Munda transforms cattle herd

26 Dec, 2012 01:00 AM
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A Droughtmaster cow and her bull calf at Munda station, Port Hedland, in April, 2012.
A Droughtmaster cow and her bull calf at Munda station, Port Hedland, in April, 2012.

A WATERSHED moment in 2005 between a former agent and the property owner, marked the start of a major transformation of Munda station's under-performing cattle herd into a reputed Droughtmaster herd that now supplies working bulls to WA pastoralists.

Livestock agent Kim Goad had been absent from the Munda business for seven years pursuing other interests but on his return to the industry, requested to view bull and heifer weaners being unloaded at the Thompson family's Gingin property.

At the time, the 202,345 hectare Mundabullangana station (commonly known as Munda), situated on the west coast 60km south of Port Hedland, in conjunction with Mardie station (then owned by the Thompson family) situated further south, was running a mixed Droughtmaster cross herd totalling 12,000 head.

As the cattle exited the truck at Gingin, Munda co-principal Michael Thompson said they instinctively knew the standard of cattle needed to improve.

"We had some issues with breeding," Mr Thompson said.

"There was no line and they were a mixed grill of cattle with good and bad types, blacks, brindles, light and heavy-boned cattle, low and high content.

"We had used Brahman bulls for too long and the true Droughtmaster-type we were striving for, we clearly hadn't achieved."

The decision was made by Mr Thompson to heavily invest in Queensland Droughtmaster genetics to dramatically improve the quality of the Munda herd.

In 2006, Kim Goad and Murray Green, the Gingin property manager at the time and respected Santa Gertrudis breeder, purchased 100 Droughtmaster bulls privately from various Queensland studs.

Combined with a significant drafting program of the cow herd, the change in Munda's breeding direction was underway.

"We were happy with the bulls and they were essentially the starting platform for the herd's future," Mr Thompson said.

Munda returned to Queensland the following year and at the national sale at Rockhampton, inspected and graded all 800 bulls on offer for sheath, temperament, coat colour, feet, conformation and weight.

Munda purchased 55 bulls from the national sale and a further 15 bulls privately and Mr Thompson said they had taken the bull quality to another level on the previous year.

"We wanted to replace the breeding in our cows and weaners with bull power - heavy, quiet and naturally bred bulls that were not overfed," Mr Thompson said.

"And to support both the domestic and export markets, we also targeted the flat-back types."

In 2008, due to the mining industry making it difficult to attract and retain staff, Michael Thompson took over managing Munda station.

He said it was a steep learning curve but identified various issues and implemented changes to management systems and major upgrades to the property's yards, fencing and watering systems.

Mr Thompson said the age of the herd was too high due to the younger stock being previously sent to top up the breeding herd at Mardie station (sold by the Thompson family in 2007).

To combat the age problem, 1400 heifers were retained instead of the 600 head traditionally kept.

The herd was drafted into groups of high and low Droughtmaster content and true Droughtmaster types and run over seven paddocks and bulls selected to suit the cow and paddock types.

Black-coated and high Brahman content cows were spayed and stubborn and ill-tempered types culled.

"As much as it was a logistical nightmare, it was the best way to fast track the breeding and achieve an even line of cattle," Mr Thompson said.

"Every bull and cow that didn't suit the breeding direction was culled or spayed."

He said they mustered 80 bulls that were 10 years or older, including 48 Brahmans whose influence on the herd was evident at the Gingin yards three years earlier.

"The old cliché, we will get him next year, had significantly impacted on our breeding," he said.

With the changes in place and all rogue cattle moved on, Mr Thompson said the 2009 muster was a milk run compared to previous years.

More upgrades were still taking place with a new set of yards built, overhead drafts installed in all yards, mobile Warwick crushes used and further fencing installed for 12 paddocks.

"One of the main focuses was Munda cattle being bred and handled for quietness," Mr Thompson said.

"With international staff employed at the property, we need cattle we can work with and infrastructure and systems in place that are safe on the staff and cattle."

They also returned to the Rockhampton sale where they purchased 50 bulls and a further 20 bulls privately from the 10 best breeders identified at previous sales, which was again agreed to be a better team.

Another 1000 cows were spayed for age and type and 1400 heifers were retained to head-off the still looming age problem in the herd.

Mr Thompson said the 290 bulls purchased since 2006 from 20 different Queensland studs, combined with the segregation of cows, had seen a massive improvement in the quality of the calves.

"We were starting to see the benefits of using quality bulls over average cows, but at least they were an even line of red cows," he said.

The devastating drought struck in 2010 and attention turned to cattle survivability rather than advancing the breeding.

All calves were weaned, some as low as 45kg and sent to agistment throughout the State.

A total of 1000 heifers were sold to the Eastern States while 870 were kept in the South Hedland yards from March to May until a third of Munda received 60mm of rain which enabled the heifers to return to the paddock.

"Cows and calves took a massive setback but we only lost 300 cows," he said.

"Your asset is your cows and we had to protect them.

"We didn't want them pregnant but just to survive."

To assist in the drier seasons, 39 new tanked and troughed watering points were installed to make all parts of Munda accessable for stock and in most cases this has reduced the distance between watering points to 5km, while a drought fund is budgeted for annually.

In 2011, a further 17 bulls were purchased from the Rockhampton sale and 52 privately, where they aggressively targeted polled genetics.

Mr Thompson said despite the distraction of the live export ban, with good rains in December to May, they still managed to sell their cattle easily.

"We were actually seeing what breed and feed can create," he said.

"The market place, particularly Israel, appreciated the lines of cattle for colour and characteristics."

With Munda herd's significant genetic advancement since 2005, the first commercial Munda bulls were sold to a WA pastoralist in 2011.

Victor Gleeson, Mulga Downs station, Newman, was chasing big numbers of Droughtmaster bulls at a realistic price to go over a predominantly Santa Gertrudis herd and inspected a team of 200 1yo Munda bulls and purchased 85 head.

Mr Thompson said while it was only one customer for the year, it gave them the feedback to suggest they were on the right track with their breeding.

In 2012, 2500 bulls were dropped from Munda's 6000 head breeding herd with 250 bulls specially selected for the sale team.

"These bulls are born in the environment and know the Pilbara," he said.

"They know how to walk from the day they are born and up to 10km a day from then on."

Word spread quickly about the Munda bulls and this year, along with Mulga Downs which collected a team of 66 bulls and 500 heifers, six WA pastoralists purchased a total of 178 bulls.

And to cap off a successful year, an undisclosed Queensland stud breeder inspected the herd and was that impressed he selected six young bulls to grow out and potentially use as out-cross genetics.

With the increased support, Munda returned to Rockhampton in 2012 for its biggest spend yet, acquiring 73 polled bulls from nine leading Queensland Droughtmaster studs for an average of $4000 and a total bill just shy of $292,000.

"Due to the season and growing client support, I could justify an investment of this scope," Mr Thompson said.

"By sourcing quality genetics, we are not only improving our own herd but giving pastoralists the opportunity to purchase naturally quiet Munda bulls and heifers bred on Queensland bloodlines at affordable rates.

"The cattle are bred at Munda in the tough northern WA conditions, are ready to work and not overfed on grain."

All working bulls have to pass a stringent annual inspection and given a favourable season, the Munda team plans to head to Queensland next year to refresh its working bull numbers.

Mr Thompson said the pastoral cattle industry is currently lacking confidence but hopes the turnaround of the Munda herd and the property is a positive story for the industry.

"I hope the enthusiasm at Munda is a shining star in an industry going through some difficult times and gives everyone some optimism going forward," Mr Thompson said.

FarmWeekly

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