The eastern states' big dry has opened the gate to a host of new market opportunities for stockfeed makers, and pushed livestock producers to look at extending their supplementary feeding programs when good seasons return.
For the past year West Australian stockfeed business, Milne Feeds, has enjoyed newfound demand on the other side of the country for its large-sized pelletised products made from lupins, cereal grains and added fibre.
Every week about 20 six-metre- and 12m-long containers loaded with Milne's EasyOne nine-millimetre pellets arrive by rail in Central West NSW to be unloaded and trucked to sheep and cattle producers.
At almost $600 a tonne delivered to the Parkes freight terminal, the flagship product is not cheap, yet sheep producers, in particular, have been quick to take advantage of the robust pellet's size and nutritional benefits.
Some grazing operations with prime lambs to finish, or ewes going into lamb, have taken up to 100 tonnes a week, according to distributor and Buckwheat Enterprises managing director, Geoff Brown.
"The dynamics of feeding animals in drought have changed a lot with good wool and sheep meat prices in recent years," Mr Brown said.
"People are paying for a well balanced combination of protein, energy and treated fibre in one product.
"It's worth their cost to keep lambing ewes in optimum condition, or they have buyers ready to take finished lambs at good prices."
A lot of people aren't just thinking about drought feeding, they're chasing performance
Similar sentiment has driven a surge of new business for NSW-Victorian stockfeed maker, CopRice, which began selling its Flexiblend bulk feed mix in the Riverina in April.
It fast-tracked a conversion of SunRice's mothballed Coleambally rice mill to meet drought-related demand.
The plant, not officially due to be fully running as a grain processing site until early next year, is already on a six-day production schedule churning out almost 600 tonnes a week.
The Flexiblend recipe involves wheat, barley, corn and cracked legumes, cottonseed or canola meal, plus almond hulls for extra roughage, and CopRice's VitaMinBuf mineral balancer.
It sells for $75 to $100/t more than feed grain.
New feeding agenda
"A lot of people aren't just thinking about drought feeding, they're chasing performance," said CopRice operations and strategic projects manager, Frank Cuteri.
"They focus on getting efficient returns from their livestock energy consumption.
"It's broadly acknowledged despite the difficult season, you can be ahead on returns with consistently finished lambs, or your ewes and cows can be in a better position to perform if you can wean early onto tailored rations."
Demand for the Coleambally-blended product kicked in with orders from as far as Moree and Tamworth "almost as soon as we made people aware it was available".
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While WA's Milne Feeds' sales have mostly landed on farms in central and western NSW, demand has also been notable from the Yass and Monaro high country in the south, and up to Tamworth and the Queensland border.
"This is a market which simply didn't exist for us 12 months ago, but now we see it potentially becoming a long term strategy for some people after the drought," said Milne's ruminant feed sales manager, Dean Toovey.
"I hope livestock and wool prices continue to reward producers once seasonal conditions improve.
"Feeding pellets to lift productivity, even in normal years, can make a lot of sense."
The 120-year-old company has been specialising in performance feed products for about 15 years.
Until a year ago it also supplied rations for live export shippers.
The WA habit of feeding through the state's dry summers meant Milne Feeds was well established with a product range easily adapted for drought feeding, or for breeder and finishing programs where eastern grazing options were wilting or non-existent.
Our technology was developed for sheep studs in the west, so we believe there's a good market possibility with eastern states breeders
A big bonus for producers using Milne's pellets is that extra dietary roughage is not required.
It has been a strong selling point on farms with little grazing roughage or stored hay remaining, or where livestock have been contained to selected paddocks to avoid widespread landscape damage from overgrazing.
"Our technology was developed for sheep studs in the west, so we believe there's a good market possibility with eastern states breeders," Mr Toovey said.
He would catch up with some of his new customers later this month, and visit Dubbo's National Merino Ram Show and Sale.
Buckwheat Enterprises' Mr Brown was early to take advantage of WA as a drought fodder supply source last year, initially buying in containers of field peas for his own flock, or for others.
Easier to eat
He later switched to Milne's pellets because their larger size made them easy for livestock to eat from the ground with minimal wastage, and they were a "complete feed package".
"There's actually spare capacity for pellet production in WA because new restrictions on livestock shipping mean feed producers don't have as much demand these days."
CopRice's Mr Cuteri believed southern Australia's rapidly expanding permanent horticulture sector would offer more value to future stockfeed users.
A key reason CopRice was converting Coleambally was the rising availability of byproducts such as almond hulls and processed dry citrus and winegrape waste (pomace), alongside the Riverina's cereal, cottonseed, corn and oilseed crops.
CopRice, established in 1987 to turn rice hulls, bran and broken grain into animal products, took a long term view of the livestock industry's needs and the improved nutritional options available from crop residues.
Smarter paddock priorities
Mr Cuteri felt drought experiences in the past 15-plus years were prompting sheep and beef producers to use farmland more strategically - in good years and bad.
"With land prices increasing, it could be more profitable to rely less on grazing dual purpose crops or pastures to finish lambs or steers, but instead feed these animals more prescription rations to achieve optimum market weights," he said.
Crops and pastures could be prioritised for breeding stock to ensure they were in peak condition and fertility to produce plenty of healthy offspring, helped by tailored stockfeed supplements when necessary.
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