Rayner Reckons

Sep 21

Are you feeding enough?

Posted on Friday, September 21, 2018

Feeding livestock has become the primary task for many producers across eastern states.  As the drought continues to extend across the country, some producers have been feeding stock for over eight or nine months.

In the past few weeks, I have been travelling across Central and Northern NSW talking to producers, and discussing their feeding programs.  As part of these visits and discussions I am seeing a developing trend that is concerning.

Quite simply most rations are well below the daily requirements for the livestock people are choosing to feed.

The results of underfeeding have varied from significant weight loss, poor calf and lamb growth and unfortunately in some cases, weight loss has been so severe animals have had to be euthanized.

There are two issues around feeding that have been contributing to this situation.  The first is the choice of ration ingredients.  And the second is quite simply the physical amount offered to stock.  Some people have wildly overestimated the amount of feed they are actually providing and in doing so have created problems in their program.

I wanted to offer a few comments that are important to consider when determining how much you should feed.

CLASS OF STOCK

The stage of production determines how much feed your animals need to eat each day.  A dry cow will require lower amounts of physical feed, than a lactating cow needs.  At the same time an animal with higher production demands, like lactation or joining not only needs more feed, that feed must have higher levels of energy and crude protein. 

Quite simply, some feeds are not of good enough quality to meet your animal’s requirements.  And when these feeds fail to meet those levels, your animals will lose weight.  In many cases, if weight loss is prolonged production losses are not restricted to lower milk yields or weight loss. Over a longer period animals may die.

INTAKE LEVELS

Intake levels do vary significantly each day, not only as a result of the production status of your animals. It is possible to calculate intake based on a percentage of body weight for each production class, it’s not the only factor to consider.

The amount of fibre in a feedstuff will also determine intake.  If fibre content is too low, it can lead to rumen upset and low intake.  High fibre levels restrict the voluntary intake of animals.  Quite simply, they can’t eat enough each day.

It’s equally important to recognize that some feeds have fibre levels that are too high for pregnant cows but would be acceptable for dry animals.  The reason has to do with bulk fill and the internal capacity of a cow to consume and digest the feed while carrying a calf as well!

The other important factor is the moisture content of feed.  All feeds have some moisture.  However as moisture has no nutritional value, the amount you actually feed each day needs to reflect the water contained in that feed. 

In simplest terms, the higher moisture content of a feed, the more you will physically need to supply to your animals each day.

HOW MUCH ARE YOU FEEDING?

Perhaps one of the biggest limitations to livestock intake is the amount of feed that is actually fed out!

I’ve asked a lot of people, how much are they feeding.  The range of answers is quite surprising.  Most are based on a guess, or a rough idea.  Very few people have actually taken the time to weight out how much they need to feed. 

The risk with this approach, besides underfeeding, is that if you need to add other ingredients to your ration, such as limestone or bentonite, your additions will be out.  So your ration may be even less effective than you expected, and your cattle’s daily needs continue to be compromised.

At the very least, weigh your rations and make sure you are physically providing enough for daily intake.  Check the value of the feed, and if you’re not sure get a feed test done.  And if you are still not sure, give me a ring and I’ll come and help you put the rations in place for your stock.

Sep 05

Have you really considered what you are feeding?

Posted on Wednesday, September 05, 2018

NSW is now categorized as 100% drought affected.  As the state emerges from winter and looks towards a hotter drier spring and summer, there are many producers considering what options they have available.  

For many the decisions include choosing to continue destocking, with the goal of retaining a core group to focus on.  Other producers have spoken to me about their plans to keep feeding and maintain numbers.  For a large portion of people the decision is a mix of selling and feeding.

None of these decisions are easy.  Having spent close on the last 12 months advising producers on strategies, I know how hard choices can be.  However, regardless of the difficulty, you must make decisions, and build a plan to help manage the direction you want to take.

Perhaps the hardest part of this process has been for producers who are choosing to feed, and have started to draw on uncommon feeds to support their herds. 

By uncommon feeds, I mean choosing options outside of the usual products that include grains, hay, silage, plant based meals and prepared products like pellets. 

As these feeds become more difficult to source, or more expensive to source, producers have looked to alternatives.  In the past few weeks I’ve spoken to producers feeding products that have included;

Scrub cut on farm

Pumpkins

Potatoes

Grape Marc

Bread

Orange Pulp

I’m sure there are plenty of other things being fed to cattle and sheep.  These are just the ones I’ve come across lately.

While these options can be useful feeds, its essential you use them after considering the risks associated with these feeds.  Not all of these feeds are as useful or as good as they might be made out to be.

The important things you must consider are:

Residues:  Chemical residues are one of the great risks in feeding unusual feeds.  Many products from the horticultural sector may have been treated with chemicals for pest control or grown in soil that has a chemical risk.  These products might be fine for use on horticultural products, but in meat these same chemicals may be prohibited.

