Beef producers John and Angela Frith are bucking the trend when it comes to owning 486,000 hectares of Northern Territory dirt.
Laying claim to such a portion of land – as well as owning three backgrounding properties between Roma and Morven in Queensland – would have many producers clear on a production and marketing start and end point strategy for their cattle.
FORGING NEW PATHS
Instead of sticking to the expected path of breeding on Neutral Junction Station, 200 kilometres south of Tennant Creek, and transporting progeny back to their Queensland operations, the Friths look at each property as its own profit centre.
The Friths, in partnership with John’s parents Charlie and Liz, have 5500 Droughtmaster-cross breeders on Neutral Junction Station growing out on the station.
Marketing decisions are made when the time arises.
“This year we had a run of steers go north for the Indonesian market as we can supply cattle when other stations are flooded,” John Frith said.
OPENING MARKETING OPPORTUNITIES
“In the past two years we’ve used Ultra Black bulls over the Droughtmaster cows to open up marketing opportunities.
“The bulls and their progeny have great adaptability and are also able to fit the Indonesian job up north while still being suitable for tighter eastern and southern markets.”
Mr Frith said having access to such a variety of market options discouraged him from sticking to a traditional method of breeding in the north and trading into southern markets.
“Each property has to be profitable in its own right,” he said.
“If you sell weaners at 200 kilograms and the market is at 200 cents/kg instead of where it is now, you’re unlikely to get much more than cost of production back for those animals after freight.
"This is why we made the decision to move away from the standard calf factory concept.
"We find growing progeny out to greater weights gives more options in both marketing and destocking in variable seasons."
Mr Frith felt fortunate to be working successfully with his parents who were forward thinking and still active in the family partnership, which includes properties “Uabba”, at Morven and “Glen Arden” and “Glen Hope” at Roma.
Two additional leased properties in the Roma region make for a prime backgrounding set-up, and a feedlot on “Glen Arden”, while not currently in operation, would seem to complete the puzzle.
Mr Frith said the southern country was predominantly used for trade cattle, confirming an in-depth study of profit margins convinced them it was the way to go.
“It puts the onus on each property to perform and enables you to work out how well each place does perform relative to costs,” he said.
“It means you’re not stealing from Peter to pay Paul – you’re not selling animals you don’t want to sell just because you’re in a system, instead you sell the cattle you want to sell.
“We may still integrate between properties at times, so long as it’s still a profitable sell and buy for each respective place."
IRRIGATED PRODUCTION STREAM MAKES HAY
Another management feature separating the Frith family from others taking a similar route is their irrigated hay production stream, the brainchild of John's father.
Neutral Junction Station has an 89 hectare centre pivot system fed by water from shallow aquifers pumped from just 40 metres below ground level.
Mr Frith said the family was putting in another 45-hectare pivot, but had waited two years for an increased water allocation.
“We grow Reclaimer Rhodes grass and forage sorghum for hay supporting local beef operations as well as stepping up into supplying the AA Company-owned property groups within the Barkly Tablelands this year,” he said.
“We grew more than 2000 tonnes of hay this year and we’d like to increase that and also have the opportunity to go into more horticultural crops as well, but the government process regarding water allocation has been very slow.
“It’s quite a unique aspect as there’s not a lot of irrigation in the area although it is slowly growing – a watermelon farmer across the road successfully grew onions this year.”
PROFIT-BASED MANAGEMENT PLAN
Neutral Junction’s landscape ranges from flood out buffel country to pine mulga and spinifex, with the Taylor Creek system running from the southern end of the property to the north.
“The creek floods out and then falls below ground at a point to supply about 21 million megalitres to the shallow aquifers, of which we’re currently utilising 1200 megalitres,” he said.
The Frith family can certainly be described as “business-minded”, having enjoyed a long pastoral history in the Roma district and now clocking up 14 years’ ownership of Neutral Junction.
Their profit-based management plan includes retaining 1000 replacement heifers each year and pregnancy testing after six months to allow culling based on fertility.
“We’re really putting the sword to the cows to make sure they’re performing,” he said.
“Our ideal female is moderately framed and highly fertile,” he said.
“We control join the heifer herd with bulls introduced in November – if you join the bulls at the right time of year you can pregnancy test off the back of that.
“These are all things we’ve been working towards over the years, and we’re seeing results, without a doubt.”