprise and wherever we can we maximise our stocking rates through the winter with lambs, not cattle.

“However, after doing this I’m confident that, given another scenario where we think there is dollar to be made from cattle, we will manage our grazing canola to chase the sheep with a mob of cattle.”

More information
Email John Jeffries

Tips for grazing dual-purpose canola

MLA has funded a number of projects in recent years to establish the agronomy and grazing regimes around grazing canola, building on extensive research conducted by GRDC, CSIRO and others.

Michelle McClure from Southern Farming Systems led one of the recent MLA-funded projects, comparing the net benefits of grazing spring-sown, dual-purpose canola with a perennial pasture livestock system.

Here Michelle shares some tips for grazing dual-purpose canola in the high rainfall zone:

  • Make sure paddocks are well-prepared for sowing i.e. good weed control, adequate moisture and nutrients, friable seedbed.
  • Follow recommended seeding rates, as good crop establishment – 40 plants/m² – is essential.
  • Use twist and pull test to ensure plants are well-anchored before grazing.
  • Rotate stock between paddocks of green feed to minimise rumen adjustment issues.
  • For final grazing, graze evenly and leave 1.5t/ha residual biomass (if grazing past May) for plant recovery.
  • Remove stock before buds (the reproductive parts of the plant) are elongating above the ground and can be removed by grazing stock.
  • Seek agronomic advice to ensure adequate nutrients are applied to crop after grazing to boost yield.

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