You need to consider if there is a risk with products that may have been treated or grown in soil.  Products like potatoes, pumpkins, and sugar cane tops can contain soil which may lead to a residue issue.  So its important to ask a few questions about the background of the product before you feed it to stock.

Dry Matter:  All products contain some water.  However the amount of water will vary considerably.  If a product is 50% Dry Matter (DM) that means half its actual weight is made up of water. 

The implications are that in transporting that feed, half the weight in the load is water, so you wont get as much as you were expecting to be delivered!

Secondly it means that the amount you actually feed out will be twice the amount of product.  In simple terms, if your co requires 10kg/ DM/ day you would need to feed 20kg of feed to meet those requirements. 

Often variations in Dry Matter mean ration amounts are not meeting livestock requirements and causing nutritional issues for stock.

Variable Feed Quality:  In a drought we are really aiming to provide the energy (Mega Joules – MJ) that animals require for their daily intake.  This needs to be balanced with an appropriate level of Crude Protein (CP%) for their production needs.  In addition the amount of fibre in the feed will impact both on energy levels and the amount an animal can physically eat each day.

Some unusual feeds can be reasonable in their energy levels, but very low in protein.  Others may have reasonable levels of protein but it is unavailable to the animal as the protein is tied up in tannins within the feed.

Protecting Yourself

For many people these unusual feeds help keep their program in place.  There’s noting wrong in using these feeds. 

However you need to use them in the full knowledge of the risks they may have. 

If you are going to use them, there are some things you must absolutely do.  These are:

Request a Commodity Vendor Declaration. The Commodity Vendor Declaration or (CVD) outlines the product source, the chemicals it may have been treated with and its suitability for feeding to livestock in regards to exposure to restricted animal materials (RAM).

If you cannot obtain a CVD you must record the feed stuff, where it came from, the amount, the date your received it, when you started feeding it and to what stock you fed it to.  This is all part of the standard records required for your LPA accreditation anyway.  I also tell my clients to keep copies of the invoice and supplier details.

Get a Feed Test DoneA feed test will tell you the quality of the feed you are intending to use.  If it has sufficient energy, protein and fibre.  The results of a test will help you decide if it is product that can be fed on its own, or if it requires something else blended to balance the ration for your stock. 

Either way, once you know, you can then decide how best to use it.

There are other practical considerations.  For example, feeding scrub is a commonly used source of roughage.  However you need to consider how you will feed it.  Don’t forget your own safety in cutting scrub!  We are not all NINJA warriors able to leap around trees lopping limbs!  So you need to be realistic as well.

Other products sue to their bulky nature, water content or size may pose limitations to how much your animals can physically eat, and therefore reduce the usefulness of the feed source.

If you are thinking of going down the path of using unusual feeds, then do some research.  Consider the risks and evaluate the true value of the feed and its usefulness to your program.  Remember one size doesn’t fit all! If you do want to talk through your options, please feel free to get in touch 

Jul 27

Dont rush to judge during this drought

Posted on Friday, July 27, 2018

I’ve been working as an extension officer for both the NSW DPI and privately for almost a quarter of a century.  I actually didn’t think it has been such a long time. However one of the benefits, if you can call it that, is I’ve seen and worked with producers through quite a few droughts.

Unlike other natural disasters that occur rapidly, drought is an insidious creeping event. And in my experience, droughts are a different type of disaster.  Each drought impacts people in different ways and at different rates. 

The onset of drought is one thing.  How individuals respond to the onset will often determine how rapidly the drought has an impact on them. 

To be fair, its important to remember that not all places, businesses and locations are the same.  So some locations enter drought more quickly because of the combination of regional weather, soil, topography and time since the last drought.

As an advisor, I have worked with many producers to prepare for droughts.  We have strategies and plans.  There are business models we have developed to balance stocking rates with country.  We have diversified and implemented development strategies to store feed and fodder and maintain or capture run off.

But there comes a point where even as well planned as you would hope to be, the drought catches up.  And when that happens the focus isn’t on preparation, its on response and survival. 

Almost all of my work now is in response and survival.  

My difficulty is not response and survival, although that is a challenge.  I’m actually struggling to deal more with the people who like to play the “I told you so” game. 

In the past few weeks, I’ve seen three separate responses to drought that have left me a little dismayed.  The first was from a corporate manager of a farm portfolio I consult to.  Over the past 8 months the portfolio has responded with a strategy and with plans that have worked really well.  

But like many other producers, this drought has gone beyond all forecasts and expectations.  So now the plans need to be redrawn.  And in the corporate world, despite regular briefings, the response I’ve had was that the drought can’t be blamed for poor farm performance this year and that the feed prices being paid should have been forecast.

Its taken the front page of the Sunday Telegraph to finally convince the corporation to appreciate the drought isn’t being made up.

At them same time I saw feedback from a farm business manager criticizing producers and the media for demanding a better response from the state government.  This individual stated farming is a business and that this drought should be managed by businesses and not bailed out by taxes.  

