A run of dry seasons in northern NSW means maximising lambs produced per hectare is as critical as ever for Ben Watson at Allabah Pastoral Co.
The challenge becomes magnified as unlike his cropping business, Ben hasn’t traditionally been well supported with integrated livestock advice specific to his enterprise.
Ben, a fifth-generation farmer at Spring Plains, runs a dual-purpose non-replacing Merino flock, putting Border Leicester rams over the Merino ewes. The operation is complemented with a dryland and irrigated cropping enterprise.
Traditionally Ben has relied on field days, industry research and multiple other sources to assist his livestock management decisions. A single advisor to simplify all this information for his enterprise has been an area, according to Ben, that has been lacking. However, that has changed with the introduction of Grow livestock agronomy.
“We've had cropping agronomists for 25 years, yet never really had anyone that's been tailor made to the livestock enterprise, which is such a large part of our business, so it's been terrific to get a Grow livestock agronomist on board.”
Grow livestock agronomists provide a similar service to crop agronomists, but focus on livestock management programs to deliver sustainability, improving production and best practice animal welfare.
With drought conditions prompting a need for new management approaches, Ben started working with local Grow livestock agronomist Ed Hiscox at the beginning of the 2019 season.
“We've had a lot of advice and on-farm visits from Ed that empowered us to execute an early weaning programme that had never been done on any of our farms,” Ben explains.
Traditionally Allabah lambs are weaned at three months of age, but the new system saw lambs successfully weaned from six weeks of age.
“It lifted the condition of the lambs more quickly, but the main benefit was to better look after the ewes,” Ben says.
“When we're all about lambs per hectare, it is critical to get ewes back in condition to join again the following year, and early weaning doubled the time between weaning and joining. It was a great result, so it’s something we will now continue to do as normal practice, no different than shearing or drenching.
“It's one thing to plan these large undertakings, but we were able to execute it with Grow livestock agronomy which was a really terrific feat in the middle of a roaring drought.”
Grow livestock agronomist Ed Hiscox says with stock being weighed regularly at Allabah, the data was able to quickly back up the early weaning strategy.
“The program resulted in 280 grams of growth per lamb per day, with only three losses in 2700, which is significantly less than the industry average and nearly unheard of in a weaning plan,” he says.
The program included building a feed budget to meet the demands of a young growing weaner and achieve early rumen development. Part of the key to success was using a range of animal health and nutrition products. One of the supplements included StayDryÔ Hy-VitMin, designed to boost the immune system to prevent issues such as pink eye, which is commonly seen in dry conditions.
The Grow program also resulted in less grain being fed to the ewes, as the early weaning program meant they weren’t supporting a lamb for as long.
“Feeding grain to ewes to then feed a lamb through milk production is very inefficient, but early weaning meant up to 30 per cent savings in grain that we then allocated straight to the lambs,” Ben explains.
“We had the lambs off the ewes and sold three to four weeks earlier than normal. The ewe was happier, the lamb was in better condition and money was in the bank, so there were some big benefits.”
Ed has also worked with Ben to develop a confinement feeding system, which they first trialled with existing infrastructure with good results.
The idea is to provide supplementary feed in confinement pens or holding paddocks at specific times of the year to better manage condition score, and allocate feed more cost effectively.
While Ben is excited about the potential for the system, it’s just one aspect of an overall service that has become vital to his farming operation.
“The biggest thing Grow livestock agronomy has done is give us the confidence that we were lacking in executing these big plans in early weaning and confinement feeding of sheep,” Ben says.
“You can read about things and talk to neighbours, but to really just have someone come on farm and see what you've got, without outlaying lots of capital and reassuring us that these programs are being done, and we can do it too.
“Having that communication there at all times has been terrific with Grow livestock agronomy, and good seasons or not, I can see them as an integral part of our livestock business moving forward.”