Three families, three feeding plans, one drought to beat

Three families, three feeding plans, one drought to beat


Farm Online News
Rhett and Belinda Butler trail feed corn to their Merino ewes three days a week.

Rhett and Belinda Butler trail feed corn to their Merino ewes three days a week.

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Three Dirranbandi district families have made the calculated decision to invest in feeding regimes through the drought. Here's why.

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If the drought is to leave any sort of positive legacy in the Dirranbandi district, it may well be the swag of new feeding and management skills acquired by graziers.

The drought has lingered longer around the NSW-Queensland border district than many other regions.

It began in earnest seven years ago, and aside from a false 'break' in the winter of 2016, there has been little rain to halt the run of failed seasons.

There have been no crops for several years and many graziers have either destocked or opted not to join.

But some are bucking the trend.

Encouraged by strong lamb and cattle prices and the certainty that stock will be scant when widepsread rain does arrive, some graziers have invested in feeding regimes they hope will see them emerge from the drought with core herds and flocks in tact.

It's also clear that the advice, equipment, labour and friendships being traded across boundary fences have meant the difference between perseverance and despair in this district.

This is the story of three grazing families who've all chosen different paths in their drive to retain stock and keep cash flowing.

The Butler family

Just inside NSW, about 70 kilometres south of Dirranbandi and 50km north of Lightning Ridge, Rhett and Belinda Butler are busy feeding their remaining flock of 2000 Merino ewes.

A fourth generation Walgett farmer, Rhett purchased the 8100ha Yerandah with Belinda 10 years ago when his family's partnership was disolved.

The couple have another 2025ha property an hour south of Yerandah and between the two places they would generally hope to run 3000 Merino ewes plus trade cattle.

When dry conditions first hit seven years ago, the Butlers destocked and headed off-farm for work.

Rhett went contract fencing while Belinda found work as a teacher's aide in Lightning Ridge.

But when good rain fell in the winter of 2016, the Butlers could not wait to restock and get back in the game.

They started buying cast-for-age ewes from the nearby Wilgunya Merino Stud, knowing the quality genetics would be a valuble base for their new flock.

"We started buying ewes again in 2016 but we basically ran straight back into this," Rhett said.

"This time we decided not to destock."

With the national flock at record lows and a need to maintain cash flow, the Butlers decided to supplementary feed their Merino ewes and maximise lambing.

"A lot of people around here haven't joined, but we're taking a different approach this time," Rhett said.

After joining "on a storm" in March, the Butlers have been working to optimise their August/September lambing.

Two months ago they bought 50 tonnes of corn, paying $490/t, plus freight, from Dalby, storing it in a silo recently purchased second hand from a neighbour.

Rhett Butler

Rhett Butler

The corn is trail fed on a claypan three days a week.

"We're really trying to ramp that regime up now and build the ewes up as much as we can for lambing," Rhett said.

"We still aren't expecting a great lambing percentage but every lamb will count.

"The ewes don't look too bad. They aren't fat but they are strong and in good store condition."

Wool production is still the main game at Yerandah where the flock boasts an average of 18 microns.

But the Butlers are also thinking carefully about value of their sheep for meat.

They are ramping up plans to intensively feed more sheep by building new feedlot pens and researching sheep feedlots.

"The aim is to put weight on our whether lambs, selling them finished to take advantage of the strong lamb market," Rhett said.

"We're just doing anything we can to keep the cash flow coming in."

Thomas Burnett feeding out cottonseed to ewes and lambs on Tuttawa, 70km south of Dirranbandi in northern NSW.

Thomas Burnett feeding out cottonseed to ewes and lambs on Tuttawa, 70km south of Dirranbandi in northern NSW.

Thomas Burnett 

Just down the road, young Thomas Burnett has returned from 12 months saddle bronc riding in the United States to have a crack at running a trading operation on his family's 4050ha property.

Tuttawa was drawn by Thomas' grandfather in a post war land ballot and has been in the family ever since.

The property sits in 16-18 inch (400 to 450mm) rainfall country but Thomas says they've recieved less than 50mm for the whole of 2019.

Thomas has spent time working away from home, getting an apprenticeship in Toowoomba and collecting a few "buckles" in the US before feeling the need to come home.

