GENERATIONS of McLartys have been farming at Blythewood, just south of Pinjarra, since the 1850s and they certainly have a few ideas about how to make a penny from their 1620 hecatres on the banks of the Murray River.
Fifth generation Leigh McLarty farms with his brother Geoffrey and his son Nick on the original property, which despite a few changes here and there over the years, is still basically the same as when it was settled many years ago.
“The way the property has been run has obviously changed over the years as market demands changed and with innovations within the industry, but there have always been cattle on the Blythewood land,” Leigh said.
He remembers things being done much differently to how they are now.
“For example, when I first came back to the farm, everything used to get sold as a bigger, prime four-tooth animal,” he said.
“Now you get penalised for that, so of course we’ve adapted with the changing market over the years.”
Being adaptable to market fluctuations is of course something producers in general aim at, but at Blythewood, the trading and property bred cattle are tailored to suit multiple markets.
“I think it’s very important that you target all markets where you can get rid of cattle,” Leigh said.
“We sell direct from property and it’s mostly to local trade, but even within that market, there’s a variety of demands.
“Some processors are after a high-yielding, less fat sort of animal, others prefer a higher fat, marbled type and then there is demand for minimal fat animals which means we can find a place for all cattle regardless of type.
“So we always have a variety of animals on the property so we don’t lock into one market and are always open to options as market trends change.”
Leigh said a major positive influence on the buying and selling of their cattle had been their livestock agent and buyer who have been successfully sourcing and marketing their cattle for years.
“While it’s important we have a fantastic agent who finds opportunities in the various markets for us, producing versatile cattle that can make the most of those opportunities when they come up is crucial.”
As a result, the sort of cattle you see on the Blythewood property are a bit of a mix, but it’s an organised mix.
“With the cattle we trade, we basically just need them to be able to achieve our targeted profit margin, regardless of the price we buy them for – there’s no other major criteria they need to meet,” Leigh said.
“But with the cattle we breed, though we market them just the same as the trade cattle, we do aim to produce a range so we can target different markets.”
When it comes to market suitability and breed choice, it’s easy to let your mind wander to that very well marketed black breed, but while Leigh won’t say he’ll never go to black Angus, he said there was a lot of versatility in a red animal.
“I’ve never been partial to one breed over others but I do think you have to choose breeds to suit your business,” he said.
“So we have always had a Shorthorn base in our breeding herd which is fantastic, particularly on the maternal side, which we can adapt by choosing to either put some red back in them for shipping, or put a cross over them for a bit of softness and hybrid vigour.”
Leigh believes the value of hybrid vigour shouldn’t be overlooked.
“But I know my Shorthorn base and we are careful to identify crossbred cows to keep on top of where we’re at,” he said.
At the moment, the property runs 700 breeders including Shorthorns, Red Angus-Shorthorns and Simmental-Shorthorns.
“We find those three types of cow work really well for us and help us target the markets we want, because all we need to do then is select the right type of bull as needed,” Leigh said.
“So for example if we want a heavier steer we can put a Simmental or another Euro type bull over them, but if we want something more suited to a local market, we’ll use a Red Angus type.”
Leigh said the Shorthorn breed was traditional to the property and had continued to put the operation in good stead, but the calving ease and soft traits of the Red Angus infusion and the higher yield traits of the Simmental genetics, were examples of how having different breeds of animals within the breeding herd helped drive the versatility of the drop of calves when they’re ready for market at around the 18-month-old mark.
“When we’re selecting our replacement heifers we do look at the market trends and what we think we’ll want more of,” Leigh said.
“And lately that’s been the Red Angus cross heifers which are from a Shorthorn cow, we find the calves from that mix have performed particularly well.”
The breeding and cattle trading operation on the property has ramped up over the years, meaning the operation has had to intensify, with the introduction of a small feedlot used during the summer months which can finish out of spec cattle.
“When I first came home, we’d probably sell between 300-400 head a year,” Leigh said.
“But over the past decade we’ve lifted numbers substantially and now we turn over between 1500-2000 head annually.
“A lot of that is due to selling younger cattle – if you can sell them off as a milk tooths and two tooths as well as finishing out of spec cattle on grain, you can turn off a lot more cattle, so we’ve adapted to aim at finishing the cattle within that window where possible.
“But feed and pasture management is really important too.
“One of the very best things we ever did was consult an agronomist to look at our soil and identify needs specific to each paddock.
“We’re definitely utilising the country a lot better than we were years ago and we still get the agronomist out each year so we can gradually chip away at the paddock renovation.
“We can’t afford to lock up too much land each year so it’s a gradual process, but well worth the effort because it means we’re not wasting truck loads of fertiliser on a paddock that may actually need different fertiliser types and rates.
“And all of that means we are able to stock the place at quite a high rate.”
The season in Pinjarra wasn’t a bumper year, but Leigh said it was still a good year and the cattle performed well after a tough winter.
“We’re very lucky where we’re situated, we never really have bad years,” he said.
“It was a tough start, but the finish has been great.
“Though the hay isn’t as heavy as it could be, it’s still quite acceptable and where I thought the pastures were going to be terrible, they’ve come to be reasonable now, so we’re certainly doing alright.
“We have started buying in store cattle again as we usually do at this time of year, so it’ll be business as usual going forward even though prices have dropped substantially from what we were seeing last year.
“I hate to say it but I think it was the correction we needed to have for sustainability within the industry and hopefully prices will stabilise so we’ll continue to see good returns with a bit less pressure on the markets that buy our product.”