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Episode 1: Target 50 Series | Decision making to keep ground cover in the system

June 19, 2020 - 6:04 pm

Episode One: Maintaining ground cover with livestock.
Guest Speaker: Daniel Schuppan, Livestock Consultant, Nutrien Ag Solutions.
Wondering how to prevent your livestock camping on sand hills? How to maximise grazing on stubbles without the blowouts?
When to pull the trigger on stubble and pasture grazing?
When do we know when it’s time to move stock into containment (without making the decision too late)?
Daniel shares his expertise on all of the above (and more!) in this episode.
*Remember, the information provided in this episode is intended as a guide only. We recommend you chat with your own professional livestock consultant for advice tailored to your own situation.
We thank our Target 50 project partners, Agriculture Victoria for your support.

TEGAN BUCKLEY: – Welcome to the new Target 50 podcast series right here on the MSF Farm Talk podcast. Over the next few episodes we’re discussing the practicalities of farming to keep the minimum recommended levels of 50% ground cover in the system. Keeping our farming systems protected from wind erosion and soils healthy and sustainable is key. Hi, I’m Tegan Buckley from Mallee Sustainable Farming, I’m joined by Daniel Schuppan, livestock consultant with Nutrien Ag Solutions based at Jamestown, but working across South Australia, Daniel has a passion for the sheep and cattle livestock industries. He has a keen interest in designing profitable and sustainable livestock grazing systems, that best suit the capabilities of an individual’s farm. Daniel has a range of skills and his current role involves advising farmers on animal health, nutrition, pastures, grazing management, livestock watering systems, and livestock enterprise improvement and planning. In this episode, Daniel and I are chatting about livestock management and grazing strategies to maintain ground cover. Quick disclaimer though, the information provided in this episode is intended as a guide only, and we recommend that you chat with your own professional livestock consultant for advice tailored to your own situation. Thanks for joining us in this episode, Daniel, you’ve worked with many farmers over the years, but we would love to know what are the most common practices that you see in farming enterprises that’s successfully managed low rainfall livestock systems?

DANIEL SCHUPPAN: – Hi Tegan and thank you for the opportunity to be able to share some of my experiences with managing livestock and ground cover. I think we can break your question down into two areas. Firstly, what the farms are doing in the office planning their sheep and cattle enterprises and secondly, what actions and monitoring farms are doing out in the paddock. As you mentioned, my job involves me working with many farmers and it was only last year when I was standing out in the paddock with a farmer, trying to work out a grazing plan, which wasn’t easy at the time, and he said to me, sometimes it just doesn’t rain out here and that’s why it’s called the Mallee. So reflecting on this, I find that successful managers in low rainfall areas, respect that it is low rainfall and they know the land’s capabilities, as a result I see they have sound business models that reflect those limitations. Tegan, look I regularly come across three things that successful managers are doing as a result of good planning. These are, number one, they get the basic right, so they have simple systems and get operations done on time. I’m talking here about lambing times, shearing times, having good pastures, marketing plans, genetics and disease control. Number two, they expect the unexpected, so have strategies in place that allow flexibility and flag when things are changing. Number three, they have flexible strategies, so successful producers I work with have some strategic plans, but they also have tactical plans for the what ifs, just to manage that seasonal varied variation we see, they are very disciplined to stick to the plans and yeah, they make decisions and make them early. So just make the best decision on the day and then move on, by getting those three things, right it just allows for greater consistency and profits and making money in most years, not just the good years.

TEGAN BUCKLEY: Yeah absolutely, so how do they manage ground cover?

