THE agility to switch to more profitable options as seasons and markets dictate and the willingness to “have a crack at anything” has served Red Centre beef producers the Hayes family well.
In a part of the world where you have to grade your own roads and put up your own power lines, Ben Hayes says chasing every niche and every premium becomes a necessity.
Ben and his brothers Andy and Richie are fifth generation on “Undoolya Station”, just outside Alice Springs, the oldest pastoral lease in the Northern Territory.
It’s 144,000 hectares of Todd River floodout country and arid grazing lands dominated by buffel pasture and flanked by the spectacular MacDonnell Ranges.
It produces certified organic grassfed beef from a Poll Hereford herd.
“Undoolya” also has a horticulture enterprise irrigated from an allocation to the Mereene Aquifer.
It’s mostly table grapes but the Hayes brothers have “had a crack” at sweet potatoes, onions, cabbage, pumpkins and plenty more as well.
Ben and Nicole, and Andy and his family, look after the cattle while Richie looks after the grapes.
Looking over a carpet of green across his country last week, Ben Hayes joked “a bit of rain makes us all good managers.”
“Undoolya”, which typically receives around 280mm in a normal year, had no rain since January until 100mm fell around the grape farm area and 50mm elsewhere in November.
Jokes aside though, it seems a philosophy of thinking past the farmgate and being open to new ways - “if you aren’t you pretty quickly get left behind” - is the real secret to good management here.
The most productive “Undoolya” country can put two kilograms on a beast a day in a good season, Mr Hayes said.
Responsive describes both the country and management at “Undoolya”.
Traditionally fatteners, the Hayes brothers have at times turned off bullocks that were over a tonne liveweight or 620 kilograms dressed.
Droughts originally pointed them towards turning off younger cattle - in 2008 they didn’t have any weaners at all - and over the past decade they’ve looked to target other markets in pursuit of premiums.
In 2011 they became European Union accredited and started supplying feedlots in a fairly big way.
Their 400 to 500 kilogram steers can be turned off by 18 months.
They are also Meats Standards Australia accredited and have been organic for the past four years.
Organic premiums may have come off the boil a bit now, Mr Hayes said, “but because we moved quickly on this one, we got some very good early premiums for no extra production costs - just a bit more paperwork.”
“Organic was a natural progression on our management practices,” he said.
Bulls are sourced from South Australia and NSW. The Hayes look for a good doer, the ability to handle the Alice climate and the right pigment around eye as pink eye is an issue.
They prefer a classic Hereford look.
“Undoolya” generally sells between 1200 and 1600 head a year.
“We’re opportunists,” Nicole Hayes said.
“We muster, brand, take off anything able to be slaughtered, separate the steers - in amongst those there might be a few bulls we take out - and then it just depends on what feed we have on the ground and what’s most profitable.
“We have the ability to switch quickly. That’s the key for us.”
They will, for example, now hold off longer and fatten on this recent rain.
“Here, you have to target every niche available to be profitable,” Ben Hayes said.
“Freight is our biggest cost so we have to have a product able to reach those premiums.”
That goes for the grapes and vegetables too and in that case, it is having produce available at different times of the year to everyone else that delivers the niche.
In 2002, Richie and Leann cleared some Mulga scrub and put in vine posts. They now have 60,000 white grape vines on 60ha, marketed under the “Rocky Hill Table Grapes” label.
One grape vine uses the same amount of water as one cow, Mr Hayes said.
“We wanted a way to buffer against downturns in the cattle market,” he said.
They identified a two-to-three week gap in the table grape market, where other areas of the NT could not supply a product, but the Alice Springs environment could.
Across both cattle and horticulture, Nicole Hayes said their basic modus operandi was to care - for the animals, the country and the type of product they are putting their name to.
“We want to be known for quality not numbers,” she said.