Click above to listen to Dan Lynch’s presentation to the Calf Alive Symposium – Source: www.futurebeef.com
PROACTIVELY working to lower calf loss rates is an important strategy to increase production from existing herds in northern Australia, but cattle producers say more research is needed to better understand causes and solutions.
At the Calf Alive Symposium at Capella in Central Queensland last November, well-known north Queensland cattleman Dan Lynch shared his experiences managing calf loss rates on his property at Cloncurry and a property at Katherine in the NT bought three years ago.
On their Cloncurry property, Tara Station, the Lynches have reduced annual calf loss rates to 6.9pc, well below the regional average of 14 percent.
In their first year on the Katherine property, Stapleton Station, north of Katherine, calf losses from a breeding herd of 2000 cows totaled 24 percent. That amounted to losses worth $228,000, or about 80,000 tonnes in lost beef production, a year.
However, management interventions since then have seen that rate drop from 24pc to 13pc, reducing calf losses to around $104,000.
Cash Cow figures estimate calf loss rates across the Northern Territory’s 1.25 million breeding herd stand at 16.4pc for first calf heifers and 13.5pc for mature cows.
Lowering these rates to 13pc for first calf heifers and 10pc for cows would result in an extra 43,440 calves being produced in a single year from the existing NT herd.
Mr Lynch outlined a range of proven interventions that he said were known to work, but also a series of ‘unknown interventions’ where further research was needed to provide more answers.
Asked by an audience member which control measure had generated the most significant impact, Mr Lynch replied that it was body score going into calving.
In response to another question about genetic strategies to lower calf loss rates, Mr Lynch explained that he has used full pregnancy testing, controlled matings, a confined 60 day joining period, culling of non-calvers and careful bull selection to improve fertility in his breeding herd for the past 17 years.
“By putting fertility pressure on the herd we feel we have got as much as we can from reduced calf loss that way (through genetics),” he said.
“…I am not suggesting for a moment that we haven’t got infallible fertility genetics but we have tried to sort the bludgers out pretty stringently.”
Mr Lynch’s presentation also triggered an in-depth discussion about the value of predator control.
Mr Lynch identified predator control as a proven intervention, and one that had helped to reduce calving loss rates from 24pc to 13pc.
On his Katherine, NT, property he has three fenced-off nature conservation areas which provide a diverse diet for dingoes. However a proportion of calves were still bitten or eaten by dogs each year.
“It is not about cleaning out all the dingoes,” he said. “But we have to find the right balance, we don’t know that yet.”
Father-and-son dingo researchers Drs Lee and Ben Allen said studies in Queensland, South Australia and the Northern Territory had shown no relationship between dingo control strategies and calf loss rates.
Dr Lee Allen said there was “obviously evidence that dingoes do at times kill calves” but it was still a mystery why damage happens on one property while an immediate neighbour ees dogs go through but doesn’t have any calves bitten.
Dr Allen said from his experience baiting programs might kill about 50 percent of dogs in an area. The same area is then gradually reoccupied by younger, immature dogs, which tend to be more inclined to waste energy by ‘playing’ with calves, biting them but not necessarily killing or eating them. “Evidence of bitten calves is basically an unsuccessful attack so they have basically wasted energy without something to eat for it,” he said.
“That is a classic response from something that is just playing with it and they’re not really serious.”
Another behavioral observation was that first-time heifers learn how to defend their calf by watching the actions of experienced cows around them. However when young mothers were segregated from experienced cows it was possible this made their calves more vulnerable to dog attacks, because they had not yet had the social learning of how to defend a calf.
His son, Dr Ben Allen, an experienced dingo researcher based at the University of Southern Queensland, said there was a trade off between controlling dogs to reduce predation, versus freeing-up predation on all of the various herbivores competing for grass in a paddock.
“That balance is really quite important for beef producers across the country,” he said.
“When we did the economics of this in South Australia – and this is from seven years of work on half a dozen places, each property was separated into baited and unbaited areas – we found no advantage at all in baiting in terms of more calves produced or reducing predation, there was no difference between baited and unbaited areas.
“But there was a big cost to kangaroos in eating grass that would otherwise be available for cattle.
“And when you balance up the actual losses to roos against the losses you get to dogs, you would always choose to eliminate your roo losses before you tried to eliminate your dog losses, the roos cost you way more.”
Dr Allen said many years of studies from the Gulf down to the Great Australian Bight had shown that baiting as a routine exercise was not necessary, and most of the time baiting made ‘no difference at all’.
“We suspect that one of the things that is driving this is what we call prey availability, or the amount of other stuff that is there for them to eat.”
Dr Allen said areas of research that needed further investigation included the relationship between nutritional and behavioural factors.
Mr Lynch said that his own experienced showed that baiting did have an impact on calf losses.
Baiting had not been conducted on the Katherine property before he bought it, but when he took over he began baiting and calf losses reduced from 24pc to 13pc in three years.
“So there has to be some reason why that happened.
“But I am not suggesting I want to keep on baiting as heavily as I have had to in the past into the future, but I want to know what the balance is.
“It reinforces the point we need some research so we know how to attack it. that is what I am quite certain of, I haven’t got the answers, I just live with the problem.”