DANIEL SCHUPPAN: – The number one thing is setting a stocking rate, it’s the most important step, look, it’s just, it’s not easy to set a sustainable stocking rate and it’s the hardest thing to do in a livestock stock business. Most producers in low rainfall, we tend to be on the conservative side and reduced numbers accordingly to run a four seasons or just potentially just change the sale time, so it was stopped to reduce their stock numbers. Secondly, look it’s important to out in the paddock monitors and to know what 50% count ground cover looks like. Maybe have some photo standards that you can pull out and have a look at and just stay disciplined that when those targets are reached, that stock are removed. So unfortunately some years it just may mean not grazing some paddocks at all. Like I say to some producers when we’re sitting around the kitchen table which is, we shouldn’t have any “yeah buts”. So yeah but it’s going to rain or yeah but I’m busy I can’t move those sheep or yeah but they’re lambing so I can’t shift them or yeah but I have no hay and grain or yeah but they’re my favorite sheep I don’t want to sell them. So, we just really want no” yeah buts”, so allot of the times, yeah, that stocking rate is a little bit hard to manipulate really easily when you’re a long way from markets or yeah, don’t want to bring stock in. So generally that feed gap will be filled by supplementary feeding, so those that like a good night’s sleep generally producers that I work with they’ll have enough feed to feed their core breeders every day for maybe one to two years. And I guess really at the end of the day we probably should call it an asset that feed on hand and rather than an opportunity cost. So, at the end of the day just because we can’t manipulate those stocking rates a lot, you’ve really got to have a system in place that utilises that excess feed in a good year so we’re just not wasting that excess feed

TEGAN BUCKLEY: – Moving on to a scenario where I’m going to try and set the scene of a typical year. It’s the end of the season, we’ve harvested some crops and we have some stubbles. Depending on the year there’s going to be varying quality, but let’s just assume that they’re adequate, maybe 70% to 80% ground cover with a standing stubble in cereals. Very much less maybe 50% or 60% in legume stubbles and there’s a bit of grain on the ground for the sheep as well and we also have some sheep on spray top pastures and ground cover would be on the rapid decline here. So, what do you think we need to start thinking about in terms of managing the speed situation and the ground cover at this time of the year?

DANIEL SCHUPPAN: Yeah, October/ November, this is a great time to do a feed budget for over summer, generally yeah, you’ll know how much feed you’ve got in that paddock, so it’s just suggested. You’re not going to grow anymore feed till next season and if we do get those summer rains just count it as a bonus and at the end of the day you probably going to spray most of it out anyways. So, yeah, producers, yeah, hop in the Ute, go for a drive and drive around and assess the food on offer in every paddock, sort of assess how many weeks you might have in each paddock or you might have to even wait till after harvest just to see how much spilled grain, etc. has been thrown out the back of the header so you can make a decision there and then in October. Will my spray top paddocks or my medic paddocks get us through till harvest, do we need to reduce the stocking rate now? By yeah obviously selling or confining, yeah, how long will those stubbles last? When do we remove those stock and lock them up? Do we do it now before Christmas, before for harvest? Or do we wait? Have you planned to save your lambing paddock so that you don’t get to lambing and you’ve got absolutely no feed left, and sometimes just remember to that in those poorer years the feed quality is actually better so, less fiber in the stubbles and the sheep will generally eat and do really well on them, they’ll eat most of it unfortunately destroying your ground cover.

TEGAN BUCKLEY: – Yeah, all good points for producers to consider that’s for sure. So what are the trigger points to know when it is time to pull the pin on grazing in your cereal stubble, legume stubble and pasture paddocks?

DANIEL SCHUPPAN: – Yeah, Tegan, look, the trigger point is just where we fall at 50% ground cover that you mentioned is your minimum at the start. Yeah and just remember that if you’re pushing those boundaries, you are going to get some natural breakdown of that feed or that stubble, over the time. So if you push the boundary, that’s going to decrease over time so, yeah, it’s probably going to be well before that.

TEGAN BUCKLEY: – So sheep don’t graze evenly and sometimes, you know, we get the blowouts on a sand hill here or there? How do we maximize grazing on stubbles without the blowout?

