Mixing eggs, beef and pork makes Gippsland Pastured shock-proof

Diversification with eggs, beef and pork makes Gippsland Pastured shock-proof


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RESILIENCE: Felicity Cassano and Greg Forster of Gippsland Pastured won a gold medal, two bronzes and Best Free Range and Barn Laid Chicken Eggs at the Australian Food Awards for the eggs that complement their beef enterprise.

RESILIENCE: Felicity Cassano and Greg Forster of Gippsland Pastured won a gold medal, two bronzes and Best Free Range and Barn Laid Chicken Eggs at the Australian Food Awards for the eggs that complement their beef enterprise.

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Savage flooding soon after making their first foray into farming saw Greg Forster and Felicity Cassano of Gippsland Pastured take a totally different approach.

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The rusting hulk of an old header at Gippsland Pastured's gateway is a monumental reminder of why the award-winning egg producer is not just an egg producer.

Gippsland Pastured's Felicity Cassano and husband Greg Forster farm an ever-changing mob of beef cattle, 3000 Isa Brown hens and a growing drift of pigs.

That diversity reflects the couple's history in more ways than one.

Ms Cassano was a bookkeeper and Mr Forster an agronomist when they bought 108 hectares of unimproved and exceptionally flat land near Rosedale in 2009.

Drawing on Mr Forster's agronomic expertise, they cropped the heavy but hungry soils with canola, wheat and barley.

The strategy made sense while they were living an hour away and not ready to farm full-time.

But it proved disastrous when one crop after another was wiped out by flooding in 2011 and 2012.

"The flooding of our crops almost sent us broke," Mr Forster said.

The farm sat idle for two years while the family regrouped.

They built a house and prepared for full-time farming when their eldest child finished school and their twins were ready for year seven.

"We wanted to run cattle, so we fenced out the whole property," Ms Cassano said.

"Greg planted 25,000 trees in shelter belts and preserved the 200-year-old remnant red gums.

"Then we worked out that cattle weren't going to pay the bills and support a family so we looked around for something different.

"Chickens seemed not too hard a workload.

"We were delusional!"

While keeping 3000 hens and handling 2500 eggs a day turned out to be a little more work than expected, the pair's vision for the business side of farming was clear.

"We needed to determine an enterprise that made financial sense," Mr Forster said.

Today, the business is thriving and able to make a profit despite drought and skyrocketing feed prices.

Ironically, Rosedale and surrounds have been hit by a three-year drought every bit as severe as the floods that nearly finished Gippsland Pastured off before it even got started.

The average annual rainfall is 590mm but recent totals sit at about 45 per cent of the norm.

"Part of the calculation with the chickens was the drought resiliency," Mr Forster said.

"The price of feed has gone up but they don't drink as much water as cattle do," Ms Cassano added.

The chickens have an agronomic role to play, too.

Each group of chickens is sheltered with a purpose-built 'caravan' in a paddock secured by permanent fox-proof electric fencing.

The caravans' mesh floors allow droppings to fall directly onto the pasture, improving the difficult silt and clay soil.

"The soil's low in calcium, high in magnesium and high sodium, which means that, chemically, there's very minimal soil structure," the former agronomist said.

"Organic matter is the only thing that holds it together."

The verdant pasture that grows in the wake of the caravans is striking, driving home the complementary nature of the egg production and beef elements of the business.

"Normally, we have a grass problem so the cattle fit into the system quite nicely in that respect," Mr Forster said.

"We try to make decisions about the cattle enterprise based on profit.

"We're traders - we buy what's cheap and sell over the hooks.

"They've been totally grass-fed until recently but it's been impossible to do that with the season's we've just had.

"We bought some bins on wheels and are moving towards a rotational supplementary-fed system.

"Because it's such a small property, it's hard to justify cattle and, being dry land, there's no continuity of feed.

"If we run that hybrid system, we can take the cattle through to over the hooks, which tends to have a better return but we can also sell into the store market if the dollars are there.

"We weren't quick enough to sell this time.

"Felicity said, 'No more cattle coming in' whereas I said, 'Oh, no, look, throw the dice and she'll be right' but it wasn't.

"Feeding them meant that we would end up with a small profit rather than a loss."

Not content with running both chickens and cattle, Gippsland Pastured is experimenting with a small group of pigs to utilise eggs that fail its stringent quality standards.

In fact, the business name was chosen to suit a whole range of enterprises.

"It was always part of the concept that we'd have a diverse business, so the umbrella term, 'Gippsland Pastured', applies to eggs, beef, pork, honey and there are more in the pipeline," Mr Forster said.

The use of the word 'pastured' was also important to differentiate the animal husbandry element of the farm business.

"We want to leverage 'pastured' because that's the style of egg that separates us from free range but the word 'pastured' hasn't really taken off as well here as it has in America," Ms Cassano said.

"By pastured eggs we mean chooks in a paddock free to roam - that's not what free range means any more."

There are no more than 425 of Gippsland Pastured's chickens in each of the 2.2-2.4ha paddocks, equating to a ratio of just 200 birds/ha, whereas Australian egg producers can run up to 10,000 birds/ha and be accredited "free range".

The couple's fastidious approach has earned it a loyal customer base at farmer's markets, cafes, butcheries, fresh produce retailers and small supermarkets.

It has also won Gippsland Pastured a gold medal, two bronzes and Best Free Range and Barn Laid Chicken Eggs at the 2019 Australian Food Awards last month.

The eggs are poached and judged on their shell quality, flavour, texture, aroma and appearance.

The best-in-class win will see Gippsland Pasture compete against produce of all types for the title of Champion Australian Produce next week.

The competition provided invaluable independent feedback because, despite their clear-eyed focus on profitability, Mr Forster admitted to being a little biased about their eggs.

"I wouldn't say I'm an egg connoisseur but I'm definitely an egg snob."

The story Mixing eggs, beef and pork makes Gippsland Pastured shock-proof first appeared on Stock & Land.

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