NORTHERN NSW beef producer Stuart Austin says the ability to ‘measure and manage grass’ using new grazing management tools plays a critical role in the performance of Willmot Cattle Co’s 1800ha intensively-managed grazing property near Ebor, east of Armidale.
Mr Austin was one of the speakers at an ag-tech seminar near Armidale last week, hosted by grazing management technology developer Maia Technology. The event also served as the official launch of Maia’s new decision support tool, MaiaGrazing.
Mr Austin is one of the early adopters of the MaiaGrazing package, and says its greatest strength is the fact it ‘measures grass.’
“We measure every aspect of our business – you can’t manage what you don’t measure,” he said.
“If we can measure the fundamentals, (soil, rainfall, grass, kilos of beef produced and income generated) we can maximise productivity and profitability whilst regenerating our landscape at the same time.
“Maia is valuable to us because we are fundamentally grass farmers and Maia measures it. It allows us to plan, monitor and manage, and see the rest period for every paddock on the property. We can match our stocking rate to carrying capacity, and productivity, people and environment are well and truly covered,” Mr Austin said.
Willmot Cattle Co comprises 1800ha of country used for rotational grazing on the Ebor plateau. The block is all above 1000m in elevation, with average annual rainfall of 1250mm. Additional agistment property is used to increase turnover, and currently cattle are spread across six or seven properties across northern NSW.
The enterprise runs between 1000 and 4000 young cattle each year, depending on the stage in the seasonal cycle. Some are directed into a retained ownership natural grassfed brand program, which processes up to 120 head per month destined for the US market. The balance of the cattle are sold as grassfed trade cattle or feeders, to customers including Bindaree and Killara feedlot in the case of the black cattle, which make up about 30pc of turnoff.
“The business is fundamentally a trading business, endeavouring to buy under-priced cattle and selling overpriced cattle, making a margin on every beast along the way, while being very aware of cost of production,” Mr Austin said.
Data access and being able to use that data in effective ways is a critical part of that process.
He illustrated the role that the MaiaGrazing decision-making packing is playing under the intensive rotational grazing system on the property, using a photo of a 29ha paddock stocked with 1273 head for a day, taking out 96 stock days per hectare. Stock are shifted to a fresh paddock on ‘most days’, with another image showing a move of 1529 head into a 48ha paddock for three days, taking out 55 stock days/ha.
“I know that because of MaiaGrazing,” Mr Austin said.
MaiaGrazing is an online grazing management tool that helps producers maximise their pastures and profits in the good times and reduce risks when seasons turn. The package provides a position statement on the property’s current situation, and its productivity outlook, to support decisions about how stock and pasture are managed for the coming days, weeks and months. That statement is built from data drawn from rainfall, animal and pasture growth models, and from a property’s own management patterns, to provide a unique picture of future capability.
“Being able to make those decisions well in advance, based on the dataset behind us, is the biggest advantage to us”
“The biggest advantage of having all of that information available to us is that it allows us to make strategic decisions about grazing management well in advance of when we need to,” Mr Austin said.
“If the rain stops (as it did at Ebor in November last year, before receiving an unbelievable 300mm in a week in mid-March), rather than sticking our head in the sand and just poking along, and finding all of a sudden the feed has run out, we were able to make sale decisions early, knowing that in two months’ time we would have to start to destock.”
“Being able to make those decisions well in advance, based on the dataset behind us, is the biggest advantage to us,” he said.
Willmot is mostly undulating to hilly high-rainfall country on the Ebor plateau, with small areas of flats, supporting high quality native and improved pastures.
The business follows a ‘regenerative’ agriculture philosophy, focusing on building soil organic matter, increasing soil carbon, increasing biodiversity, improving the water cycle and enhancing water use efficiency in soils.
“By and large, Australian beef production has not been overly profitable, until very recently, farm debt is not going away, and conventional high-input agriculture may not survive, so we have to think outside the square,” Mr Austin said.
“At Willmot, we take soil tests twice yearly to measure soil health, rainfall is measured, we take sunlight and we turn it into grass – we measure and we monitor,” he said. “We add cattle, which we count, we turn it into beef, which we weigh, and turn it into dollars, which we monitor, and aim to deliver a health landscape, which is priceless.”
“Apart from the sunlight, we measure every aspect of our business. Our philosophy is you can’t manage what you can’t measure. As simple as that equation is – rainfall, soil, sunlight, grass, cattle dollars – it all comes back to those fundamentals. And we’ve found one of the greatest strengths of the MaiaGrazing platform is the ability to measure grass, which is the fundamental part of that whole chain.”
The Willmot business does this through the Resource Consulting Service (RCS) group principles of regenerative grazing.
“We can see the long term result of everything we do, every day of the week – increased soil carbon, increased soil organic matter, increasing pasture species succession with more and deeper-rooted perennials, improved water use efficiency, with nil runoff and reduced soil erosion and healthy clean waterways,” Mr Austin said.
“Fundamentally we are grass farmers, and MaiaGrazing measures that asset for us – just as a rain gauge measures precipitation and a set of scales measures weight-gain.”
