Working the north-south divide
By LARA JENSEN
A FULLY computerised livestock system and NLIS (National Livestock Identification) tagging was introduced on Minderoo Station in the Pilbara four years ago to improve herd management.
The property is managed by Mike McKeown and is owned and operated by Murion Pastoral Company that has other farms in southern agricultural areas, including one at Mount Adams between Mingenew and Irwin that is run in conjunction with Minderoo.
According to Mr McKeown the benefits of implementing the NLIS system on the 225,000ha property south of Onslow have been considerable.
"NLIS tagging has allowed us much better control over our cattle on the station because we have become more familiar with our entire herd and can access the individual history of each animal every time they pass through the reader in the race," he said.
"Tail-tagging is a work hazard from an OHS point of view and takes time that could be spent doing other things, it is time that costs you money.
"The cost of the tag is around $3.50 ($6.00 including labour) per animal which equates to only 2kg of weight that the animal has to gain to pay for it. This isn't a lot over the animal's lifetime, particularly when you consider the advantage of having immediate traceability in the event of a disease outbreak."
Minderoo station was quarantined for cattle tick in 1999 and according to Mr McKeown the NLIS system was instrumental in containing the problem.
"We were able to eradicate cattle tick much more quickly because we knew which mob of cattle had the tick so it was easier to control that mob and keep them moving together all the time instead of running the risk of having them mix with cattle that weren't affected," he said.
"We also have the ability to accurately record and identify details such as weight gains in different paddocks with different feed and what cows are dry. Eliminating the slow calvers using the system has enabled us to achieve increases in calving rates."
Calves were not counted until they are weaned, and at three months of age they were ear-marked and had NLIS rumen pellets inserted.
"We prefer to use rumen pellets on the cattle because we found that we were losing too many T-tags in the ringlock fencing."
According to Mr McKeown around 400 weaners could be put through the race and inserted with pellets in a day, along with 600 cows that already had rumen pellets inserted.
A rotational system based on utilising available feed and rainfall on offer has been established on the property that consists of three fenced paddocks in a wagon wheel design.
"There are roughly 3237ha (8000ac) per wagon wheel paddock that are sub-divided into ten separate paddocks," he said.
"In each paddock we run approximately 1200 cows and bulls that are run for around three months depending on the availability of feed."
Fencing and watering points are still being developed in the eastern sections of the property and substantial resources have been spent on infrastructure with 283 watering points erected 5km apart as well as 49 solar water pumps.
The long term management objective on the property is to increase the size of the rotation and sub-divide it further to best utilise available feed and achieve higher weight gains.
Seven Norprim units are used to medicate water with urea and trace elements. This has assisted the feed utilisation process greatly according to Mr McKeown.
"We've noticed a big difference in the weight gains of our cows using water medication when the grass dries off. They now have the capacity to convert an extra 7pc protein from dry feed that would have otherwise been left," he said.
Minderoo station suffered drought conditions in the last three years, and to date the property has only received 178mm in only 18 days of rain, well below the average of 350mm in a normal year.
"The drought has obviously impacted on the breeding program here in the last three years and when it does rain the plan is to introduce a controlled mating program to achieve better management and greater control over the herd," he said.
"Our aim is to put the bulls in on March 26 through to June 18 with calving taking place from January onwards."
The base cattle herd of 5000 breeders on Minderoo are predominantly Droughtmaster, with some Droughtmaster cows on the property mated to Senepol bulls.
"We have introduced bos Taurus Senepol genetics to increase the positive attributes specific to the breed including heat resistance and higher meat yield to cater for both domestic and export markets."
"For the first time in four years we sent around 140 bulls and cows to Port Hedland to be exported this year," he said.
"We are hoping to support the live trade on a more regular basis now that we are in the final stages of the eradication program for cattle tick because it is by far the closest market for us.
"When the drought breaks we want to bring Senepol bulls and heifers from the southern properties back up here to steadily increase numbers hopefully up to 8000-9000 with the rotational system, a goal that will ultimately depend on seasonal conditions.
Last year 4700 cattle were trucked off Minderoo with only young breeding heifers retained in what was ultimately a drought-proofing measure.
"We sent the weaners to Mt Adams, our bulls to the Chittering property and all cows and calves to Serpentine where they were agisted," he said.
"Many of the weaners were exported from Geraldton for the live export market and the bulk of the cows and calves we had on agistment were sold to a Kalgoorlie pastoralist looking to build up numbers."
"Having Mt Adams in conjunction with the station has been a real life-saver, without it we would probably would have had to sell all the cattle and start from scratch when the drought broke."