Profitable practices

09 October 2015

Geoff Nicol’s commitment to educating his cattle is just one of the keys to producing more kilos of beef on the 4400-hectare property ‘Ninderra’, 25km west of Injune in southwest Queensland.

And quiet cattle have proven to be one of the contributing factors to his surprisingly high labour efficiency figures, when compared to the top 25% of beef producers in Queensland’s southern inland region.

Labour efficiency calculates all labour used in the business annually, including contractors, part time workers and unpaid farm work such as administration, to work out the total number of full time equivalents (FTEs) used.

It’s expressed as a measure of the number of animal equivalents (AEs, or 400kg steers) that can be run per full time equivalent of labour.

“The average labour efficiency figure for our region is 696 AE per FTE and for the top 25% of producers it’s 991, but at Ninderra ours is 1310,” Mr Nicol said. “We normally run about 1500-1700 AEs.”

Focus on profit drivers

Geoff and his parents, Ian and June, left their cropping country near Moree, NSW, five years ago to buy ‘Ninderra’, where they run 470 Santa Gertrudis-British cross breeders and around 1000 feeder cattle.

Since the initial settling-in year of 2010 the Nicols have invested in new fencing and watering points, and focussed on reducing labour costs, increasing herd fertility through buying only bulls with fertility EBVs,  and fine-tuning supplementary feeding through the use of faecal analysis.

Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA) is encouraging other northern beef producers to follow the Nicols’ lead 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 at ‘Ninderra’ demonstrated the value of closely scrutinising a beef business’s profit drivers.

“Geoff Nicol has put in place a production system which optimises his herd’s productivity and maximises the output from his labour,” Dr McDonagh said. “Improvements to infrastructure, herd genetics and management can add a significant amount to the bottom line of beef operations throughout Northern Australia.”

The Nicols businesslike approach to cattle production is paying off. Quiet, educated cattle mean Geoff can handle much of the stock work on his own or with his fiancé, Lyndal Rolfe and their Kelpie and Collie sheep dogs, reducing the need for contract labour.

A lot of time is spent educating weaners and bought-in cattle until they’re quiet and controllable, working them first in the yards and through the race each day and then regularly handling them in paddocks close to the homestead.

“It’s like training a dog – cattle have to develop a memory of how to respond so that they’re happy and relaxed to have me on a horse and the dogs around,” says Geoff.

Working smarter also means waiting until the weekends when Lyndal finishes her off-farm working week and can help him with mustering. At peak times of the year such as branding or pregnancy testing he employs contract musterers with their own gear and insurance from nearby Injune.

Geoff’s retired parents, Ian and June, are invaluable in their assistance, with Ian spending a day a week in the office doing the books.

Strategic fencing & watering

Strategic placement of fencing and reticulation of watering points from bores has also paid off in quieter cattle that don’t have so far to walk to water, and better utilisation of available feed.

‘Ninderra’ is a mix of high quality vine scrub country running through to undulating brigalow/belah, and containing a steep spur of the Great Dividing Range.

Initially Geoff found the cattle overgrazed the lower country in summer, leaving the grass on the steeper slopes of the range to grow rank before they moved up there in winter. He’s begun a program of fencing to enable rotational grazing rather than set stocking, to use the grass more efficiently.

Available pasture is something he ‘thinks about every day’, Geoff says, and to that end he also took part in trials of supplementary feeding through the Department of Agriculture in Roma. Using faecal analysis they measured crude protein, faecal nitrogen and forage digestibility to show whether feeder cattle benefitted from a urea-based dry lick in winter.

The results were surprising. In a dry 2013, every dollar the Nicols spent on lick returned them $2. But in 2014, when March rain meant there was short green feed, there were no gains from the lick.

“I remember one business analyst saying that people often feed lick to make themselves feel better, and the faecal analysis certainly takes the guesswork out of it,” Geoff says.

“When you have to get a return on every dollar spent, testing allows us to use supplementary feeding as a production tool, rather than a drought tool.”

He tries to match stocking rates with carrying capacity, and says that’s made easier by the fact that he buys in feeder cattle. They run on the higher quality Gayndah buffel, with the steers turned off at 470kg to feedlots on the Darling Downs and the heifers at 400-450kg to Roma or Condamine.

Breeders are run on Biloela buffel and Geoff aims to have them at score 3 or 3+ at calving. He’s focussed very heavily on breeding for fertility, with the result that when the season crashed in 2013 the cow herd still tested 88% in calf – the result of fertile cows, body score and strategic supplementation, he says.

Santa Gertrudis bulls are strictly selected for their EBVs relating to fertility - days to calving, scrotal circumference and semen morphology - and that’s cleaned up the herd very quickly, says Geoff.

Heifers are joined at 14 months for a short period of 60 days, or 90 depending on the season, and the focus on EBVs for fertility has meant a higher re-breed, or less heifers empty on their second calf.

Next year Geoff plans to put in laneways and fencing that will allow cattle to be grazed in a rotational grazing system.

While he acknowledges he may not make as much money from cattle as grain growing, he says he’s more of a stockman than a farmer, and happy to continue fine-tuning his business to produce maximum beef.

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