Focus on health and productivity helps overcome extremes
Nina House knows a thing or two about dealing with uncertainty. Along with her parents, Ashley and Margaret, Nina has supported the House family’s beef farming business in west-central Queensland during the past seven years of drought.
The House family has been raising beef cattle in Aramac in the desert highlands since 1983. Their herd is predominantly Brahman, with a few cross cows. They mainly extinguish weaned steers, fat cull cows and some excess heifers.
“We live in a very difficult environment with a high rate of drought and flooding,” said Nina.
“It taught us to deal with extremes and not rely on rain. We have noticed that the last decade has become more extreme, especially with the higher temperatures. “
Seven years ago, the Houses enlarged their domain, bringing their total to 39,000 ha. At the time, they had 1,400 breeders, but after seven years of drought, that number is now down to around 800 breeders plus 200 to 400 replacement heifers and young animals.
“We have very old soils that are deficient in phosphorus and nutritionally deficient, but they are still home to over 2,000 plant species. When growing conditions are right, our native grasses are not as nutritious as introduced species, but they are hardy and are there for us during drier times.
“Analysis of the faeces has shown that our cattle ingest an average of 20 to 30% of graze (or species other than grasses), but sometimes it can go up to 60%.
Improve the land
“We have been very fortunate to be able to maintain a quorum of breeders over the past seven years. For us that means focusing on animal health and figuring out how to do more with less.
“We prioritize the promotion of a healthy environment for plants and soils. A healthy environment creates healthy production, which leads to a healthy business and, ultimately, it’s important for the health of our own families, ”said Nina.
Improvements to the environment include the introduction of rotational grazing, improving the composition of pastures, and reducing the walking distance to water. On the management side, they have taken a proactive approach, implementing a tracking and weighing system that allows them to target complementary feeding where it is most needed.
“We expect our cattle numbers to increase as conditions improve and we still have development work to do on both properties which should allow us to transport more cattle,” said Nina.
“We use a four paddock rotation system based on moving cattle about every six to eight weeks or when we need to bring them in, like during tagging or weaning. This means that each paddock will benefit from a wet season rest every two years. Our stocking rate is not too intense as we had to suckle our breeders for seven below average seasons.
“We are also introducing different species of grasses and legumes. We don’t want to completely replace the natives, but adding diversity to the pasture relieves the native grasses, allowing them to recover a bit.
Other improvements include reducing the size of the pen and adding water points to reduce the distance livestock have to travel to access water. They use Google Earth Pro to identify and map the optimal locations for waterholes and fences for each type of land to avoid overgrazing in the mildest country.
Tools of the trade
Nina said long-term forecasting is not something they can rely on in their area. Although the Maisons follow the forecasts on the Meteorological office and use the Long reports Paddock DRILLING, they tend to use them to reinforce decisions that are firmly based on what is happening on the pitch – for example the amount of grass in the paddock.
“FORAGE reports are particularly useful for monitoring vegetation cover and pasture growth. Our long-term experience in the field has given us a pretty good understanding of where we are today – but these reports put the reality of the situation in words and numbers and make it easier to trust your gut, ”said Nina.
“I don’t know if we’re expecting too much from the forecast – there is still a lot to learn about our climate systems.
“The tool we have found to be the most effective in managing livestock in this changing environment is probably a weighing system with software that tracks the weight of each animal. Tracking weightings and management activities has given us a better understanding of our growth rates and what we can achieve in this changing environment, ”she said.
“This means we can better predict how long it will take an animal to reach its target weight and identify which ones will need supplements. We give lick supplements throughout the year due to phosphorus deficiencies, but the scales allow us to customize our supplements for different weight classes. For example, we could draft the weaned babies and put them on a higher protein diet to get them up to speed.
“In this environment, extremes are a daily reality. By focusing on keeping the production system running smoothly, we put ourselves in the best position to overcome these extremes. “