Tips for a tough season: destocking strategies – northern Australia

20 November 2015

This is the fifth part in our series on planning for tough seasons.

Destocking decisions can be difficult. Variation in feed availability and price, weather, markets, and access to agistment means that every situation is different.

There is no one size fits all approach to destocking, so forward planning will remove some of the stress at difficult times.

Roger Sneath, Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries Senior Extension Officer (beef), said sound business plans with a pasture focus can influence how well producers manage drought.  

“It is important to have a business plan prepared well ahead of time which includes a drought strategy,” he said.

“The business plan sets the direction for the business. This helps as you can check if potential decisions are working in line with the business goals or against them.”

In Northern Australia, preparing a dry season forage budget is one of the most useful strategies for planning ahead. This helps managers match stock numbers to pasture availability and guide destocking decisions. (Check out Col Paton showing how it is done in these four videos.)

Making More From Sheep Queensland Coordinator Alex Stirton, an extension officer (sheep) with the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, based in Charleville, added that a written plan will help future decision making.

“It is not wise or economical to make a decision or plan while under pressure, so plan early, write it down, set dates and stick to them – don’t alter the plan even if it’s forecast to rain in the near future,” Alex said.

“Include an external advisor – such as a stock agent, extension officer, rural financial counsellor or farm consultant – and all business members to help make a plan and destocking strategy.”

Tips for developing a destocking plan, including the critical questions to ask, are:

1.    Set a pasture budget: Assess end of summer pasture, water and stock. Adjust stock numbers to match available pasture and water. Consider requirements of different classes of stock; lactation increases nutritional needs significantly for those animals with lambs or calves at foot. Check out these budgeting tools for beef and sheep.
2.    Weigh up all the options: Identify what you want to do – feed or not to feed, agist, sell – and consider factors such as:

  •   Feeding stock: How long until the next likely significant rain event?  Are funds available to feed stock right though to a significant change in conditions? Are people available/capable to feed stock through? How will feeding stock impact on pastures?
  •   Alternative land: Is feed, agistment or leased land available elsewhere which could be an option for your core breeder herd/flock or weaners that need to at least maintain live weight?
  •   Selling: Are animals fit to load? Monitor the market for potential opportunities to destock.

3.    Set dates: What time of the year are you most likely get a large rain event? Plan towards that date, don’t plan that out-of-season storms will save you. Make a destocking plan early depending on available feed, composition of the herd/flock. Put the critical selling dates on the calendar (based on land type, pasture type and season) and sell the animals as these dates come along.

Sheep

If destocking is the sound option from economic, environmental and animal health perspectives, the first step is to ’triage’ your flock.

“Producers need to prioritise which class of sheep are most important to their business,” Alex said.

“This could mean culls, dry or old animals go first. Pregnancy scanning is a critical management tool to identify dry ewes. Next might be weaners, followed by animals that are less productive based on individual business goals.”

Cattle

Roger said a similar approach applied to destocking cattle.

“Remove the highest risk and least productive cows such as pregnancy tested empty and late calving cows, old cows, cull heifers, poor temperament and poor doers. If some stock are nearly finished it may be worthwhile to production feed to reach the specification, so do the sums," he said.

The FutureBeef website provides calculators to evaluate different scenarios, such as putting cattle in a feedlot or comparing the cost of feeding or selling stock and buying back later.

Stress management

While there are economic, animal health and environmental factors which should be considered when making destocking decisions, it is also important to manage how people in the business – including yourself – handle what can be a very emotional and stressful time.

“It is critical to take a break from the property – even just to go to an event in town – to step away from the business and clear your head,” Alex said.

Tools:

  • Managing Drought: This guide is a good source of drought planning information.
  • Feeding and managing stock during drought: Links to resources such as drought feeding alternatives, evaluating supplements, early weaning and moving stock during drought.
  • FutureBeef: This website contains information on drought strategies as well as links to tools to guide producers through profitable and sustainable enterprise-management strategies.
  • CliMate and Rainman Streamflow: Use these tools to evaluate the probability of receiving useful rain at different times of the year.
  • FORAGE: This tool is located on The LongPaddock website and provides climate and pasture condition information at the individual property level.
  • Grazing Land Management: This course guides producers through management practices to help maintain and improve land condition, such as determining a dry season forage budget and wet season spelling.
  • Drought preparedness checklist: This checklist outlines the important issues that should be considered with drought management.
  • Leading Sheep: Useful resources, including case studies, on drought management.
  • Queensland drought assistance information:  The Queensland Government and Australian Government offer programs to help farm families, farm businesses and farm communities affected by drought.

More information:                                                                                                                                                    

Alex Stirton: E: alex.stirton@daf.qld.gov.au

Roger Sneath: E: Roger.Sneath@daf.qld.gov.au

Read the other articles in this series on planning for tough seasons: 

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