WHEN Noel and Karen Bairstow decided to quit sheep and go full-time cropping they raised a few local eyebrows in the Lake Grace area.
Ten years later, they found the pressure from weeds, declining soil fertility and increasing inputs made continuous cropping unsustainable and they raised a few more brows with their unconventional choice of cattle in a traditionally sheep area.
Noel said they had to have some livestock in the equation and no one was keen to return to sheep because of the work involved.
But a friendship with Hyden farmer and experienced Wheatbelt cattleman Vern Mouritz gave them the encouragement to try cattle.
Today the gross profit for their overall farm enterprise is down but the net profit is up and the feedlot ranks as one of the state's top three Woolworths suppliers in terms of quality and numbers enabling them to extract a premium.
Their first feeding efforts were in 2000 when they put through 350 head in a converted horse yard.
It was by good fortune the existing yard was sited in what was probably the best position on the farm; high, just below the crest of a hill, and well-protected and well-drained.
The cattle did well enough to bestow the confidence to buy a complete Angus herd of 350 breeders from Esperance in early 2000.
With the introduction of the cattle they were able to drop lupins, in which they had little control over weeds, from their cropping rotation.
Their property Arizona comprises five farms totalling 6800ha and as the breeding herd expanded they reduced cropping to 3600ha and virtually a year in year out rotation.
Now as each of the paddocks comes out of crop it is renovated by trashing in Cadiz serredella and 50kg of oats before the break of the season.
The Cadiz showed its true value last summer when out of season rain kept it green right through to February and some mobs of cattle remained in good condition through autumn and winter without supplementary feeding.
The pasture phase also gives an opportunity to control ryegrass, although it is valued as cattle feed.
Cropping comprises wheat, barley and a big acreage of oats sown for hay.
This year they have 690ha of Mortlock oats, which they will cut and condition themselves and have contract baled into 5000 big square bales producing about 4000t of export quality hay with 10pc protein.
Hay is fed extensively to the breeding herd, feeder cattle being backgrounded on stubbles and pastures, and in racks in the feedlot pens.
Because of the high quality Noel has worked with Ketteridge Stock Feed's nutritionist to formulate their own specific pellet ration is based around the hay.
They run their own road train to cart three 54t loads of pellets every two weeks and trade some of their down-graded and surplus grain with the feed company.
Pellets are either augured directly into self-feeders in the pens, accessible via a central laneway, or stock piled for use during busy periods such as seeding or harvest.
In an area where workers are difficult to find they opted for the labour saving efficiencies of pellets.
They recognise the success of their operation is dependent on the skills and involvement of their full time and seasonal workers and the feedlot is a hands-on affair for everyone.
The number of cattle going through the feedlot has increased dramatically each year with 3000 turned off this year and 4000 planned for next year.
The breeding herd also has grown substantially and now numbers 1000 mated cows and 200 replacement heifers which will be capped at 1200 breeders with 200 heifers coming in.
They use Mordallup bulls and breed some of their own sires from an elite group of 50-60 breeding cows.
Noel said at that number it is well balanced with the area of stubbles and pastures to carry the cattle easily through the summer and autumn.
Good cattle yards on each of the five properties and adequate water and good catchments have been essential in developing the cattle enterprise.
Attention to pastures and modest stocking rates were the key to surviving the 2002 drought when they were forced to cart water to the feed lot for a short time and agist some of their breeding stock.
Fortunately their water problems were solved when a thunderstorm filled key dams.
Agisting cattle on the west coats also highlighted the advantages of cattle in the wheatbelt.
Noel said when the cows returned they and their calves had not done as well as the cattle at home.
Karen said they had considered buying a property closer to markets but land prices, climate, good crops and the strength and health of the country were good reasons for remaining at Lake Grace.
Another key to their success has been the good relationship formed with Woolworthsí management and Landmark cattle buyer Bob Pumphrey from Denmark who buys in most of the feeder cattle.
The feed lot operates at full pace from January 1 to the end of September but, as most of the cattle are bought when harvest is in full swing, they rely on Mr Pumphrey's judgement to buy stock.
They now regularly return to many breeders to access good annual lines of cattle from the southern areas from Esperance to Walpole buying most on-farm.
Noel said it is tribute to Mr Pumphrey's ability as a stockman that less than half a dozen animals fail to make the grade.
Ideally, the weaners bought early in the season weigh about 270kg liveweight and are backgrounded on stubbles until they are 320kg-350kg.
Once on pellets the cattle are weighed regularly and, as lot feeders, they see a great advantage in electronic identification.
Although not compulsory until mid-2005 they are in the process of setting up a new automatic tag reader interfaced with scales and computer and will electronically tag all the new arrivals for the coming buying season.
Noel said individual electronic ID will add to efficiency allowing them to identify cattle that are a liability.
Generally cattle stay 60-70 days on feed and are turned off at 470kg liveweight.
They run their own B-double transport to deliver 85 head on a weekly basis but this can vary according to either the number required for the weekly kill or the number of cattle that have finished and need to be off loaded.