DANIEL SCHUPPAN: – The number one thing to do in your grazing system is set up a really good water watering system. So water point location is the most important, look, I’ll tell you why it’s not easy sometimes to find a suitable spot in the paddock. So ideally we want those water points in the center of the paddock on some heavy soil or rocky surface, if that’s not possible, which a lot of times it isn’t, we really go then sort of halfway along the fence line, just to allow that natural grazing art from the livestock to sort of grow, come in and graze out from that water point. The worst-case scenario just don’t put it in the corner of the paddock, where it was probably always put or don’t have it into the prevailing winds sort of stuff, we’re they’re going to camp around it. I use a rule of thumb that stock should not walk more than sort of 500m to 700m to graze and for a drink in the cereal zone and that seems fairly good. So, yeah, look when setting up your water points, some key factors that you really got to take into account is that we want that water nice and cool and clean. Yeah, livestock like cool, clean water and really the one you got to focus on is the flow rate, so flow rate into your troughs is absolutely critical. I sort of aim at that liter per second, that those troughs never empty and there’s always water in the trough. So, don’t store your water in your troughs, store water tanks, so, we don’t need large troughs. It’s one of those things, if the stock starts to learn that there’s always water in those troughs, they won’t come in and rush it. So you won’t see big mobs running into the water and just be patient it’s a learned behavior that they know there’s always water there and they’ll come in and out through the day in smaller mobs to drink and you won’t get that baring out around the water points.

TEGAN BUCKLEY: – Do you have any examples of some grazing strategies that produces might be able to take on board?

DANIEL SCHUPPAN: – Yeah, once you have your watering system plan for across your property, you might not do that all at once, but over time you might improve it. Well, then we’re going to work out a grazing strategy, so what we’re doing looking at this is your rotation links, so how long, sheep or grazing duration, how long the sheep are actually in a paddock. I like having sheep in a paddock for about a week, I think it’s a good compromise and even if there’s still feed in there you can move on. So take a pick out of the paddock and then maybe come back on a second and third rotation , I have a producer now that if he sees sheep camping in a paddock, he gets really upset and he’ll shift him them within two to three days rather than that week. So by doing this, you’re going to achieve less tracking in the paddock, less camping, less selective grazing, less trampling of the feed. It’s really stopping those sheep getting in bad habits or those cattle getting bad habits and sitting on sand hills and by doing this potentially, if you can get an extra two days from each paddock, this can add up over time and give you an extra bit of grazing at the end of the season.

TEGAN BUCKLEY: – So what are your thoughts around time consuming factors constantly shifting stock around then Daniel?

DANIEL SCHUPPAN: – Well, I guess we could debate it seems time consuming shifting stock every week, but, if it means having bigger mobs and less mobs, it actually could be more labor efficient. So, it just sort of leads into an interesting discussion on mob size that we all have all the time and the end of the day a little mob with 30 to 50 in a large paddock for a long time may not do much damage. But my question is that yeah, how labor efficient, is this going around and checking the water points all the time, although if you set up all this technology can potentially change that. On the flip side, if you have a large mob of a thousand or more in a paddock, they can do a lot of damage really quickly and in really short period of time if you’re not on the ball. So, look at the end of day, you might just have to compromise and find out what works on your farm getting that water right, rotation is really important and then paddock size is the third thing that we needed to look at. The smaller the paddocks the better, but that’s not practical in most circumstances and potentially a tool that you need to start using is the use of temporary electric fencing. So it might just be a large paddock just split it in half so then that gives you that two paddock rotation that you can swap them over every week and from experience we can get a lot of extra grazing and just by a simple swap from one paddock to the next. We should be able to improve our grazing there or it might just be a strategy of fencing off those sand hills that are blowing out or those areas that they camping on or identified areas in the paddock that are below that 50% to 70% ground cover, they’re the areas we can fence off using temporary electric fencing.

TEGAN BUCKLEY: – Yeah, good one, so where we have lots of drifts, are there any animal health implications we need to consider?

DANIEL SCHUPPAN: – Look, a lack of feed at the end of the day is your number one animal health consideration because if there’s drifting, there’s not going to be feed there. But you will get other animal health issues, such as some an pneumonia, potentially pink eye, low yielding wool, getting sand in the backs, grazing that close to the ground they’re going to ingesting a lot of sand or fine particles that will stay in the rumen and an intestine, that really affects your digestive ability and the productivity of that animal.

