Feedlot plays vital role for NAPCo in a desperately dry year

Jon Condon, 30/04/2013


An expansion of feedlot infrastructure completed last year at the company’s Wainui feedlot on Queensland’s eastern Darling Downs will play a vital drought management role for the North Australian Pastoral Company in 2013.

As reported in last week’s financial summary on Beef Central, “NAPCo reports loss of $5.68m for year,” what is turning out to be a very dry year across much of the company’s northern breeding country has sparked an increased focus on drought mitigation using the company’s Bowenville district feedlot.

As fortune would have it, Wainui doubled its capacity from 7200 Standard Cattle Units to 14,200 SCU in a project completed in January last year. The expansion translates into annual throughput capacity rising to about 60,000 head, based on NAPCo’s mix of export and domestic weight feeder cattle.

The facility last year was not utilised to its capacity, because of the price of grain and the abundance of paddock feed for much of the year. In 2012, the company sold 59,500 cattle in total (up from about 57,000 the year previous), including 32,000 head which passed through the feedlot.

The 2013 year is a different story, however. Currently Wainui is operating at 92 percent capacity, representing about 16,500 head on feed. NAPCo has a lot of cattle on the move at the moment as conditions continue to deteriorate across the north, and the facility will be 100pc utilised within a month. It’s likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future.

Over the past couple of years, Wainui’s surrounding farming country has produced about 23,000 tonnes of corn silage, which will play a vital role as a starter/grower/finisher ration for a range of cattle from weaner heifers to cows and conventional feedlot cattle this year.

Wainui has slowly aggregated surrounding farming country, buying neighbouring farms over the years, and is now one of the largest single-footprint farming enterprises on the inner Darling Downs. Much of the 13,000ac (5300ha) under cultivation is irrigated.

While corn silage has a reputation in some circles for being less than attractive as a drought feeding option, based on cost of production, that very much depends on expected yields, and the subsequent cost of the material landed in the bunk.

NAPCo’s farming operations have put a lot of emphasis on efficiency and performance in its corn growing and silage operations in recent times, and now regularly achieve yields of 50 tonnes/ha. That’s a huge gap from 25-30t/ha on which many silage costing options are calculated, and means the operation can land the greenchop in the bunk for just $23-$25/tonne. 

NAPCo chief executive Nigel Alexander said one of the company’s aims this year was to try to avoid selling cattle ‘when others are forced to because of lack of grass’, but to be able to turn off later in the year when killable cattle are short.

Within the next three months, NAPCo will transfer 10,000 weaner heifers from northern calf-factory properties to Wainui for backgrounding/growing, in pens, on a low-cost silage-based ration, he said.

They can then either be re-deployed later as breeder replacements once the season breaks, or put onto 70-day grain-based rations for domestic grainfed markets.

12 to 13 year old cull-for-age breeders from Glenormiston and Marion Downs in the channel country and Coolullah in the Gulf on feed at Wainui. The cows pictured have been on feed for a week.Mr Alexander said at this stage, NAPCo was fortunate in that it was not in the desperate position of having to make forced sales of cattle, due to the poor season. Some lightening-off was occurring in commercial breeder numbers in parts of the Gulf, where needed, to accommodate and preserve the company’s composite stud herd nucleus.

“Certainly all of our cull cows are on the move, but that is part of normal turnoff,” he said.

Interestingly, some of the cull cows will also occupy pens at Wainui feedlot, where daily gains of up to 2.5kg/day are possible, provided cows are not already in forward condition. This can be a very cost-effective way of adding body weight, and recapturing shrink from the long journey from the Barkly.

None of the cows would qualify for grainfed ciphers, being fed only for short periods to gain 60-100kg liveweight before slaughter.    

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