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A meeting to discuss feed tactics proved to be a turning point for a West Australian cattle station. With the property in the grip of severe drought, the station’s owners had called in Thomas Elder Consultant Pip Houghton for a fresh perspective.

Pip found difficult infrastructure was distracting managers from making the big decisions, leaving the cattle station in a precarious position.

“A drought pressure-tests all your systems and soon exposes any weak points,” Ms Houghton said.

“You can’t help but feel for anyone dealing with drought but it’s a lot easier for clients who have planned for all possible scenarios than those having to make tough decisions under pressure.

“Identifying your thresholds prior to a drought allows a sensible and systematic response, resulting in more predictable outcomes.”

Ms Houghton and TEC colleague Bruce Creek spent a day and a half with the manager on a thorough review that included the management strategy, infrastructure, animal health and welfare, genetics and the breeding program, feed on offer, sustainability, carrying capacity and efficiency.

“It was clear that managerial interventions were minimal due to other competing priorities, so we developed a strategy to achieve sustainable numbers based on the available water and vegetation,” she said.

“Just maintaining water points was taking up an entire labour unit.”

Progressively switching from the near-derelict windmills to solar and implementing technology such as Farmbot water point sensors drastically reduced the time spent dealing with breakdowns. TEC and the station are currently assessing the viability of installing cameras at key sites.

The carefully budgeted infrastructure upgrades were part of a comprehensive management strategy to improve welfare, safety, sustainability and productivity to make the station more resilient financially.

The station sits near the border of what may be considered the line of viable vs non-viable country for a cattle scenario, Ms Houghton said.

The region’s long-term average annual rainfall for the region is about 240 millimetres but, in 2019, only 67mm of rain was recorded and up to the start of muster in November 2020, only 115mm had fallen.

“The drought put immense pressure on the vegetation around the fixed water points and a hard approach was the only appropriate action to take,” Ms Houghton said.

A partial destock would take advantage of favourable prices as the east restocked, while reducing supplementary feeding requirements throughout summer, improving the productivity of the remaining herd, and realigning the stocking rate with the carrying capacity as the station slipped deeper into drought.

After some COVID-19 related delays, TEC organised and coordinated a full station muster with a contract ground crew and aerial team.

TEC and the station developed realistic guidelines for the drafting process.

If the feed on offer allowed, the team would hold onto some of the better types of young steers and/or micky bulls depending on the targeted market.

“Due to the severity of the drought conditions at the station, we sold all mickies, big bulls, steers and bullocks with the exception of the two herd bulls with decent genetic merit that were still in working order,” Ms Houghton said.

The team spayed all older cows of reasonable type but in poor condition so they could recover some condition and be sold empty the following year. Heifers that did not fit the type were sold and those held over for the next muster would also be spayed.

“While the removal of breeders possessing some characteristics, such as heritable structural deformities, should always be non-negotiable, how hard you select for favourable types can be adjusted to suit your stocking rate goals and/or the speed of change you would like to see in your herd,” Ms Houghton said.

“Overall, this year’s cattle muster was a success with about two thirds of the herd being removed for sale, reducing the potential welfare issues of undernourished cattle and deaths due to low nutrition, with the added benefit of letting the vegetation surrounding water points regenerate.”

The muster activity was completed within 13 days with no lost time injuries or medical treatments recorded for any staff associated with the muster.  As part of the process, all of the retained cattle were vaccinated, drenched, tagged and relocated to waterpoints according to their requirements and feed availability.

Article written by Pip Houghton of Thomas Elder Consulting.

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