My final straw came this week.  A Facebook post I shared was used by an individual to criticize producer’s drought strategies.  My post, which was written to encourage producers to ask for help, to look for external input and to take care of themselves used an old image I had of cows being fed hay.  Despite not knowing who the producer was, where it was taken or why the cows were being fed, the comments launched into a debate about stocking rates and drought preparedness.

I’ve been pretty shocked to have seen and experienced now this range of criticism and to a great extent lack of understanding about where things are now at for most producers. 

The trouble is, these experiences are happening to lots of producers.  So I wanted to share a response with you, and to remind you of a few things:

  • Your plans were based on the advice, information and experiences you had access to. 
  • You’ve made responsible choices and decided to follow a plan
  • You are a business person who has made choices appropriate to your position, skills and attitude to risk

The drought we are all facing is now unprecedented.  So now the next steps are to re-evaluate and re-plan.  Your plans will all be different and individual.  

Finally I think sharing your stories are important.  Don’t forget to share how you prepared for this, what you did to manage and minimize the impact.  Awareness is the first step in understanding.  And for people not living in drought, or who are quick to criticize, maybe its just they aren’t aware. 

As I wrote at the start, this drought has impacted people in different ways and at different times.  So don’t let the comments of the “I told you so” brigade impact on you.  Instead reflect on what you’ve done and share what you will do. 

Don’t forget to keep looking after yourself and your family.  Drop over and see the neighbors.  And try and take a little break away.  Even a weekend away can be a huge boost.  Lastly don’t judge. We are all doing this one together.

Jul 13

Critical decisions for your cows

Posted on Friday, July 13, 2018

Drought conditions continue to extend across eastern Australia.  Unlike many other events, droughts are progressive.  Not all properties enter drought in the same way or at the same time.  At the same time, recovery from drought is often variable, depending on the strategies and the management of individuals throughout the drought.

Drought plans need to be responsive and change to adapt to the conditions.  There are some important things in a drought plan. These are the critical dates of events – be it calving or lambing; shearing and joining for next year.  There are also some critical trigger points.  These can be the amount of water available; feed reserves; and importantly the enterprise budget.  How much money should you use to feed vs. a decision to sell and buy back in later on?

Right now, many herds have commenced calving.  This is a critical time in the annual calendar of any herd.  In drought conditions, it is one of the most critical events.

When cows calve, their energy requirements double.  This energy is needed to produce sufficient milk to support their calf.  However in many instances, cows cannot eat enough energy to meet those needs.  So cows will often lose weight in early lactation.

The flow on effect of weight loss is a delay in the return to oestrus.  Cows in an average fat score (Fat Score 3) take on average 50 days to return to oestrus.  In an ideal world this allows the cow to heat cycles to rejoin and so meet a production target of a calf produced every 12 months.

However if fat scores are lower than average (Fat Score 2) and below, the length of time to return to oestrus extends.  This sees calving spread out beyond 12 months. 

In drought, most cows are already in low condition scores.  The on going risk is these cows will struggle to join successfully in spring, without the added pressure of high-energy demands from raising a calf. 

Over the long term recovery from drought is dependent on cash flow and resuming normal operations as soon as possible.  For many beef producers lower fertility levels that are a direct result of cow condition during the drought period often compromise this recovery.

So what are the practical things producers can do?  Here are a few strategies that could be considered in most drought plans.

Ensure your feeding program matches your cows needs and paddock conditions:  Almost all feeding programs are now taking place where paddock feed is less than 1000kg DM/Ha.  In these situations, protein supplements like roller drums are not only ineffective but a waste of money and time for you.  More significantly these supplements do not address the limiting requirement of energy! 




Draft cows into similar groups based on Fat Score; Weight and Production Status:  Cow intake is driven by their liveweight and production status.  So drafting cattle into mobs based on these factors will allow you to feed them more appropriate levels of an energy based supplement. 

Dry cows will eat less than lactating cows, so it’s worth considering drafting lactating cows into their own groups so they can achieve the nutritional levels they require.

Plan ahead to early wean:  For many people talking about weaning even before calving has ended might be a crazy suggestion!  However if the season doesn’t improve, early weaning could be a very good strategy to reduce feeding levels of the cow herd.  In other words dry cows need less feed, and you could feed them at a lower level.  At the same time early weaning would allow you to manage your calf growth and keep them on track for market targets rather than suffering low growth from low levels of milk production.  Successful early weaning needs to be planned, as you need to consider rations, space in yards and on going health programs.

Ultimately now is a critical time that needs you to refocus your efforts and make sure you are getting the most effective use from your available resources.  If you are not sure or want a hand, you can always ask me to come out and help you draw up a new focus to your program.

 

Jun 13

Some drought feeding tips

Posted on Wednesday, June 13, 2018

When I was commencing my agricultural degree, one of the subjects we were required to study was agricultural paradox.  The best description I have seen of a paradox involves contradictory yet interrelated elements that exist simultaneously and persist over time.  I guess we see that a lot in agriculture.  Situations that are incredibly important for one sector of the industry are detrimental to another. 