He purchased his own small block outside Dirranbandi and hopes to one day buy a larger property.

Thomas' current trade focus is a mob of 450 Merino ewes bought for $200/head on AuctionsPlus in May, scanned in lamb to Border Leister rams.

The ewes lambed out well with Thomas estimating a percentage of about 110 to 120 per cent.

The Merino ewes with Border Leister/Merino lambs at foot.

The Merino ewes with Border Leister/Merino lambs at foot.

For the past month he has been supplementing the ewes and lambs with cottonseed and his plan is to wean in early December, finish the lambs on feed and trade in both mobs.

With lamb and mutton prices running red hot, and wool prices also strong, it is a solid plan despite the cost of the feed involved.

"I'll shear the ewes in December when I wean and they'll have a 12 month staple on them," he said.

"Their fleece results were around 21 micron so I am expecting a heaveir weight in the fleece.

"At this stage I think I will still trade the ewes but I have plenty of options there if it rains."

Thomas is also feeding cottonseed and hay to 60 caving Droughtmatser cows and has recently invested in a new 17 cubic metre feedlot mixer to be collected at AgQuip next week.

He also bought a load of silage at St George and will use the new mixer to create a ration which is 40pc silage, 50pc grain and 10pc roughage, at a cost of about $360/t.

"My main plan is to feedlot steers - buy them in around 230 to 250kg and take them through to feedlot weights of about 400kg," he said.

Like the Butlers, Thomas believed cash flow was king.

"It's been heartening to see the cows calving and the ewes lambing well. It makes you feel it's all worthwhile - that I'm doing the right thing."

The Carrolls

On the western side of Dirranbandi, Dean and Sophie Carroll should be enjoying the first few precious months with their first baby, seven-month-old Oliver.

Instead, they have been on an emotional roller-coaster of a different kind.

The Carrolls purchased the 6500ha Wombil Downs, 36km west of Dirranbandi, in 2013.

They had been running 650 Angus breeders, selling the highly sought after progeny to local backgrounders and lot feeders.

Feeding on: Sophie and Dean Carroll with their seven-month-old son Oliver are feeding 450 Angus weaners and will start offloading the tops in the next few weeks to local backgrounders and lotfeeders.

Feeding on: Sophie and Dean Carroll with their seven-month-old son Oliver are feeding 450 Angus weaners and will start offloading the tops in the next few weeks to local backgrounders and lotfeeders.

The Carrolls were managing as best they could through the drought. But when rain failed to arrive over the most recent summer they hit a turning point.

They had already cut breeder numbers and opted to wean early, hoping rain predicted for March would arrive.

"We weaned down to 50kg so we had about 20 on a bottle," Sophie said.

"We did our normal weaning program and it just didn't rain.

"So we had 450 weaners in the yards that were 50 to 150kg that we probably couldn't have given away.

"Dean had been researching grain feeding systems so we made the decision to buy a tractor and a feeder and have a go at feeding them ourselves.

"Our plan was to get them to a saleable weight."

The decision to feed the weaners was not taken lightly and he said the support of neighbours was invaluable.

They also invested in quality advice, using a nutritionist to consult on the ration.

"About 90 per cent of the gear we started with was the neighbours," Dean said.

"They shared all their advice and experience. We bascially went from panic stations to feeding within a few days."

A few months down the track, the weaners are looking healthy and soft, averaging weight gains of 1.3 to 1.4kg/day.

The weaners are looking healthy and soft, averaging weight gains of 1.3 to 1.4kg/day.

The weaners are looking healthy and soft, averaging weight gains of 1.3 to 1.4kg/day.

"In a few weeks our tops, those over 300kg, will be sold. We'll keep selling each month after that," Dean said.

The Carrolls further reduced breeders down to just 250 after learning just 60pc were in calf at preg testing.

"The maiden heifers went about 85pc so it was just the lactating cows that were doing it tough," Sophie said.

"That shows what a game changer the early weaning is."

After recently completing 35km of exclusion fencing, the Carrolls are also thinking to the future by diversifying with the purchase of 300 station mated Dorper ewes.

They will pregnancy scan the ewes and decide on a plan of action.

"We've got some Pimela country we can't utilise for cattle and the goats are getting harder to muster and handle so I thought we'd dip our toe in the water with Dorpers," Dean said.

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