A new found passion for beef cattle

A new found passion for beef cattle

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Elleker-based corn grower Phil Harding and his family decided recently to add beef breeders to their operation to make the most of the highly productive land available to them on the South Coast.

Elleker-based corn grower Phil Harding and his family decided recently to add beef breeders to their operation to make the most of the highly productive land available to them on the South Coast.

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Beef has entered into the equation for the Harding family who run a commercial vegetable operation on the South Coast, just west of Albany at Elleker.

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BEEF has entered into the equation for the Harding family who run a commercial vegetable operation on the South Coast, just west of Albany at Elleker.

After deciding to head south from Perth in 2005 to try his hand at growing corn and other vegetables, Phil Harding, together with wife Carolee and children Abigail, Jessica and Caitlin, decided recently to add beef breeders to the equation.

It's a call that is already fitting in with the existing horticulture side of the business and it's one that has Phil and his family looking to the future.

"Our first commercial crop was in about 2009 and since then we've been growing mostly corn but also a range of other veggies," Phil said.

"Now we're getting into beef, but we'll see how the markets go before we make any concrete decisions on what our business will look like in the years to come."

While Phil is testing the water by getting into a few more breeding cattle, it sounds like he already has a soft spot for the beef side of the business.

"We're certainly watching to see what the markets do on the veggie side of the business," he said.

"It does seem to be getting harder and harder, so we'll hang on to the veggies for as long as we can but I think in the future we're probably looking at transitioning to beef.

"I think we have a lot of potential with the land we have available to us to finish beef really well, so we're watching that space."

The Harding's operation is divided between a 40 hectare home property close to the coast where the vegetable crops are grown and calves are finished, plus a larger block (150ha) a bit further inland which is utilised for the breeding program.

"At this stage we're pretty well fully stocked with the amount of space we have available to us, but we'd love to run more so we're just keeping an eye on any property opportunities that might come up," Phil said.

"The home property has extremely productive soil - we are able to grow veggies through summer without irrigation so you can imagine how well the grass does.

"So if we're not going to be growing veggies in the future, we know it grows an awful lot of grass and there is potential there for beef to do well."

When asked how they settled on beef as the next best option after growing veggies, Phil said with a bit of a smile, he thought it involved a bit less work.

"I guess we started going into beef when the cattle prices boomed a few years ago," he said.

"The cattle prices were ridiculous then.

"Sheep prices were OK but we just thought we'd have a go with cattle and I think once you start in a particular direction, it's best to keep going."

From the beginning the program started well with the first lot of steers brought in to fatten as a trial doing very well on the pastures at the home block.

"When we started bringing beef into the business, we started off at home with a few steers which we brought in to fatten on the couple of paddocks that we don't crop on," Phil said.

"They did really well so that's how we stepped into it at the start.

On many fronts, adding cattle to the set-up is a call that is already fitting in nicely with the existing horticulture side of the Harding family business.

On many fronts, adding cattle to the set-up is a call that is already fitting in nicely with the existing horticulture side of the Harding family business.

"Now we have most of the cattle up at the bigger block but we still have about 30 steers at the home place and we just rotate as we need when we need to fatten and finish cattle."

The long-term plan is to finish their own calves.The veggies produce another feed option for the cattle as well, with Phil saying the cattle had developed a taste for sweet corn off-cuts and stubbles.

"The corn is actually a very good complement to the cattle because the cows love it like you wouldn't believe and they do really well on it," he said.

"We put them on the stubbles once we've finished harvesting the corn which is not really stubbles that's left, it's the whole plant just left on the ground minus the cob, so there is a heap of feed there and then, in addition, out of the packing shed they probably get about four or five tonnes a week of off-cuts and seconds.

"They absolutely love it, it's like lollies to them and they do well on it which is good."

Numbers wise, the Harding family is running about 50 steers which are due to go soon after being bought to complement the 110 head female breeding herd.

"The breeding herd is mostly up-and-coming heifers which are due to start calving in December and we have a number which are also due to be mated for the first time in March next year," Phil said.

"When we started looking into breeding females we got some Red Angus from our neighbour Graham Smith (Kildarra Red Angus) and the rest are pure Angus which our stock agent Allan Pearce, Landmark, helped us find.

"Because we're wanting to fatten our own, the reds were OK even though a lot of people say it's got to be black, especially if you're selling calves.

"But from our perspective if we're going to fatten our own it doesn't matter because they all look the same once they've got no skin on them.

"I find the reds perform well, they grow well, they're beautiful cows - I think they stand out nicely in the mob."

That hint of a preference for the Red Angus cows in his mob means Phil might be inclined to go that way again when he's next in the market for a bull.

"We'll see how it goes, at the moment we've got a Kildarra Red Angus bull and we're looking at another one too, so we'll give them a run as heifer bulls for the next year or so and then we'll see where we're at," he said.

"It really depends on what's available but we're spoilt for choice down in this area - there are a lot of really good studs and breeds to choose from, so I'll be listening closely to our agent because he knows the markets, he knows what's good out there so I'll rely on that advice in the future I think.

"I always make sure he explains to me what he's thinking and why before we lock anything in, but I think it makes sense to follow his lead given he's got more expertise in cattle than I do."

"I'd certainly like to do more cattle but it's a very slow process and as it is, especially starting with young heifers, then growing them out and mating them, it's about a four-year process before you get any money out of them at all.

The start of December is when the calves are due to drop this year, which Phil said was set up to make the most of the gap in the market before the spring flush.

"It's really all about finishing time," he said.

"So we are out of season but because we're planning on finishing our own calves, the best time to have finished calves, as in slaughter-ready, is in that August-September window before the spring flush of calves comes onto the market.

"The idea being there isn't much around in that August-September period so we'll be able to take advantage of higher prices and the strong demand from abattoirs is really good.

Since joining the ranks of cattle farmers on the South Coast, regardless of whether or not the family sticks with its vegetable business into the future, it sounds like Phil has found a new passion in beef cattle and they won't be going anywhere anytime soon.

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