I think drought feeding is a paradox that many producers are grappling with right now.  In the first instance the greatest challenge for most producers who have chosen to feed stock is affording and sourcing feed in sufficient quantities for their stock.  There’s no doubt this is a huge challenge and an increasingly difficult one.

On the other hand, I think full hand feeding is much less complicated than supplementary feeding to address quality gaps.

Why do I think it is less complicated?  Supplementary feeding involves addressing a specific deficiency in pasture.  Generally it’s about “topping up” protein to stimulate rumen activity. This leads to increased intake and may require a ration readjustment to add in energy as feed is consumed.  To carry out a supplementary feeding program effectively requires constant monitoring and adjustment to meet changes in pasture and livestock needs and matching those to feed suitability. 

Drought feeding, or full hand feeding is less complicated in many ways as the focus is on providing a complete ration.  So the choice is really down to providing energy for daily animal needs, balanced with protein to ensure adequate rumen function.  When there is no pasture left, full hand feeding can focus entirely on these issues and it is much more straightforward to manage.

Most of my work in the last month has been to provide advice to producers who are now implementing full drought feeding.  There are a few common themes emerging that are important to share.

  • Full feeding is about energy first.  Energy has to be balanced with protein.  Feeds should be chosen on the basis of energy.  The more energy described as Metabolisable Energy (ME) per kilogram of feed the more efficient it will be to feed livestock.
  • Protein supplements such as dry licks; blocks and roller drums are not designed for drought feeding.  These products are designed to provide protein in situations of abundant dry feed.  Quite simply these products can’t provide the energy your stock need each day.  If there is little or no paddock feed then you are wasting money
  • Feed should be compared on ME / kg / Dry Matter.  Not all feeds are the same.  If you are feeding products with low ME values, or low Dry Matter  (DM) values, you will have to provide higher total daily amounts to achieve the same outcome compared to higher ME valued feeds or feeds with different DM levels.
  • Test all feeds before you use them!  Feed values vary enormously. A feed test is a very quick way to check the energy levels, protein levels and fibre of a product.  All of these will determine how much you need to provide to each animal.  Never assume that something is the same as the last load!  And don’t rely on your nose or fingers!  I don’t think its possible to smell energy or protein!
  • Don’t guess how much to feed!  There are easy ways to determine how much your animals need to eat every day.  If you want help please ask me, or your own advisor.  Make your calculations on those amounts.   Then weigh out that amount so you know.  A shovel full varies from place to place!!  And don’t get me started on a bucket size!  If you are going to feed at least be accurate.
  • Check your feed choice is actually suitable for your stock!  I’ve seen recommendations lately from some sources that are incorrect and could lead to animal deaths.  There are well-published guides on feeding animals products that range from grain, to hay, silage and white cottonseed.  If you haven’t used a product before, do some homework.
  • Get advice from qualified experts.  Not everyone really knows how to feed stock.  What was acceptable in the drought of the 1960s may no longer be relevant, safe or even available now! 
  • Lastly don’t waste your feed!  I’ve seen paddocks where stock have been fed hay and cattle and sheep are trampling on it, sleeping on it and covering it with dung.  We know this level of waste can be about 30 – 35% of your daily feeding amount.  So can you really afford to waste that much feed?

Droughts test your resilience and it’s important that you make sure to stop and reassess your position.  Good plans need reevaluation.  While drought feeding is straight forward, you need to check your feeds and amounts are correct for your stock.  This is vital as animals go through production changes such as calving or when the season changes.  Wet cold winter weather can have a huge impact and you need to be prepared.

Finally, if you think you need some advice, don’t hesitate to ask for it.  I’ve been working with producers across NSW and into QLD over recent months. So while I am out and about its very easy to for me to come and spend some time looking at what you are doing and then talk through ideas and offer some reassurance and the chance to make sure you are doing ok.  

May 28

Using fat scores on farm

Posted on Monday, May 28, 2018

Fat scoring is one of the most valuable skills you can learn as a producer.  The fatness of your cattle determines not just their suitability to market specifications.  Within a breed herd, fatness is a key indicator on the herds ability to meet key production goals such as joining, calving and weaning.

There are six fat scores used to describe the level of fat on an animal.  These scores are based on the depth of fat between the animals hide and the muscle or bone beneath the skin.  Fatness is assessed at both the 12th rib of the animal and at the P8 site.

The P8 site is quite a specific point, and many producers often ask me where it actually is on an animal.  If you draw a line from the high bone of the animal – the third sacral vertebrae down until it intersects with a line drawn at right angles from the pin bone, that is where you find the P8 site.

When most people think of using fat scores, its often in terms of deciding if cattle have sufficient fat for market requirements. 

