Rayner Reckons

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.  

Jan 19

In the last few weeks I’ve read several articles and discussions focused on beef production.  Specifically I’ve been looking for ideas or thoughts that I can bring into practice with my clients this year.  After all, my job is to work with producers to find better ways and more efficient ways to produce beef and make money.

One of the first articles I came across highlighted the huge difference between profitable beef producers and the majority of the industry.  This article from Beef Central, suggests that only 2 in 10 producers is actually making money.  Having read that, I was more struck by the fact this isn’t really news to me. 

For some years now it has been clear that the large majority of producers are not making nearly enough money to operate a profitable business.  It also seems that there really isn’t anything new in the way that the profitable operators are conducting their business.   In fact the profitable producers are focused on their practices on farm to producer kilograms of red beef efficiently and profitably.

So what is everyone else focusing on?  It seems the focus for the less profitable operators is on the peripheral things.  For some time I have been following an on line breed discussion.  The discussion is driven by participants desire to be more profitable.   However rather than sharing ideas to implement on farm or in the business, the discussion is now around issues that don’t really make money.

These issues include; why does “no one want to buy cattle from our breed?” “why do people overlook us in the sale yard” “we can’t advertise the same way the big breed societies do”. I actually find reading these points a little disheartening. 

It gets worse when the discussion moves towards more defensive positions.  These things include “well we had a good success in the show ring”, “our carcase competition results are always very good” “people say my cattle are great”. 

Its generally about then that I stop reading and go away a bit depressed.  In 24 years of judging carcase competitions, I’ve never actually met anyone who has been paid because of the results of a single animal in a carcase competition.  It seems a very weak argument to put forward when discussing ideas to change and be more profitable. 

Finally in one of the rural newspapers I read an article by an older cattleman who wrote about his work over many years, crossbreeding animals, and his focus on feed efficiency.  While these are both very important traits, I was a bit skeptical when it also suggested processors need to change their specifications to suit cattle producers.  I’m not really sure that any other business would think it’s a valid point to tell the customer to change what they want to suit the producer!

So what does this really mean?  I think it means many people are focusing on peripheral issues that are not the primary driver for business profitability. 

In my books a profitable beef herd is a highly fertile herd.  It must have not only high conception rates, it also needs to achieve those conception rates within a defined joining period.  For many herds this really should be within 6 to 9 weeks. 

Those cows should then be able to actually calve and rear that calve through to weaning.  And then be rejoined in order to produce another calf in a 12 month period. 

Having worked with many producers, across regions this is the crunch point for me.  The producers who achieve these things with their cows are already achieving higher levels of productivity and profitability for their businesses. 

The next key point is animal growth.  Growth isn’t just genetics.  It isn’t just nutrition.  It is the combination of genetic selection.  I think t be more specific, choosing cattle for your country!  Choosing the genetics, the breed type and the animal type that suit the environment you live. 

If you get that bit right you are already on the way to making nutritional management that much easier.   After all if the cattle suit the country, your management should complement the animals ability to use your pastures efficiently.  But if your cattle don’t suit the country because their maturity pattern isn’t quite correct, or for some other reason, you will have to spend more time juggling feed and cow condition to ensure they get into calf, rear that calf and that any progeny meet market specifications.

I know fertility and growth (from both genetics and nutrition) has a direct link to business profitability.  Its pretty clear from lots of industry studies, the herds that produce more kilograms of beef per hectare are the more profitable herds. 

What I don’t really get is if it is so clear, why do we ignore these areas to focus on the peripherals?  I’d get it if a producer was ticking all the boxes in fertility, in growth, in nutritional management.  If the were I would see that they were selecting animals for market specifications and selling tem to capture the value those animals are worth.  In effect, if you tick all the boxes it opens up the peripherals to explore and extract a little more value.

I know some producers will be defensive when they read this.  I’ve heard it in comments such as “my cattle are fertile”  “Its a very fertile breed”.  My response is how do you know?  I know not everyone pregnancy tests.  I know that not everyone selects for females that go into calf early in the joining period.  I know that many cows are joined for longer than 3.5 months. 

So what does it really mean?  This year I’m challenging all of my clients, old and new to look at the basics objectively and honestly.  To make sure we are ticking the boxes.  The peripherals that distract many in the industry won’t play a part in our decisions until we get the boxes ticked.  I’m actually excited by this! I’m confident it will set my clients up to either become part of, or remain well within the profitable sector of the industry. 

