Rotational grazing: lessons learned

Beef producers Deb and Fergus O’Connor are passionate about the stewardship of soil, water, plants and animals on their Gippsland farm.

In 2012, a real estate agent told Deb and Fergus O’Connor their new purchase, a 60ha farm in Victoria’s South Gippsland region, had a stocking capacity of 60 head.

Fast‑forward eight years and they’re now running 150 steers year‑round – despite setting aside 5% of the farm to plant 16,000 trees. They credit more than doubling carrying capacity to their streamlined rotational grazing system which underpins their whole‑farm management approach.

Here, Deb and Fergus open the gate to their little beef powerhouse.

Streamlined rotation

“We work on an 8–10 day rotation and move all the cattle as one mob,” Fergus said.

“When we buy new steers, they go into quarantine for a few days and then we drench them before they go out into the mob.”

The O’Connors take care to select drenches which target parasites but don’t harm their dung beetles.

Minimal inputs

While some might classify Fergus and Deb as regenerative farmers, it’s a label they both shy away from.

“I don’t consider myself to be a regenerative farmer, I’m a rotational farmer,” Fergus said.

“Some view regenerative farming as what you do on land which has been degraded, but our land is as good as any; we’re increasing soil carbon by the way we rotationally graze.”

They also focus on using minimal inputs.

“The cattle are virtually the only thing we bring onto the property and they’re the only thing that leaves,” Deb said.

Soil testing is an important part of this strategy and guides any input decisions.

“Our accountant comments on how low our inputs are,” Fergus said.

“We look after the place and it seems to flourish. We spot spray for weed control when we need to.”

Education and information

Deb and Fergus are members of industry groups such as Landcare, the West Gippsland Catchment Management Authority’s sustainable farming program and Farmers for Climate Action.

They get support from these groups and participate in their education programs, but their approach also draws on Fergus’ earlier career as a racehorse trainer and his formal training at the Warwickshire College of Agriculture (UK).

“I always say if you don’t know what you should be doing, put yourself in the animals’ shoes and do what you would want,” Fergus said.

“It’s part of being a stockman. You recognise your stock, you recognise their needs.

“Keep things as simple and close to nature as possible – especially with cattle.”

Good water

Deb and Fergus are just as committed to caring for their natural resources as they are their cattle.

“I’m absolutely passionate about water and underground water,” Fergus said.

“If we ruin the aquifers, the farm becomes useless.”

They’ve fenced off and revegetated a creek which runs through the farm, along with two large dams.

“All the native crayfish, frogs, and lots of native plants – ferns and things that hadn’t grown here for years – have come back,” Fergus said.

“We’ve probably lost 5% of our land to trees, but the benefit of having shelter to keep your cattle warm in the cold and cool in the heat is so worthwhile.”

Cattle also drink pristine spring water which flows to the farm. Stock water is pumped to a header tank and gravity‑fed to troughs, to ensure the riparian zones on the farm are protected.

Fergus and Deb calculated their water consumption using waterfootprintassessmenttool.org and worked out they use less than 200L/kg of beef produced on their property.

“There’s a lot of misinformation around about the sustainability of eating meat,” Deb said.

“I’m interested in doing things to counter that misinformation. Our beef production doesn’t use a lot of water, the animals are well treated, the environment is looked after.”

It was for these reasons Deb and Fergus participated in MLA’s Australian Good Meat program to tell their story, in their own words.

“I thought it was a good idea to help promote sustainably‑raised beef so people actually know what they’re eating,” Deb said.

Happy animals

The O’Connors sell their beef through Greenham’s Bass Strait brand, as part of the ‘Never Ever’ program.

This program guarantees beef is:

  • 100% grassfed
  • free of added hormones and antibiotics
  • free‑range (never confined to a feedlot)
  • free from genetically modified organisms
  • Meat Standards Australia (MSA) certified.

The farm’s close proximity (about 30 minutes’ drive) to the processor plays a part in reducing stress when cattle are transported.

“The cattle go away completely calm with all their mates – they don’t get pushed through the saleyards,” Fergus said.

“We book them in, send them on the Sunday afternoon and they’re all processed the next morning.

“We produce beef with colour, taste and texture. We think it’s so much nicer because it has the flavour. It’s also nicer for the animals.

“More and more people are interested in how their food is looked after and where it comes from. I’d actually like to be a steer here.”

Size doesn’t matter

The O’Connors said they do face challenges running a small‑scale enterprise, such as buying young cattle at the right price.

“You can farm successfully and profitably on a small scale, but the only way the small scale can happen is by nurturing the land, the cattle and the plants,” Deb said.

However, the O’Connors have developed business principles which apply to any scale of enterprise, such as land management, planting shelter and fencing creek lines.

Lessons learned

  • Good management can increase carrying capacity.
  • Rotational grazing enables pasture to recover between grazing events.
  • Soil testing is a useful tool to manage costly inputs such as fertilisers.
  • Shelter improves animal welfare and productivity.

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