However in a breeding herd, fat scores are also a really useful tool.  In the first instance, fat score at calving time will influence how long it will take a cow to recommence cycling after calving.  The higher the fat score, the more likely it will be that the cow will return to oestrus within the minimum time frame to achieve a calf every year. 

We know that it normally takes a Fat Score 3 cow about 50 days to return to oestrus.  Where as a cow that is Fat Score 2 will take another 20 days.  So when you do the maths of pregnancy at 282 days, plus a period to return to oestrus, you’ll work out you don’t have a big window of opportunity to have fat Score 2 cows successfully delivering a calf every 12 months.

In practical terms, fat scoring is a useful way to draft your cattle into management groups.  I actually think your cow management groups need to be constantly reviewed.  If you can draft your cows into groups based on size, weight and fat score, you will be better positioned to efficiently meet their feed requirements.

Drafting cows into groups based on these factors, means you will have the opportunity to adjust nutrition to lower fat score animals if you need to with the use of supplements.  Or if you are planning on selling a group of cattle, these can often be the easiest and most readily identified group of cattle to sell.

I reckon its also important to recognize that as Fat Scores drop, you have to be prepared to action some immediate strategies to prevent significant weight loss and to avoid compromising animal welfare.  Once your animals approach a Fat Score 2 level, they are starting to metabolise body reserves of muscle and are losing weight. 

If you can recognize this in your cows you can move to correct their nutrition, or make decisions about decreasing stock numbers before weight loss becomes significant.

Once a beef animal falls into the category of Fat Score 1, they are considered to be AT RISK from a welfare perspective.  This means you have to commence a program of management to address their condition through feeding programs.  You would be looking at ensuring calves are weaned off – to allow the cow to use all the energy she consumes for herself and not have to produce milk. 

Calves should be weaned onto a ration that allows them to grow correctly and without setbacks that are lily if there was no intervention.

Cows that are AT RISK (Fat Score 1) should be drafted into a separate group and managed so that all animals are able to achieve their daily intake requirements. This also means it will be easier to monitor these animals as a group and provide other treatments if required such as parasite controls.

Over the last few weeks as drought conditions extend further across NSW, I’ve been visiting a number of farms to help draft cows into groups ad develop specific management strategies for these groups. 

One of the key things I’ve learnt is that producers have been looking at their cows for so long, they don’t notice the variation in the herd, until we’ve drafted them up.  Once they are drafted and plans set in place, its rewarding to see the pressure ease on producers and a clear plan of action taking place. 

So if you are unsure about how you can use fat scores properly, or you’ve been looking at your cows for too long, perhaps its time to as for some help.  I’m more than happy to come out and work a plan out with you and draft the cows into groups with you.  Don’t forget I’m only a phone call away!

Apr 07

What’s the point of recording that?

Posted on Saturday, April 07, 2018

This week I was tagged on Facebook under a comment regarding data collection.  The comment referred to a practice of recording the ratio of weaning weight against dam weight.  This is a comparison often used in the U.S. 

I have to be honest; my initial reaction was to be a bit surprised.  Not by being asked if it was a method I used or recommended.  Rather, my surprise stemmed from this data itself.

I’m not saying this data isn’t useful.  For some people I’m sure it could be a useful piece of data.  However, for me, and for most of my clients, its not the first thing I’d be looking at when I’m analyzing a business.

In previous blogs I’ve talked about focusing on the important traits within a herd, and on the importance of using data to drive innovation.  I’m still not sure that many producers are doing either of these as well as they could be.

I’m a very strong believer that making the most of your resources and investments to date is the first thing you should focus on.  Too often I see producers chasing fads, pursuing new options without ever realizing the potential of their current program. 

The only way you will ever realize your programs potential is to measure it and compare it over time.  The measurements have to be relevant!  There has to be a point in recording it. 

The point of recording is to establish where you are, and then to set some plans in place to maintain or improve your position.  So the whole point of recording is to focus on the resource you have! 

My second strong belief is you should always grab the big wins first!  To me, weaning ratio against mature cow weight isn’t a big win for most people.  Its something you may choose to focus on when you’ve ticked all the big-ticket items off.

So what are those big ticket items?  I know I’ve written about them before.  However for a breeding program they are:

  • Conception rate (number of cows pregnant / number joined x 100)
  • Weaning rate (number of calves weaned / number joined x 100) 

There is an important point to this.  Weaning rate isn’t the number of calves weaned from the total number of pregnant cows.  It’s against your total breeders joined.

There is an additional big ticket item, which is calving percentage (number of calves / number joined X 100).  Again it has to be measured against total joinings.

The point of this?  Well it helps you identify fertility rate in your herd.  It assists you to clarify calving losses and weaning losses against your total numbers. 

I’ve come across many issues that happen post preg testing. These range from mid term abortion losses to dystocia and predation.  Having data helped focus problem solving onto those issues that were costing the program in a big way.

