CROP grazing has become a vital part of the mixed farming enterprise for Yealering producers Alan Manton and Kelly Pearce.
But this season, they are about to participate in a trial with the Facey Group utilising spatial technology to see if the livestock management involved in crop grazing can be simplified, with the view to encouraging more grain growers and livestock producers to have a go.
“There are certainly benefits to crop grazing for us,” Alan said.
“Previously we probably ran the district average of about three ewes per hectare on pastures, but now we can run about 5.5pha on pasture and 11pha on crops, so we’ve doubled our numbers without having to acquire more land or sow more pastures.”
Allan and Kelly run a commercial meat enterprise (White Suffolk rams over Merino ewes) alongside their cropping rotation and say crop grazing aids in preparing lambs.
“Everything goes to slaughter so we need systems in place to help us produce lambs as quickly and cheaply as possible,” Kelly said.
“And we find crop grazing really works for us.”
Allan said they were able to finish lambs cheaper with the aid of the crop grazing.
“Even if the ewes and lambs are only on the crop for a very short amount of time – it makes a huge difference,” he said.
“The way I look at it is that if I’m seeing better conditioned ewes come out of the crop and none to very little yield losses in my crop, I’m ahead because of the extra income I’ll be getting from my sheep.”
Allan said he thought more emphasis could be put on the condition of ewes going onto crops and the benefits on the lamb growth rates.
“It would be great if the value of crop grazing for prime lamb production could be quantified,” he said.
“We also plant sacrificial crops now which are sown purely for finishing lambs at the end of the year.”
Getting started with crop grazing, the couple said it took a while for them to work out how the practice would fit into their enterprise.
“I think there are a few things that hold people back from giving crop grazing a go,” Allan said.
“Especially because a lot of the early data was only looking at grain yield and that data showed negative results.
“But as the practice has been more refined, there is more information on when to take the stock out so impacts on grain yields can be minimised.
“I am averse to grazing high value crops like canola, but Scope barley has handled it really well.”
Facey Group executive officer Sarah Hyde said a key point as to why producers don’t adopt crop grazing practices was because of attitudes to risk.
“A lot of people have tried crop grazing but there just hasn’t been enough quantification of the value going into your sheep versus what might be lost in the crop,” she said.
“There’s still a gap and that is what we’re trying to address with this trial.”
There is plenty of data on crop grazing already – we know the practice can reduce canopy biomass, increase soil compaction and delay flowering to manage frost risk, but for a livestock producer aiming to grow stock, there are benefits to crop grazing and this trial will look at the impact of crop grazing strategies on the whole paddock crop yield and animal performance.
But the most interesting aspect of the trial is the use of spatial technology.
Pastures from Space Landgate, has been developed to assist with the strategic management of pasture grazing but the advantages of using the technology to manage crop grazing has yet to be properly explored – until now.
The priority question of the trial asks whether the spatial technologies such as Pastures From Space and NVDi drones and handheld units can provide simple and accurate information on the quantity and growth rate of crops during the grazing period which will better inform management decisions, improve crop grazing efficiency and lower crop yield loss.
The trial will also use GPS tracking technology on the livestock to track movements throughout the crops to aid in examining variable crop maturity and yield.
Kelly said sheep were very strategic in their grazing patterns and they would overlay sheep spatial grazing maps with yield maps and EM data maps to look at correlations.
“The project is about taking these technologies which are used regularly for crop management and seeing if they can be utilised effectively in a crop grazing context,” she said.
“One of the main issues with crop grazing is that it’s not easy from a management point of view.
“So if we can find a way other than visual assessment to inform our management decisions, then hopefully that will pave the way to making the practice easier.
“Hopefully this trial can show proof of concept and demonstrate that it is possible to make the management of crop grazing easier using spatial technologies, then hopefully there will be more people out there willing to give it a go.”
The trial is being funded by Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) and Co-operative Research Centre for Spatial Information (CRCSI) through the Australian Livestock Spatial Innovation Project.
It is a collaborative effort from a range of industry professionals keen to work in this space, including local grower group Facey Group which is keen to pursue more livestock focused projects.
There are also two honours students from Curtin University participating in the research and the University of New England (UNE) will play a crucial role in the project, as well as aiding in the collation and dissemination of the findings at the end of the year.
“We’re also working with DAFWA (Department of Agriculture and Food WA) to look at the interaction between frost and crop grazing on yield, but that will be opportunistic – obviously we can’t look at that unless there is a frost,” Kelly said.
So how will the results of the trial affect the business?
Allan said it would hopefully take a bit of the guess work out of the livestock management on crops.
“At the moment in my head I know on July 21 the sheep have to come out of the crop,” he said.
“And that’s off a visual assessment.
“But if I can get them through to August 5 because the satellite images show the critical stage biomass-wise hasn’t yet been reached, then happy days.
“Pastures are also locked up for longer and the positive effect of that goes through your entire system.”
The project is a pilot trial but the hope is to demonstrate a proof of concept and hope to continue with replication and further trials.
“We’re not going to answer every question straight away but it is a start and we’ll be able to get a feel for how these technologies might work in this space,” Kelly said.
Allan hopes the trial findings might encourage more people to try crop grazing in their own businesses.
“I do get asked a lot about how we do it,” he said.
“What’s really interesting though, a lot of the total croppers asked me about how crop grazing affected the crops.
“It got me thinking that a total cropper could agist his neighbour’s sheep onto his crops, getting an income and knowing his crop will be fine as long as the sheep are out on time.
“So there are plenty of opportunities for producers who total crop as well as for livestock producers to look into crop grazing.”