TEGAN BUCKLEY: – So, containment lots are becoming more and more popular in the Mallee and useful to help manage feed gaps but come with a cost of having to supply feed and also farmers are tied to, you know, the daily feeding regime. I can understand that if you don’t have the labor time or feed available, this can delay your decision to remove stock from paddocks. So, I’d love to know when do we know when it’s finally time to move stock into containment without it becoming a decision made too late?

DANIEL SCHUPPAN: – Tegan, I think we’ve got to change that mindset about the cost and labor involved of confining stock, even in a livestock system your soil’s number one, so we need to protect that. That’s our asset that we obviously grow feed from for our livestock, so if you’ve got that strategic plan that we spoke about that you’ve done in October or you’ve done it from the year. You’ll see the time coming, two to four weeks out, so you can start to prepare and even if your calculations are a little bit out, you see it coming. So those confinement areas, they can be used not only at the end of the summer into autumn, they can be used before harvest or you might use them early to save those paddocks to lamb into, and at the end of the day a lot of people are now confining their replacement ewes coming through at the break of the season. So just to reduce that stocking rate at the break of the season.

TEGAN BUCKLEY: – When do we consider taking them out at the other end of the season, in terms of ground cover, any indications there we should be looking for?

DANIEL SCHUPPAN: – Yeah, it’s just one of those things, it’s really just is there enough feed out in the paddock and if there’s enough moisture for that feed to keep growing. So that’s where it’s going to be at or depending on your time of lambing, if they’re close the lambing, those animals, those ewes need to come out and go into their dedicated lambing paddocks or you may have actually instead of having confinement areas, you might have small confinement paddocks set up for still doing full feed, but lambing down in confinement areas if you haven’t got that cover out in the paddocks.

TEGAN BUCKLEY: – Yeah, so, unfortunately, drought years force us to make tough decisions regarding feeding stock, particularly when grain prices are high and so delaying decisions can really impact negatively on the condition of livestock and the land. How can we make sure we make the right decisions more often than not, like, what can we do to prepare in advance to make sure the decisions are easier to make?

DANIEL SCHUPPAN: – Yeah, it comes down just to complete a feed budget and have it on a piece of paper in front of you and it can be quite simple and it gives you a direction so you know where you’re heading. It’s going to tell you how much hay and grain needs to be fed daily to those animals. It gives you the cost, how much it’s going to cost you for that period, how much hay and grain. I’ve got a simple one page, it can tell you how much feed we need for 6, 8, 12 months or even more, so, yeah, just get it down on a piece of paper to give yourself some direction.

TEGAN BUCKLEY: – Oh, thanks for that, Daniel, so to finish off, what are your top three messages for growers when it comes to making sure that we maintain ground cover in a livestock system?

DANIEL SCHUPPAN: – Number one is really to know what your ground cover requirements are on your soil types and what they look like. Number two would be to improve your grazing management skills, so, set up a really good water system so you’ve got no limitations with water across your property. Then work out what sort of rotation, length or grazing duration you want in each paddock and that way you can sort of set what size mobs and paddock sizes that works comfortably on your farm. And finally, yeah, it’s quite simple, just be disciplined, don’t blame sheep or cattle for the paddocks blowing away, it’s not their fault.

TEGAN BUCKLEY: – Definitely, so in summary making decisions early enough is really important and keeping an eye on your ground cover, thanks Daniel for joining us and for sharing your insights.

DANIEL SCHUPPAN: – Thanks Tegan, yeah, I wish you all well.

TEGAN BUCKLEY: – That was Daniel Schuppan from Nutrien Ag chatting all things ground cover and livestock on the MSF Farm Talk podcast, thanks Daniel for joining us. Don’t forget to share this episode with a mate if you took some value away from it and be sure to subscribe, rate and review our podcast. Thanks for tuning in and we’ll catch you in the next episode.