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Ten years after selling the last of their cows, Richard and Janet Doyle have no regrets about swapping breeding for cattle trading on ‘Malgarai’, Boggabilla, NSW.
The decision to become cattle traders was taken in tandem with a move to convert much of their cropping country to perennial pastures, and the Doyles freely admit they’re still finding the balance between a healthy, dynamic ecosystem and a financially rewarding business.
But they’re well on the way to their goal, with an excellent season in 2015 delivering returns of $3/kg liveweight and further expanding the introduced and native pasture species in old farming country.
“We had variable financial results from cropping, particularly during the decade of drought in the ‘90s, and that prompted us to think hard about what we wanted the farm to be, how we wanted to manage it and what we wanted from it in return,” Richard said.
The conversion to cattle trading in 2005 wasn’t a difficult one to make, since the Doyles already had experience in marketing cattle through supply chain alliances such as Aronui Feedlot’s Pacific Pride and the Border Beef Marketing Group, which branded premium yearling beef to sell into Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan.
“That gave us the confidence in buying and growing out young cattle, and from there it’s been a matter of sticking to the fundamentals of buying and selling into the same market,” Mr Doyle said.
“This country lends itself to a production grazing system, especially when the season is with us, and our proximity to feedlots in southern Queensland and saleyards in northern NSW is ideal.”
They source cattle through private treaty, AuctionsPlus and saleyards to grow out for two streams: 250 yearling heifers bought in annually at 230-300kg and turned off at 400kg for Coles supermarkets; and 1,000 steers fed to 500kg to supply the feedlot export market.
The majority are British breed cattle, although they will buy stock with up to 40% Bos indicus content.
‘Malgarai’ is 2,300 has in two blocks separated by the stock route, just over the Queensland border from northern NSW. One portion, nearly 500ha, has a 10 kilometre frontage to the Macintyre River and the balance is in the Whalan Creek catchment, where the Doyles grow 450ha of annual forage crops.
Average annual rainfall is 615mm and the soils range from alluvial and loamy grey clays and black vertisol, to intermittent grey clay soils.
They formed a vision of a healthy farming environment supporting a profitable grazing and cropping business that encourages practical biodiversity.
“Without knowing all of the underlying science, we think biodiversity contributes to a more stable, flexible, resilient farming system,” Richard said.
“When things are out of balance you start to have problems - disease, weeds, insect pests, salinity - but if you can restore the balance in the system, those things don’t pop up.”
The mobs are run together in a rotational grazing system. The Doyles have installed more than 30km of poly pipe in a new water reticulation system which results in the cattle walking no more than a maximum of 1.3km to water.
As well as renewing boundary fences and refining infrastructure, they built two new sets of cattle yards and did a stock handling course to improve their skills in working the combined mobs.
Now they can muster up to 900 head without extra labour, and the induction of new cattle into the herd is a straightforward process.
Richard Doyle undertook a training course with KLR Marketing, where he learned to assess what it cost to take the animal to marketable weight and identify a trading margin, then minimise inputs.
“Our cattle have very little supplementation and basically the costs are marketing, tags, transport, vet products and forage crops – that’s it,” Richard said.
“We employ contract labour if we need it and also use the services of a cattle buyer and a marketing agent because they’re far better at buying and selling cattle than we are.
“We’ve also found that trading provides a pretty quick ‘release valve’ if markets fall or the season turns bad.”
Applying the learnings from 'Malgarai'
MLA is encouraging other northern producers to also focus on input costs, pasture availability and stocking flexibility in order to boost profitability, with these practice changes all key recommendations in its producer manual, Improving the performance of northern beef enterprises.
MLA’s Matt McDonagh said the changes implemented on ‘Malgarai’ demonstrated the benefits of understanding the basic drivers of profitability on farm.
“The Doyles have clearly identified these and implemented changes that allow them to better manage their costs and be more flexible with the production levels,” Matt said.
“The improvements to fence and water infrastructure as well as pasture management add value to each other and can result in a substantial increase in production.”
Healthy soils, productive pastures
The Doyles have participated in a number of education programs provided by MLA and Resource Consulting Services (RCS) to increase their knowledge.
“We’ve learned to focus our efforts to support our vision for our property and the way we want to live our lives,” Richard said.
“The grazing enterprise fits neatly with our goals, but the cropping enterprise did not.”
For most of their 19 years on ‘Malgarai’ they cropped dryland winter cereals such as barley and wheat, and chickpeas rotated with grain sorghum in summer, and ran a breeding herd.
At one point, they cropped 50% of the farm and grazed the balance, but in future, they only intend to crop 20%. They’ve tried different rotations, using biological fertilisers and additives, under-sewing with legumes and minimising long fallows to maximise the level of organic matter in the soil.
On non-farming country, pasture consists of 75% native perennial grass with the balance being introduced grasses such as green, Gatton and bambatsi panic. On the river country there is Mitchell grass and curly windmill grass, and naturalised medics growing in winter.
Richard said it was a far cry from when they first took the country out of cropping and were left with a lot of bare ground and weeds.
“From a cropping perspective we were mortified because we used to spend a lot of money and time spraying them out, and we were sure the neighbours wouldn’t understand,” he said.
“But we learnt that the weedy colonisers were just a phase you have to go through. You can’t speed the process up.
“We haven’t had a lot of success planting exotics to accelerate things. If the soil conditions aren’t right, the system is not ready for the more desirable, higher successional species – the palatable perennial grasses.”
Much to their surprise, they found that cattle grazed the weeds, which were palatable and gave some production benefit even if they weren’t preferred forage plants.
Regenerating the soil and boosting carbon has become their number one goal, and that means getting perennials into the system to support a sustainable, continually regenerating grazing and cropping enterprise.
“We have developed a level of comfort with perennial enterprises because we recognise the benefits of perennials and biodiversity,” Richard said.
“They tick all the boxes, while conventional cropping systems don’t.
“We are not there yet, but we have embarked on a continuous process of improvement.”
And he said they were most grateful for the advice of their peers.
“Over the past 12-14 years we’ve been on a continuous voyage of discovery, constantly looking for more information and better systems,” he said.
“We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to people who’ve really helped us and made it enjoyable to learn from them.”