CHAROLAIS cattle are not synonymous with the Pilbara region of Western Australia, but this Euro breed has certainly found a home and thrived at Mt Florance station.
The 105,000 hectare (260,000 acre) station is on the Fortescue River between Wittenoom and the Millstream National Park, giving it some handy geographical advantages, especially when coupled with the right seasonal conditions.
Jamie Richardson’s family has been on Mt Florance for more than a century and Jamie, 40, has lived there all his life apart from boarding school and a couple of years working elsewhere.
His affinity with the land is evident through his enthusiasm for the family’s cattle breeding and their outlook for the future.
In the past Mt Florance was both a sheep and cattle station.
It used to run Herefords, which according to Jamie, had lost favour in the market and become unpopular, so they knew they had to change breeds and have been breeding Charolais since the early 1990s.
“We wanted to change into an animal that had the same qualities as the Hereford in terms of temperament, but also in terms of weight and performance,” Jamie said.
“Basically through a conversation with some friends in Boyup Brook who had a Charolais stud, we decided Charolais was going to be a good option to trial.”
He said since that initial foray into the breed they had not looked back.
Mt Florance runs a breeding herd of about 1600 head that is made up of mostly Charolais – all their bulls are Charolais, with Charolais cows and some Charbray and Brahman mixed in.
Jamie said the overall performance of the Charolais, including weight gain, good turn off rates at a reasonably young age, temperament and being good mothers was the key to their success within the operation.
“For example when we are weighing steers and there is a steer with a reasonably high content of Charolais in the race, along with a Brahman cross steer that physically looks identical, it will be the Charolais that comes in 30-40kg heavier every time,” Jamie said.
“That is the thing about them, the Charolais have much better weight gain and muscle against a comparison breed.”
The Richardsons like to mix up their genetic lines, with new genetics coming through to maintain the performance of their cattle.
An example of this was early on in their breeding when they noticed that some Charolais bulls had a tendency to throw progeny with really woolly coats, so over time they selected fine-coated bulls which they followed through to their replacement breeding cow selection.
“Also utilising some Brahman and a very small amount of Droughtmaster genetics helped us to refine the coat a little more and increase the live export potential of the herd,” Jamie said.
“With regards to marketing and welfare issues in the future based around dehorning, we are now targeting poll genetics in our operation and aiming to have less and less horns within the herd through appropriate replacement heifer selection.”
Jamie refers to their cattle as ‘Pilbara Charolais’ – they are a very dominant Charolais base with continual mixing that has allowed them to adapt to the conditions on the station, just like other breeds have adapted over the years.
“They have become really hardy,” he said.
“We did cop a little criticism at first saying that Charolais wouldn’t be able to handle the conditions.”
Part of the reason their breeding operation is so successful is their approach to bull buying, with age being just as important a factor as any of the main breeding traits.
“We prefer to buy our bulls young straight out of the paddock , between 15-18 months, sometimes up to two years depending on the bulls, as we find it gives us the truest impression of the animal, “ Jamie said.
“We find this gives them time to develop up here and grow into the conditions
“They pretty much all come up the same and we look for growth rate, fertility, confirmation and physical structure.
“They need good feet and a toughness to be able to handle it up here which is one of the reasons why we like to buy from the paddock.”
Their breeding runs on a ratio of four per cent, with Jamie conceding there was always the clean skin/mickey bulls to factor into this equation also.
Their breeding is year-round and weaners are taken off, down to 130kg.
They are then separated into sales, young steers and replacement heifers.
“Summer is the ideal calving time, as it is the wet season here,” Jamie said.
“But breeder condition and conception can be tied in to major rain events.”
The Charolais marketability has always been one of their key benefits according to Jamie and they have been able to sell to varying markets, from live export, saleyards and privately to farmers and feedlots, as well as directly to processors.
However, the success of their breeding is also due to Mt Florance’s location and the environmental conditions the herd has been able to adapt to and take advantage of.
Jamie said this year the rainfall had been reasonable and they were looking forward to some good summer rains, having not yet reached the 320 millimetre average.
The station straddles the Fortescue River and is flanked by the Hammersley and Chichester Ranges.
“The proximity to the ranges gives us really good runoff into the floodplain areas,” he said.
“This gives a really good top dressing, and although there has not been a lot of research done on it, phosphorus deficiency is not an issue here like with other areas.”
The cattle have a diverse range of native grasses and shrubs to eat, including Mitchell and Weeping grasses, Roebourne Plains grass, Mulga and snakewood thickets, spinifex and also buffel grass.
There is only one spring in the river itself, so the Richardsons use solar power bores to supply the water points for the cattle.
Covering such an expanse sees their mustering from May through to September, conducted with the use of two hired helicopters, multiple vehicles and motorbikes, with two main permanent yards, holding paddocks and laneways set-up.
Once mustered, the sale of the cattle is able to be as adaptable to the markets as the Charolais breed has been to the Pilbara.
“The type of cattle we have and our location, being fairly central to northern and southern markets, does make it easier for us than some others,” Jamie said.
Gingin processor, Borello Beef WA buys their heavy slaughter cattle and their continued custom is a nod to the satisfaction of the buyer and the quality of the cattle produced at the station.
Jamie said the future was positive for their breeding program and they would continue to breed along their Charolais line with a focus on quality, as has always been their aim.