Northern beef producer Colin Burnett manages ‘Lara Downs’, a 33,000ha property north of Julia Creek, and knows the impacts a variable climate can have on production all too well.
If there’s one thing the Burnett family is certain of when it comes to managing climate risks, it’s “you don’t want to go into a wet season dependent on having a ‘good’ wet season.”
Here, Colin shares how he has built business resilience and provides his top tips on preparing for the wet:
1. Focus on grazing land management strategies and nutrition
Grazing land management
According to Colin, good groundcover at the break of the season means no matter how the wet season goes, there will be feed available.
“I manage the amount of feed available at all times to ensure there’s a margin of safety with the quantity and quality of feed. Good groundcover also gives us the chance to provide agistment for extra cash flow,” he said.
Due to the variable wet season, Colin gives all paddocks a spell every second wet season rather than strict rotational grazing.
“By having good groundcover we can spell paddocks, allowing them to rejuvenate. We do this using plain wire electric fence to keep cattle in areas where there’s been a reasonable season, assessing what grass has grown and then deciding how best to use it,” Colin said.
“Conservative grazing land management strategies give us plenty of options during the dry season so we’re not forced to sell, allowing us to be price makers rather than price takers.”
Colin said it’s important to have clear decision points to assess how the wet season has performed.
“Mid-February is the key wet season decision point where if the season hasn’t been good enough, cattle are sold to avoid running into trouble with grass later in the year.”
Having good groundcover at the break of season is fundamental at Lara Downs. Image: Lindsey Perry.
Changing strategies around production feeding has allowed Colin to improve turn-off time and enhance grass production, removing unnecessary seasonal risks from his operation.
“From the middle of the year a big flood, drought or average wet can happen by the end of the year. We feed small weaners through to October so we can sell to live export before the break of the season. This way, they’re gone before either drought or flood,” Colin said.
“Nutrition has been a game changer. We understand what’s in the soil and monitor grass at different times of year to see how cattle respond to it in terms of performance.”
By watching the commodities market, Colin finds the most economical feed concentrates available, such as whole cottonseed meal, grain and molasses, to maximise profit.
2. Maximise breeder efficiency
Colin has increased weaning rates from 50% to 68% after deciding to wean down to 100kg on a breeding block separate to Lara Downs, giving the cows a chance to return to body condition to rebreed and boost calf survival.
“There are two rounds of weaning a year at the breeding block, with weaners anywhere between 100–200kg live weight. Good quality lucerne hay is fed to fresh weaners for six weeks to get them to market weight more quickly,” Colin said.
On the more productive Lara Downs country, higher weaning rates and better growth paths provide replacement heifers and heavier weaners from the core breeding herd.
“At Lara there’s an 80–85% weaning rate, with three weaning rounds per year. We wean down to 180kg, monitoring the body condition score of the cow. We keep breeders around condition score 3 or over at calving so they can be back in calf again before weaning,” Colin said.
“The heavier (180–220kg) weaners go straight onto fresh spelled grass. A 10% urea block in the yards, along with their hay, kicks their rumen into gear before they go onto better feed.”
Weaners at Lara Downs are fed a production mix to target particular markets. Image: Lindsey Perry.
3. Diversify to boost resilience
The average rainfall variability is 42% at Julia Creek, which means breeding operations at Lara Downs can be quite risky due to the enterprise’s high dependence on steady rainfall. Trading cattle ensures some drought and ‘market shock’ resilience and allows Colin to focus on using seasonal pasture growth and selling down (reducing cattle numbers) when it’s dry.
About 40% of Lara Downs’ turn-off is destined for live export markets, with the remaining 60% sold into feedlots, abattoirs and local re-stockers.
4. Keep hormone and disease management in check
Focusing on improving the herd through hormone and disease management allows Colin to make sure even the smallest and lightest cattle are of reasonable quality.
Hormone and disease management strategies include:
- every Brahman female (with the exception of replacement heifers) gets hormone growth promotants
- all cattle receive an annual botulism vaccine
- bulls are vaccinated for vibrio
- young cattle get Dectomax® Pour-On for internal and external parasites.
5. Invest in your people
“We place importance on upskilling and training people in the business to ensure our business continues to grow,” Colin said.
“Focusing on mental health is also vital because I believe you get more out of your employees if you’re not pushing them too hard. This way, if a big event happens, you have the mental capacity to respond to it.”
Colin also makes sure he’s regularly upskilling to ensure his business grows. As well as completing courses such as the GrazingFutures* – NextGen Nutrition and Grazing workshop, he was a 2018 Nuffield Scholar and focused his studies on boosting the prosperity of Queensland’s beef businesses.