My additional big ticket items?  Well I like to know the numbers of cows calving at the start, middle and end of a set calving period.  If the numbers indicate a trend towards the middle and end, that highlights a real risk that cows are going into calf late.  If it isn’t addressed, those cows run a risk of falling out of a 12 month calving interval. 

In turn that lets me ask about weaning weights and perhaps then I may start looking at ratios.  But by then I reckon we have gotten the big ticket items sorted, and now we can start selecting on individual performance. 

So my question to you is what’s the point of the data you’re collecting?  Is it able to be used to fix the big-ticket items?  Can you use it to maximize the resources and investments you have?  If it can’t, then maybe you need to re-evaluate your collection.  And if you think you have the big tickets sorted, now you might be ready to fine-tune your program further with more targeted individual data.

And if you’re not really sure and you want to have a fresh set of eyes have a look, maybe its time to give me a call and get the independent assessment your business needs!


Mar 07

How do you prioritise risk?

Posted on Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Its vey common to hear how much risk there is in agriculture.  I know I hear the phrase “farming is a risky business” fairly frequently.  To some degree that’s true.  There are risks with the weather and the markets.  There are risks associated with production from diseases and pests.  There are the risks working with machinery, animals and working in isolation. 

However choosing to focus on the negative side of risk is also a risk.  Choosing not to do something, simply as a reaction to a perceived level of risk might actually be the wrong thing to do for your business or for yourself.

Lets face it; risk is part of life! There are risks with everything we do.  The way we manage those risks depends on our experiences, our knowledge of similar or past events.  It includes an appreciation of the situation and a decision to way up the possible outcomes of that response.  So risk management is something we all do!

In day-to-day life making risk management decisions needs to happen in our head, and often quite quickly!  However for a business, making risk management decisions on the fly, often leads to missed opportunities or costly mistakes that time and money to correct.

So how do you look at risk?  How can you plan for risks and develop a business structure that is robust enough to respond to risk and capitalize on opportunities that often come along?

One of the tools I find most useful comes from the work health and safety industry.  Called a risk score calculator, its basically a way to plot the level of risk to an activity or an event.

The tool plots the Likelihood of something occurring.  

There are five levels, from Almost Certain to Rare.  

The way I use these levels is to look at the data I’ve collected on the business.  Has it happened before, is it happening often, does it happen all the time?  In my mind, that’s the whole point of collecting data!

The second step is to decide what are the consequences of an event happening?  Is it Catastrophic – which if you prefer is an easy way to say if this occurs will someone die, or will huge losses occur?  And then through Moderate to insignificant consequences. 

When you determine that level it’s fairly straightforward to decide if the risk you are considering is extreme, high, medium or low. 

Effectively using this tool helps you prioritize your actions and future plans.  Extreme risks are the ones you need to fix straight away.  

Quite simply you need to consider what can you change to lower that risk?  Is it a change to the way you operate?  Is it a physical change to infrastructure?  Does it require you to invest in skills and training?

Setting priorities is a huge part of risk management.  You can’t do everything at once!  And while there are always jobs to do, some of them are probably less important and can wait a while. 

I reckon the real value of using this tool comes from actually sitting down and having a rational and objective assessment of the situation.  As I said previously, your data will help you decide if the situation is likely to occur or not.  The consequences of the event help set its place on your list of priorities.

I’ve recently been working with a producer using this tool to evaluate the impact of weather extremes.  Their farm data shows clearly rainfall is coming in more intense events and the periods between rainfall is growing.  

The pasture data shows changes in growing days as well.  That data shows that it is likely they can no longer rely on certain species of temperate pastures to finish cattle for their traditional market. 

The consequence of that is major impact on the business.  The risk to that business is rated as High.  So we have been working to develop pastures that suit the changes recorded, with more sub tropical species introduced into the mix.  We have also started focusing on alternative markets so that cattle hit the specifications.

These are all big business changes.  But we are making them to respond to a clearly determined level of risk.  More importantly with my clients, we have a set of priorities to focus on.  In sitting down to discuss the ways to respond, we were able to look at opportunities and new directions before choosing the best option for this business.

It also highlights the importance of collecting good data.  I like using data to drive innovation on farm.  Responding to and lowering risk needs some innovative ideas!  If your data can’t help with those decisions, then you really do need to rethink how you are operating.

Over the next month I’m visiting several new clients to look at their programs and offer some advice.  One of my first questions will be how do you manage risk?  You can be sure we will go through this exercise and work up a few priorities! 

Don’t forget if you want a hand to help set your priority list in order or to look over the data you need, I’m always happy to come and ask the questions and get you going!


Feb 21

Water has no nutritional value!

Posted on Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Every now and then I’m asked for some advice on new ways of feeding cattle.  With the drought extending its impact across NSW, those requests are much more frequent.  Most requests are generally pretty straightforward.  But there are always one or two requests that need a bit more of a response beyond feeding rates and methods.

One of those more challenging requests for advice comes when people ask me about the benefit of feeding sprouted grain to cattle.  You may have seen this system somewhere.  It involves soaking grain on trays and allowing it then to sprout and grow for about 5 days.  The sprouted grain is then taken off the trays and feed to cattle. 

