The fun of farming while waiting for rain

30 May, 2011 04:00 AM
Cattle are sourced from the Great Southern and Esperance and are backgrounded on the family farm before entering the feedlot. The cattle are grainfed between 70 and 80 days with a ration that is cleaned, tempered, rolled and fed to the cattle daily.
Cattle are sourced from the Great Southern and Esperance and are backgrounded on the family farm before entering the feedlot. The cattle are grainfed between 70 and 80 days with a ration that is cleaned, tempered, rolled and fed to the cattle daily.

IT'S funny what you talk about when there's no rain.

Take a conversation I had recently with Hyden farmer Trevor Hinck about life on the family farms that includes wife Sharon and sons Craig, Kingsley and Jordan.

Within 30 minutes of discussing the poor season and how Trevor's cattle feedlot had a positive impact on the farm, we drifted into talking about the future of farming and food.

It was the type of conversation I've had with many farmers, particularly over the last three years.

And Trevor's comments, I believe, reflect the bush mood.

"The plain fact is farmers are not getting a price for their products that reflect risk and cost of production," he said.

"Our only fallback is to try to become more efficient to stem our declining terms of trade but we're getting close to peak efficiencies now.

"Food has to become dearer to improve our returns but for that to happen people will have to appreciate the true value of good food.

"What we've got at the moment is more emphasis on retail wars sending messages to consumers that food is cheap.

"And this is reinforced by cheap food imports which put more pressures on Australian producers.

"The viability of agriculture is being kept alive because of efficient farmers but I don't know how long that can last, especially when the Federal Government is starting to talk with China about free trade agreements.

"Throw in another dry year and you've got real problems emerging to retain a viable agriculture industry in this State, at least."

The latter comment is based on the fact that a sizeable portion of WA's Wheatbelt already has endured two dry seasons and squaring up to another one.

"If farmers don't nail this season, I worry about the viability of at least 70 per cent of farming communities in this State," Trevor said.

"There's a lot of land that's not selling and I can't see the pressure coming off declining equity in the near future.

"I'm lucky I've got a cattle feedlot which has been my source of cash flow but there's a realisation the prices we're getting now need to be sustained over the long term to sustain the industry.

"It all gets back to terms of trade and if they don't get better I worry about the capacity of Australian farmers to produce some of the food that's going to be needed to feed increasing populations throughout the world."

Trevor, like many farmers, in still weighing options about his 4000 hectare cropping program.

"This will be the third consecutive year we'll start a program with no knockdown and we'll be relying on Treflan mixes to keep the first weed germinations under control.

"On the one hand our paddocks are fairly clean because we only got 105mm of rain last year but there's a lot of old hard seeds that can spring to life with a good soak.

Two years ago, frost literally killed the crop with a meager return of 200kg/ha for wheat from 170mm of growing season rainfall.

Last year produced a similar result to 2008-09 because of lack of rain.

This year the rainfall chart shows 59mm has been recorded on the property since January.

"The budget dictates three quarters of the crop has got to be in the ground but we've got a cut-off date of June 10," Trevor said. "After that it will be a case of assessing paddocks to see if we do anything.

"It becomes a difficult scenario because if there's no rain and you don't put a crop in you've got no income.

"But if you put seed in, there's potential income if it rains.

"So it all comes back to equity.

"If you're equity is okay you can deal with a high risk and take a punt but if you're equity is low you need to be more measured in making decisions on good and bad paddocks."

And with his equity eroded with two bad cropping seasons, the odds are on Trevor taking a measured approach towards this year's cropping program.

Fortunately he is not faced with similar dilemmas with his cattle because of current prices.

"It's exciting the cow-calf producers are getting good money and it definitely injects a positive into our enterprise," Trevor said.

"But having said that we're buying at higher prices while our margin from our supplier hasn't changed that much.

"And because of the drought we weren't in a position to buy lighter calves and put them on stubbles because we had none.

"So we had to buy feedlot-ready calves which is another cost."

His 1300 head feedlot has been operating for more than 10 years so while Trevor has endured the price roller coaster ride, he is confident about the future, reflected by the capital outlays to build a grain tempering plant on his property.

Essentially grain is soaked, or tempered, for 24 hours to lift moisture level to 20 per before being rolled.

"We used to use a dry rolling system using wheat as the primary source of energy before we switched to tempering and using barley," Trevor said.

"We've found it achieves the same values as dry rolled wheat but it converts more efficiently and we use less hay and straw because there's more fibre in barely.

"We feed out about 15 tonnes of tempered barley a day and since we've been using the new system, we're seeing weight gains between five and eight per cent.

"The animals eat an average 12kg a day for between 70 and 80 days and we've measured daily weight gains between 1.8kg and 2.1kg.

"Those sort of figures means we can turn off quicker.

"The MMEF (Multiple of Maintenance Energy Factor) industry standard is 2.9 and we're getting 3 to 3.3 figures.

"We're only putting about five per cent straw in rations and the weight gains are there."

Trevor's latest venture is the launch last week of the farm's own beef brand, Kerrigan Valley beef.

He already has negotiated contracts with two Perth butchers and part of an ongoing vision of diversification to remain farming.

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serpy farmer
1/06/2011 4:26:35 AM, on Farm Weekly

I reckon the public needs a big wake-up call regarding food production... Cheap food from elsewhere is only going to be the straw that breaks the camels back, and then not many will know how, or want to, go farming when China & others stop exporting.


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