Don’t forget if you’d like to step up and take the challenge, I’d love to hear from you! 

Jan 12

Shade for your cattle

Posted on Friday, January 12, 2018

The first few weeks of 2018 have seen temperatures in eastern Australia rise to levels well above average.  Hot temperatures challenge livestock as well as challenging people.  With another month of summer still to come, its unlikely the heat will ease that much.  So it’s worth taking some time to think about how you may help your livestock cope a little better.

Hot weather is an issue for livestock welfare and for livestock productivity.  Cattle generally have a core body temperature of around 390C.  There many be some slight fluctuations, but in general cows work pretty hard to maintain the core temperature.

As well as generating heat from their metabolism and from movement, environmental influences also impact on the cows temperature.  Hot conditions either from air temperatures, solar radiation – and direct sunlight, relative humidity, air flow and the length of time hot conditions persist all impact on the heat load of cattle. 

In general, cattle have developed strategies to off load excessive heat.  However, when temperatures and humidity are very high it becomes much more difficult for cattle to cope.  If cattle don’t have an opportunity to off load heat, they will start to become stressed and may die.

Cattle off load heat in various ways.  Drinking cold water absorbs heat and helps lower the animal’s temperature.  Heat can also be conducted from the animal to the ground by lying down.  Standing in water is an obvious way of transferring heat.

The effect of shade on livestock is just as important.  Work by Dairy Australia has shown that cows with access to shade receive 50% less solar radiation than exposed cattle.  The movement of air through branches helps the transfer of heat from cattle to the atmosphere and will further reduce the heat load. 

When cattle can access shade they tend to rest until the cooler parts of the day before grazing.  I recently read some research that showed cattle prefer shade over water in hot conditions and they actually spend more time resting and less time chewing their cud as temperature rises.

Without shade cattle will camp close to dams and water supplies.  They will often group together just to get some shade from their heard mates.  While this does provide a little shade, it also means more heat absorption from the close contact with other animals.  Where they can cattle will look for places where there may be a breeze to help provide some air flow and allow heat to be transferred from their bodies.

In practical terms, along with access to sufficient good quality water, providing cattle with access to shade is probably the most effective method of helping them cope with hot temperatures. 

Trees are a more effective option to provide shade for livestock than artificial structures.  I’ve spent some time talking to researchers who have shown that trees not only reduce radiation on cattle.  They also reduce the air temperature under the tree by around 10

While that seems to be only a small reduction, it does mean that the ground under the trees is also much cooler.  Cows can lay in the shade and transfer heat more easily than if they were in an exposed paddock.

Trees also cool the air around them through a process known as evapotranspiration.  This is the process of water evaporating from the leaves of the tree.  As this occurs it helps reduce the amount of radiant energy left to war the air.  In some ways trees act as a natural air conditioner!

However there is a catch!  Evapotranspiration is much more effective when a tree is growing well ad in good health.  There is plenty of data that shows single trees, and trees in poor health are much less effective in this process.  There is some research that suggests that heavily compacted or poorly aerated soil will reduce the amount of evapotranspiration is 75% lower than in healthy trees.  Quite simply the tree can’t absorb enough water from the soil for the process to happen.

So what does this mean in practical terms?  I reckon the first is that natural shade is vital.  I guess a single tree is better than nothing.  But for a big mob of cattle a single tree wont really do much. Having a big group of stock crowding around a tree will place a lot more pressure on that tree.  The soil is likely to be more compacted and reduce the ability of the tree to absorb the water it needs. 

I really think that in periods of hot weather, your cattle will be much more able to off load heat if you grazed them in paddocks with plenty of trees.  If they can spread out they will find their shade, and spend less time standing in dams, which often results in fouled water.  (This has its own set of problems!) 

Longer term you may even consider planting more trees.  More trees in places will take pressure off those old single trees, and will give you and your cattle some useful options to cope with the hot days in the future.

Lastly, excessive movement creates heat and prevents cattle from finding ways to off load the heat they have accumulated.  Moving or working cattle should be done early in the day or later in the afternoon.  This lets your cattle find some shade when its hot and avoids building up unnecessary heat.

Its important not to forget that water consumption (even with plenty of shade) will be much higher in hot weather.  So make sure you check your water supplies regularly to make sure there is enough good quality water for all your cattle!

Sep 19

How useful are EBVs?