On the surface it seems like a pretty good way to feed cattle.  Promoters of these systems will tell you that they can turn 1kg of grain into 6 to 9 kilograms of green feed.  Again that sounds pretty impressive, and almost too good to be true.  To make it seem even more exciting, you’ll probably be told it’s the cheapest way to feed cattle.

Well, the simple fact is, when something is too good to be true, there is generally a catch.  And in the case of these sprouted grain systems, there are quite a few!

The first big catch comes in the form of the feed you are providing.  Quite simply if you do sprout 9kgs of feed from 1kg of grain, you don’t actually have 9kgs of useable feed!  Most of that weight is made up of water in the plant.  And water has no nutritional value!  There is no energy or protein in water. 

In fact the Dry matter percentage (DM%) of most sprouted grains ranges from as low as 6% to 15%. So if you’ve produced 9kgs of spouted feed with a 15% Dry Matter, what your animals really get to eat is 1.35kgs of feed. 

It’s not a lot of feed really!  In fact all you’ve done is taken 1kg of feed and marginally increased the amount that you have to feed stock. 

The second catch comes from the quality of the feed you have produced.  Some very neat work by the QDPI on the use of sprouted grains summarized the research work done to compare shed sprouted grains, grasses and grain.  The interesting thing comparing say sprouted barley against barley grain, apart from the spouted being so low in DM%, was that the Metabolisable Energy (ME) of the sprouted grain was lower than the cereal grain.  Crude Protein % was a little higher in the spouted grain.

If you are wondering how that is a catch, its really quite simple.  In a drought we are looking to provide energy to stock in the cheapest way.  Feeds that are higher in energy are more useful to feed. To be economic in a feeding program its more ideal to provide higher or more energy dense feeds.  This basically means you can feed smaller rations but still meet animal requirements.

Lower levels of energy mean you need to feed a little more.  Combine that with the impact of low DM%, and the actual amount you need to physically feed each ay can become pretty significant.

I decided to compare this scenario through the NSW DPI Drought Feeds Calculator.  To make it simple I decided to compare feeding 10 cows for a month on either sprouted grain or normal cereal grain with the addition of roughage for rumination.  

To make it more relevant, I used the figures given to me by a producer who told me he buys grain to sprout for $70 /tn.  I compared it to barley at $310 /tn, which is what one of my clients paid this week.

The amount and cost of feeding spouted grain (without the labor cost added) for 30 days to feed 10 cows can be seen in this summary

Basically to allow for the Dry Matter of the sprouted feed, you would need to grow just over 31kgs of feed per animal.  That would cost you $2.18 / day and for a month you would need to spend around $650.

This compares to feeding grain.  While the cost of feed barley is much higher (as per the quotes I’ve been given) it is in the long run a much cheaper option. 

The first thing that should jump out when you look at these comparisons is the difference in the amount you need to feed.  The difference of 4.8kgs of grain compared to 31kgs.  This then translates into a cheaper daily cost per head, and a significant difference in your monthly feed bill!   

However, the comparison needs to go a lot further.  To feed grain you do need to consider how to introduce it, to feed it either in self-feeders or in troughs each day.  There is some labor in feeding! 

The QDPI work also considered the cost of labor to produce sprouted grain.  The systems can be very labour intensive (although some systems are automated).  However to make sprouted grain work there is a range of tasks from loading grain into the soaking solution, making the nutrients; outing grian into trays, checking growth, cleaning old trays out and then actually feeding the sprouts to the livestock! 

The report suggested that it takes between 2 – 4 hours to produce 1,000kg of sprouted grain, which in reality is about 150 – 200kg of feed for cattle. 

The cost of your time is a huge factor to include when considering these systems.  Based on the sums I did earlier; 1,000kg of sprouted feed would meet the needs of about 32 adult dry cows.  That’s a lot of time to feed a small number of animals. 

Finally the report considered the actually cost of producing the sprouted grain.  Most systems require a sizeable shed (which is often something you have to build first) and install the hydroponic system to sprout the grain.  You’ll still need silos to store grain anyway.  On top of this are the running costs as well as the cost of grain and considerations such as repairs and maintenance.  The QDPI team calculated it costs around $92 to produce about 800kg of sprouts.  On a dry matter basis, that’s $92 for 96kg DM. 

That’s a pretty high figure to include in your comparisons! 

I think its important to also ask if there is any difference in the performance of animals that are fed on sprouted grain compared to grain.  If there were significant advantages, well I guess it would help explain the attraction of the system.  Sadly it appears that there’s really no significant benefit from feeding sprouted grain.

So what does it mean!  Feeding cattle is a costly, time consuming exercise.  If its not planned well, costs quickly blow out!  You need to choose a system that is cost efficient and provides the best balance of energy and protein without incurring huge costs.  Its better to fed less of higher quality than more of average quality.  Equally important is not spending a lot of time and effort producing a product that really offers no nutritional advantage!