“We are able to look at our grass resource every day of the week, and see how each paddock is tracking, and what sort of productivity we are getting from each. It gives us the ability the make a grazing plan, implement it, analyse it and change it if need be. It allows us to very clearly see where we are at every month, especially in a long growing season like this one. It allows us to accurately match our stocking rate to carrying capacity – the right amount of cattle to the right amount of grass, for the right amount of time.”
As the mob moves through the system, staff drive through paddocks in front of the mob, to determine how many stock days per hectare of feed can be taken out of each.
“We come back, punch that information into the plan on MaiaGrazing, and the system tells us whether that paddock needs to be grazed for a day, a day-and-a-half, or three days. We still visually check the feed in the paddock being grazed, and it might at times get a half-day less, or half-day more.”
Rotation rest periods vary, with some of the property’s best-performing country on as little as 30 days at times, with other cells on 55-60 days rest period. During winter, those rest intervals might stretch out to 80-90 days in some cases.
“A feature I like about the package is that it is quite simple. If I make a mistake, I can change it very quickly and it does all the revised calculations for me. And it allows us to accurately forecast out next move.”
“ At a more macro-level across the whole property, we can feed-in actual rainfall and forecast rainfall, and some proposed cattle numbers in LSU’s, to look at how that trend line might look over time, given seasonal conditions.”
“You can’t manage what you don’t measure, and for us, MaiaGrazing is one of the only tools that measures grass, which is the critical component in the whole system. Producers measure their rainfall, their cattle weightgain and their bank balance, but Maia delivers the fundamental ability to measure grass.”
Big attendance at inaugural ag tech grazing event
Australia’s first ag tech event specifically for grazing hosted by Maia Technology at the University of New England’s SMART Farm drew a big audience of producers last Thursday.
Other speakers included Australian Farm Institute executive director Mick Keogh; beef enterprise consultant Bill Hoffman; Resource Consulting Services’ Terry McCosker; UNE SMART Farm’s Professor David Lamb; Agersens’ Ian Reilly; Pastures from Space director Dr Simon Abbott; Australian Meat Industry Council’s general manager Patrick Hutchinson; and Maia Technology co-chairman Alasdair MacLeod.
Mr Macleod said the event was held to showcase the significant ag-tech innovation that exists in the grazing sector, and discuss how it can be harnessed to increase productivity and profit.
“Until now, grazing has very much been the poor cousin to cropping when it comes to harnessing technology to maximise performance,” he said.
“We wanted to showcase what’s available now to graziers, but also discuss how these new technologies and systems can set new standards underpinning food safety, food traceability and environmental sustainability for the industry, and explore Australia’s very real opportunity to become a leader in the convergence of ag-tech and grazing.”
Australian Farming Institute’s Mick Keogh said it had been suggested that the digital agricultural would be the next major agricultural revolution.
“I tend to agree with this,” he said. “I think it’s becoming very clear that ag tech will transform the way that farm businesses and their supply chains operate in the next few years, and that will open up major opportunities that will enable the sector to grow. However, those who are not prepared for change run the risk of becoming victims of that change.”
NSW beef management consultant Bill Hoffman, said better grazing management decisions could help achieve the best outcomes for productivity and profit.
“Decision support technology is the next big king-hit for grazing. There is an amazing range of current and emerging technology including MaiaGrazing and others; the challenge is how we make it all fit together to get the most out of it,” Mr Hoffman said.
Australian Meat Industry Council processor group general manager Patrick Hutchinson told the meeting the opportunity for data relied on how it was used.
“Programs like MaiaGrazing are giving us confidence as an industry that data being captured can be used effectively and efficiently by producers. This is where we see a great opportunity for a supply chain approach in managing and using data, because if data is being generated and the industry is investing in it, we want to be sure that we can make full use of it for producers and in the supply chain,” he said.
The launch of the MaiaGrazing product at the event demonstrated what technology does best: reach beyond the capacity of the human brain to provide the basis for better decisions.
“Stress in agriculture comes from not knowing what comes next – if we can improve this using decision support technology, we remove the stress,” Maia Technology chief executive Peter Richardson told the gathering.
“When you know what’s coming, it’s a different story. This is what MaiaGrazing helps graziers to do.”
Bringing together other ag-tech providers
Maia’s vision is to create an ‘ecosystem’ where third parties can collaborate using the existing platform and data captured via MaiaGrazing, to offer a fully-integrated system and approach for grazing.
“We recognise the power of the data we are collecting from producers – we want to bring together other ag-tech providers and products so that together, we can provide a one-stop solution for grazing management, instead of producers buying into lots of different widgets and systems,” Mr Richardson said.
He said MaiaGrazing’s power lay in its ability to learn from the past — not just from universal data sources, like historical climate patterns and pasture growth models, but how an individual property is grazed.
“It’s not just a number-capturer or cruncher – it’s a way to look forward and make the best decisions based on learning how a specific property performs,” he said.
- For more details on the new MaiaGrazing platform, click here.