Beef producers are turning to custom feeding replacement heifers in Riverina feedlots as they face the prospect of another six months of supplementary feeding.
Gundagai agronomist and cattle producer Mark Lucas told attendees at a drought management seminar in Wagga this month, custom feeding replacement heifers at around $18 a week was a viable option.
He said there was little agistment or access to travelling stock reserves in southern and northern NSW.
“Feeding replacement heifers over 180kg is a guarantee of the future if you cannot handle them on your place,’’ Mr Lucas said.
On the upside, some producers are expected to benefit from summer rainfalls by accelerating high protein brassica, chicory, and lucerne growth for grazing.
“Everyday we are fighting the balance between not spending too much and keeping animals in good health,’’ Mr Lucas said.
He hosted a Pasture Agronomy Services drought feeding and management seminar in Wagga Wagga on December 11.
“It’s a day by day application, especially if you brought a lot of fodder in.
“When every bale you put out is worth $180, all of a sudden it becomes important as to what you are feeding.
“No one does droughts well – as much as we try to prepare, we can never prepare sufficiently well.
“We have to be planning for at least another six months of supplementing livestock.
“For the eastern Riverina, this drought is going to be solid and will impact on autumn pasture response.’’
Mr Lucas said many grass pastures had failed to produce sufficient seed for 2019, especially north of Gundagai.
He said clovers would be the first pasture variety to recover, but grass density would be down.
The demise of the NSW canola harvest had been a “god send’’ for livestock production.
“Anyone who bought fodder over winter paid a lot of money for inferior product coming out of Victoria with much of it up to three and four years old,’’ Mr Lucas said.
“We were right at the bottom end of the barrel in terms of what roughage was available and people really struggled to buy something reasonable to support cows.
“Along comes the canola and there was plenty of bad press about what it does and doesn’t do.
“However, through intelligence and good science, we have managed a good product quite well.’’
Mr Lucas said canola hay had feed tested at up to 13.5 megajoules per kilogram of dry matter this year.
Crude protein levels in the samples tested by NSW DPI had ranged from 4.8 to 34.9 grams per kilogram of dry matter.
“With such a range in crude protein levels, if you are going to buy a lot, do a feed test and know what you are feeding,’’ he said.
“Fodder prices are high but are they high relative to the value of your profit margin.
“Mutton, lamb and wool are all at record prices and beef is surprisingly strong relative to the large dry area from southern NSW to Queensland.
“The mutton price has assured a lot of sheep have been slaughtered and the female cattle kill percentage is high at 55 per cent, having a huge impact on numbers going forward.’’
Mr Lucas does not expect grain prices to fall significantly on the back of freight rates from Western Australia to the eastern seaboard.
A positive for the grazing/cropping industries from the drought has been the maturation of online buying and selling platforms for hay and grain based on feed tests.
Mr Lucas said southern NSW beef producers had achieved exceptional weight gains in young cattle on nutrient dense pasture last spring.
“When the plant is on the point of dehydration, the nutrient analysis is high and there will be exceptional performance by lambs and weaner cattle responding to the higher protein levels,’’ he said.
“Soil phosphorus and sulphur level tests have showed no change but soil organic matter levels will start declining through surface wind erosion and lack of a spring root system.’’
Mr Lucas recommended selective early summer weed control program for heliotrope, catheads and burrs so soil nutrients and moisture for autumn pastures were not compromised.
When it comes to autumn pasture sowing, he advised oversowing with an economic blend of Economax as cereals will be expensive with oats forecast to retail at $800-$1500 a tonne, depending on the variety.
“Maintaining weed free fallows for early sowings is paramount,’’ he said.
Grazing canola varieties, SF Edimax CL and Hyola 970CL, have shone during this year’s drought in southern NSW.
“The canola can be sown in February and will stay vegetative through until the following November,’’ Mr Lucas said.
“This crop has revived itself, it grows quickly and supports larger stocking rates over winter (up to 16 DSE/hectare) – we need to start looking at this as an alternative to normal cereal production due to its seasonal flexibility.’’
Mr Lucas recommended creep feeding with pellets and early weaning for spring drop calves if under 120kg bodyweight.
Weaners require treatment with vitamin A, D and E, Multimin and Piliguard, clostridial vaccinations, and fed in containment areas to minimise feed wastage.
Mr Lucas said animals fed two per cent of their bodyweight would incur a slow weight loss, three per cent would maintain lactating females and four per cent would result in weight gain in dry and lactating stock.