Droughts are tiring and difficult.  Checking cattle, assessing feed, moving stock, checking water, well you know the things you need to do every day.  I don’t think adding 2 to 4 hours work into the day to produce a product that is ultimately no better nutritionally but much more expensive makes much sense.

Perhaps for small numbers or for a specific purpose it may suit your program. But for the producer looking to efficiently feed a large number of cattle appropriately, I don’t think its an economic option. 

Ultimately you need to run your numbers.  Just remember that when you do, you need to take out the water component!  Compare the feeds on their value and Dry Matter.  Then you’ll know if it’s a system for you.

Feb 04

Profit - is it a numbers game?

Posted on Sunday, February 04, 2018

“How many cows should I be running?”  “Is a higher stocking rate more profitable than a medium stocking rate?”  Over the last few years, these are questions I’ve been asked on occasion.  Following my recent post on the basics profit drivers, a few people have approached me with similar questions.

These are questions producers have grappled with for a long time.  Where is the benchmark for profitable beef production?  First of all, what does it cost to produce a kilogram of beef in Australia?  The latest figures I’ve seen from ABARES suggest that in Southern Australia, the cost is around $1.74 and in Northern Australia it is $1.75

Looking a little further into the data, it becomes clear that herds with small numbers are much more impacted on by costs associated with production.  In southern Australia, herds with less than 100 head don’t produce enough beef to cover the costs associated with the business.  Herds over 200 head are slightly more marginal.  Often they break even because the business model relies on unpaid family labor!

Moving over 400 head is where the operations seem to start to become less marginal and more profitable.  In northern Australia, the figures seem to be similar, with herds around the 400 – 1600 mark relying on the unpaid labor to get through and over that 1600 mark the systems become more profitable.

There is no doubt that higher numbers have a key influence on profit.  It’s very hard to capture economies of scale with a small operation.  However, its important to look beyond the simple argument that more cows means more profits.  Increasing numbers needs to be considered fairly carefully. 

I have been looking at some work on the relationship between stocking rate and profitability conducted in Queensland.  These have been very interesting to read.  The studies have looked at the relationship between stocking rate and gross margin for growing enterprises and for breeding programs. 

The key findings from the studies include:

  • Increasing stocking rate does lead to an increase in production per hectare
  • However this increase is offset by lower production per head
  • There is a point where increased numbers will not increase production per hectare and may actually reduce production levels
  • Lower production levels per animal will lead to price reductions for fat or MSA compliance.  These often reduce any increase in gross margin achieved through the higher numbers.
  • Increased stocking rates increase the demand for supplements and lengthen the time period of drought feeding
  • Breeding herds tend to be less efficient with lower conception rates, lower weaning rates and lighter cull cow weights

From this work it appears that increasing stocking rates to high levels offers only short-term increases in profitability.  In my own experiences with producers who have pushed their stocking rates to high levels, it is a strategy that seems to increase risk to uncomfortable levels. 

By that I mean increasing the risk of seasonal conditions impacting more swiftly and to a greater degree.  Putting pastures under high stocking rates puts more pressure on plants and plant root systems.  Without a corresponding increase in fertilisers or plant nutrition, it doesn’t take long to see pastures become sparser, composition changes and animal performance decreases. 

The change in composition is a significant issue.  I have been working on the restoration of grazing properties in the south of NSW that have had a long history of high stocking rates and insufficient pasture nutrition.  Much of my work now is associated with programs to eliminate invasive weeds and replant desirable pasture species. 

Any increase in income from more animals has long been spent on worm control, supplementary feeds and now weed and pasture work. 

There is no doubt there are times when you need to manipulate stocking rates for specific outcomes.  I’ve recommended it with producers planning to renovate pastures, and we have used high levels to graze pastures right off in preparation for cultivation.  But that has been a short term management strategy.

I think the numbers discussion needs to be treated with some caution, and more importantly some realistic objectives.  I don’t think increasing numbers in the chase for more kilograms of beef per hectare is justified if it sees your animals struggle to meet production targets.

I can’t really justify the drop in conception rates for breeders or the drop in compliance rates for sale animals just to run a few more head.  So if you wanted to increase stocking rate and maintain high animal performance, you’ll most likely need to increase your fertilizer program, or your use of supplements or even both.  If it requires you to spend more to make that little bit more, is it really worth it?

When I am asked about the right number of animals, or what stocking rate to consider, I can’t give a definitive answer! What I can do is to work through the opportunities to use pastures efficiently and in a way that doesn’t compromise the long term viability of pastures, ensures high levels of animal production and doesn’t increase the ability to respond to changing seasonal conditions. 

So when you do look at stocking rate, take the time to look beyond the raw numbers.  If you are pushing stocking rate to the point where your animals are inefficient, or its costing you more in inputs than you are producing, you need to re-evaluate your program.  


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