Posted on Tuesday, September 19, 2017

I am certain at some point you will have heard the question asked, “How useful are these EBVs?” If you haven’t head that question you most likely will have heard something very similar.

The annual bull-selling season is a time when many people seem to ask questions about EBVs. The questions are not restricted to the usefulness of EBVs. They also include what do they mean, how do we actually use them and most frequently, why bother with them!

This year I was tagged on Facebook to make a comment on an American article that questioned EBVs, or as they are known in the US EPDs (which is Expected Progeny Differences). It was a pretty long article that questioned the science and mathematics that underpin the calculation of Breeding Values.

I had to read the article about three or four times to properly understand it! However two lines stood out for me. The first asked if EBVs were a tool or a toy. The suggestion was that EBVs were a dangerous toy being used unthinkingly and that it was a cult like behavior! The second was the summary line quoting a Tom Lasater, founder of the Beefmaster breed who said: "Breeding cattle is easy. The difficult part is keeping it easy!"

The article made me think a lot about my advice and the work I’ve done with producers for over 20 years. The comment about breeding cattle is easy, and the difficult part is keeping it easy is a good place to start.

Breeding cattle is easy! You can buy a bull and leave him with a group of cows all year. You don’t need to spend a lot, and you don’t really have to do much.

However, breeding cattle and making a profit is not so easy! Profit is driven in beef herds by the average price you receive and the kilograms of beef you produce per hectare. The average cost to produce a kilogram of beef in Southern Australia is $1.74 and in northern Australia its $1.75

So to be profitable, you can either increase your average price per kilogram, or reduce your costs or increase your kilograms of beef produced per hectare. Of these three options, the one with the greatest variation and the most potential to be manipulated in the kilograms of beef you produce per hectare.

Increasing your kilograms per hectare requires you to focus on two key areas. Nutrition and genetics. I actually find it hard to prioritise one over the other. In most situations, nutrition often limits the genetic potential of cattle. I have seen many herds with genetics that were capable of producing more kilograms of beef, but those genetics were never going to be expressed with the level of nutrition on offer.

Conversely genetics offer the opportunity to increase the ability of animals to grow faster, to be more muscular or more fertile or to have the traits that contribute to market compliance. It’s just as important to ensure your animals can fully utilize the nutrition you provide, so that investment in pastures, crops or feed isn’t wasted.

Increasing your production is a result of focused nutritional management and clear genetic improvement to capture the traits that help you produce cattle that suit your environment and your markets.

The difference between this and a basic, ‘simply put the bull out with the cows program’ is the simple option remains unfocussed. Cows calve when they calve. Weaners hit weights at varying times. Marketing is done ad hoc! Essentially this is a commodity production system where breeders have little opportunity to take advantage of market specifications or industry programs that can increase the average price per kilogram.

So in my mind, profitably breeding cattle isn’t simple! You need to manage the complexity of nutrition in varying seasons and localities. You need to consider market specifications as well as programs such as MSA that can increase your average price per kilogram. And you need to invest in genetics that will allow you to lift your production to be profitable.

The hardest thing with genetics is you can’t actually see them in an animal. When you look at a bull or a cow, you can see its physical appearance. It’s a direct result of its individual background, its nutrition and environment allowing it to express its genetics. Will that be the same in your business? How do you know? You have at best a guess that he may or may not suit your program.

The use of EBVs and particularly those that have high accuracies mean you have a better estimation of the genetic potential of that animal to contribute those traits into your herd. High accuracies mean that data on those genetics has been recorded on numerous programs and environments. This offers you a better insight into the genetic potential of an animal and therefore an opportunity to make a more informed selection.

I’ve never considered an EBV as a crystal ball. Its an estimation based on recordings and analysis. I would never consider them a toy! I use EBVs as a tool that help me select a number of bulls that would contribute the genetics my clients require to increase their production of beef per hectare. Once I have those bulls identified, I need to physically assess them. If the bull is unsound, or has a poor temperament or displays attributes unsuited to my client, I don’t recommend him!

So when I’m asked how useful are EBVs, I always answer that EBVs are a very useful tool. And that tool is to help refine your search for a sire down to a manageable number that you will then physically assess.

Breeding cattle is simple. Being a profitable cattle breeder takes a bit more work and focus. However if you want to be profitable there are tools to help make your job a bit easier. Every tool has a limitation, and if you know the limitations and use them as they are meant to be used, I reckon you can make breeding profitable cattle a bit easier than some people make them out to be!


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