The financial squeeze gripping many cattle businesses across northern Australia was laid bare a couple of years ago, when respected industry consultants Phil Holmes and Terry McCosker released an anlysis which found that in nine of the previous 10 years, 80 percent of northern cattle enterprises had not earned enough income to cover their operating costs.
Mt Isa cattle vet Ian Braithwaite believes the white ants were appearing in many northern businesses before the industry was hit with 350kg weight limits from Indonesia and the high-impact market suspension and quota cutbacks of the past two years.
However Dr Braithwaite, who visits hundreds of operations from Townsville to Broome every year, is equally adamant that with a number of simple changes to management, northern producers can make strong improvements to their bottom line.
Dr Braithwaite advises producers to focus on managing body score condition in breeders as a means to increase the number of cows that rebreed with a calf at foot and produce a new calf within a 12 month window.
He advocates segregating wet and dry cows and selling empty cows early to tighten a conventional 12 month calving period into a more efficient seven-month period, which in turn takes pressure off grass, removes the cost of carrying non-performing females and generates cash to fund operationing costs.
Right across northern Australian, the optimum calving period is determined by so-called ‘green dates’ – the time of year when each area is deemed to have a 70 percent or better chance of achieving a 35mm rainfall event over one week.
“This is where nature is helping us get the cow back in calf, and it happens in this October through to December calving,” Dr Braithwaite explained to the recent Northern Territory Cattlemen’s Assocation conference in Alice Springs.
“If we calve our cows in the right body condition, with a rising plane of nutrition, we can get that rebreed rate (higher).”
At rebreed rates of greater than 80pc, cows can be culled for poor performance, with enough replacement heifers to maintain a static herd.
With a rebreed rate below 80pc, there are not enough replacement heifers coming through, so producers are forced to keep cows they normally would not – “and these are the cows that are causing us problems,” Dr Braithwaite said.
A cow with a 2.5 month old calf at foot should be achieving pregnancy status at that point in order to produce a calf within the 12 month window.
However, it was not uncommon to have cows carrying six month old calves at foot but just one month in calf, which put them beyond the 12 month calving interval.
This breeding “drift” has terrible implications for northern cattled businesses, according to Dr Braithwaite.
“It affects our sale numbers and turnoff weights, the fact we have low rebreed rates means we are keeping more cows than we need in the herd, and we are starting to keep a group of cows that we are finding it very hard to look after.”
Generally where producers have low rebreed rates, they tended to keep cows that were sub-fertile, and should normally be sold for cash flow, to prop up their calving budget.
As a result their business was running long in calves, but short in cash, and was also likely to be running short of grass, because it was carrying more cows than it should.
“There are people who will tell me, we’ve got 85pc calving, but when you ask them what percentage of their herd has been turned over as culled cows, they will say nothing, there are no culled cows coming out of the herd.
“So they’re propping up their whole herd by keeping these sub-fertile cows, which has terrible implications genetic wise and for the rest of this business.
“As you start running short of grass you have poorer cattle, no body condition, and low rebreed rate, so it is just an exponential increase until you get to this total imbalance in cash flow and grass.
“We’ve got the calves there, but at the moment we can’t graze them, because we don’t have enough grass, and at the end of the line we get a poor cow calving onto some pretty ordinary pasture.”
Provided a wet season occurs, cows calving in the October to December window have the best chance of getting back in calf and reaching a Body Condition Score of 3.5 to 5 when they subsequently calve. Cows in this window also produce the greatest number of first round weaners in good condition.
Cows that calve from January through to April and produce first round calves and a second round of weaners do not have the same money-earning potential.
However, it is the out-of-season May through to September calving that costs producers heavily in loss of calves, loss of cows and the potential increased supplement costs to keep them going.
These breeders that calve in the early to mid-dry season struggle to maintain weight, cannot produce enough milk and will not reconceive or may be too weak to give birth. These out-of season breeders are destined to only have a calf every two years while they continue to eat grass that could be going to a cow that is pregnant and rearing a calf.
“What we’re doing in a lot of production systems for cash flow, we’re trying to eliminate this third group of cows (May-Sep calvers), and that is for welfare reasons as well, so the systems we’re pushing are seven month calving patterns, not 12,” Dr Braithwaite said.
“We’re not control mating, we’re just tightening a 12 month calving pattern into seven months, and eliminating that May-Sep group which is great for our business, because that is cash flow and it is also a group of cows that costs a lot to maintain.”
This management approach effectively means operations could brand as many calves off fewer calves, which freed up grass to do opportunity trading.
Dr Braithwaite believes all operational costs of a northern cattle enterprise should be paid for by the sale of cull cows. “The dry cows provide us with the cash flow requirements for the year, so that is all we’re asking people to do is to keep dry cows separate and not put them back after they have been preg tested.”
Wean on Body Score Condition of cow
To implement this strategy and to achieve higher rebreed rates, producers had to know how to assess the body condition score of their cows. Body Condition Score is a measure of the fat cover of the animal and is scored on scale at 1 at the lowest end to 5 at the highest. Each BCS represents a rise of about 60kg liveweight.
Calving cows in the right body condition is the key to achieving higher rebreed rates, and the biggest factor affecting the body condition score of calves at calving is the time of weaning.
The decision on when calves should be weaned should not be determined by the size of the calf, but by the body score condition of the cow.
Dr Braithwaite said cows should be weaned with a body-condition score no lower than 2.5.