Friday, 27 September 2019

In The Field, number 02: Balancing the grass budget

‘In The Field’ is a series of blogposts designed to give farmers a bigger voice in the broader community. The first post in the series was published on 24 November last year, and the series will run for as long as I can source suitable content. Any farmers operating in Australia who want to participate can send me a photo taken on their property and descriptions of how, in their working lives, they face challenges. An exchange of questions and answers would result in a final draft. 

Gus Whyte and his wife Kelly operate a 12,500-hectare property they own, Wyndham Station, and lease another 19,000-hectare property. They graze cattle and sheep on both properties, which are located in New South Wales 80km north of the Victorian border, in the direction of Broken Hill. They are on the Great Darling Anabranch, an anabranch of the Darling River which separates from the main stream just below Menindee Lakes and joins the Murray River further south.

This is a photo of Gus on a motorbike taken by Heidi Wright in 2013 on Wyndham Station.

The challenge

The Whytes have a number of interlinked challenges around drought/dry-time management. The last good general rain in the area was in September 2016, with only scattered thunderstorms and showers since then.

One challenge is to conserve a reasonable level of ground cover – grass that has been able to survive the drought – and to preserve the integrity of the landscape long-term. Earning a living from raising livestock shouldn’t mean damaging our land, says Gus. “The Land is our most valuable asset.”

Another challenge is to manage the breeding stock. Gus says that time, thought and effort have gone into the genetics of their stock and maintaining this resource is important so that once it rains again they can restock to more profitable levels. Retaining stock genetics is a long-term goal. 

And there’s a third challenge: until it rains these farmers must support their family and ensure that all in the household maintain their equilibrium and thrive. “Now,” Gus says, “it’s about keeping us in a good frame of mind so good decisions can be made.”

The solution

If the river floods the Whytes can grow crops on lakebeds once the waters recede but this may only happen every 10 to 15 years so, essentially, they run a grazing business. 

Using a grazing chart that combines rainfall data as well as paddock records, these farmers identified the drought early and started destocking in November 2016, so were able to get good prices at market for some of their animals before prices went down. Most other graziers started to sell stock in mid- to late-2017, so the Whytes were ahead of the curve. They have heavily destocked and now have only 10 cattle as well as a flock of 2400 sheep.

They take time to identify the next mob of stock to sell, a mob with “one foot on the truck”.  Gus and Kelly both completed a course delivered by KLR Marketing School, so understand the concept of “selling your grass to the highest bidder” (making sure that you retain the best stock for the feed you have available).  

Gus calls it keeping a “grass budget” which, he thinks, is something he estimates not five percent of graziers do. He says it is about reducing the demand on the grass as grass supply decreases and maintaining a stocking rate to match the carrying capacity (SR=CC) of the land. 

“Not living beyond your means,” he adds. By making constant small decisions early it relieves much of the pressure when feed runs out, and when you need to make a significant decision.  “There is no doubt that the biggest gain in a grazing business comes from matching stocking rate to carrying capacity,” Gus wrote in an email, "yet this attracts very little attention.”

Gus supplements income deriving from the family’s main operation by doing other work. He emailed: “Currently I’m doing a small amount of off farm work facilitating a community group in the Menindee area as well as a number of community roles in our region and industry. This work brings in a small amount of money and the main role is to keep achieving and maintain a good frame of mind so that good decisions can be made when times are tough here, also we can be ready to take our business forward when it does rain.”

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