Profit lift built on climate challenge

A Riverina grain grower and Nuffield Scholar has found an upside to downgraded grain through premium lamb production

Photo of James Male

Yerong Creek grower James Male in his feedlot, which has allowed him to convert downgraded grain into a premium product.

PHOTO: Peter Merk

It was the drought that broke in 2010, and subsequent floods, that got James Male thinking about ways that he and his brother Greg could introduce new income streams into their mixed-enterprise farm, in particular premium lamb.

Cropping is the focus of their 4600-hectare operation, based in Yerong Creek, south of Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, and spanning five properties. Cattle, sheep and grazing wheats have always been part of the equation, but the extreme climatic variability of the past five years led James to further develop his systems for lamb finishing.

“We were trying to protect our ground cover during the drought, and instead of sheep running everywhere we’d put them into confined areas for feeding. And we’d also dabbled a bit with finishing lambs on grain,” he says.

Then came the summer floods of 2011, which reduced even their barley to below the lowest feed grade and resulted in bargain-basement prices of about $80 per tonne. “We thought we’d develop the lamb feedlot to add value to that grain. And from that it has just got bigger each year.”

The Male feedlot can today hold between 3000 and 4000 lambs for six to eight weeks at a time. Between February and the end of August the business now trades up to 10,000 lambs, most for domestic consumption. The animals are fed a mixed diet, made up largely of whatever is the lowest-grade crop at the time.

It has proved to be a lucrative buffer for their cropping operation, which generally comprises about 45 per cent wheat, 35 per cent canola, 15 per cent barley and five per cent lupins.

“Every year it seems there’s an issue with something or other for our cropping, whether it’s high screenings, falling number problems with weather damage or black tip, for example. There seems to be something there to knock it a bit,” says James, a 2011 Nuffield Scholar.

With grain-fed lamb considered a premium product, he receives about $110 per lamb, which must fit within 22 and 24 kilograms carcase weight. He also receives about $10 per skin.

“Generally the best grain we use is barley and then we put lupins in the mix and use a buffer feed pellet. We also put straw from paddocks in the mix, so we’re value-adding that as well,” he says, explaining that stubble is cut close to the ground, the spreader removed from the header, and straw and trash then baled.

By feeding the downgraded grain in the feedlots, he estimates the business has converted what was at one point an $80/t income to about $250/t.

Protein fix

The Male enterprise is in an ideal location for lamb finishing, with several abattoirs, meat markets and selling centres close by at Wagga Wagga.

Keen to further increase his feedlot’s productivity, in 2012 James travelled to feedlots in New Zealand, the US, the Middle East and France as part of his Nuffield Scholarship, funded by Meat and Livestock Australia.

The largest feedlots he saw were in the US state of Colorado, where growers have experimented for decades with pure grain diets for their lambs – an option that can cause acidosis (grain poisoning) if the diet is not gradually modified. Growers in Colorado largely rely on corn but, like James, will change to whatever is the cheapest option at the time.

James says that some of the most useful innovations he observed were line-feeding systems that regulate the amount of food dispensed to animals, rather than the popular self-feeding systems. Growers would also often place feed on the other side of a fence so the lambs would have to stick their necks through to eat. This prevented the feed being trampled.

While the Male feedlot can turn over up to 10,000 lambs annually, the actual numbers and feed regimens are revisited each year. First and foremost, James’s priority is cropping and achieving high yields and grain quality.

“It’s after harvest that we assess lamb prices, grain prices, forward-contract prices for the lamb, how much feed we’ve got on hand, how we’re situated in terms of cashflow,” he says.

“We take all of this into consideration and then make the decision to turn over ‘x’ number of lambs, requiring so much feed and we offload the rest.

“We don’t want to get locked into one position. If grain prices are phenomenal and we don’t have anything out-of-spec, it might make more sense not to finish any lambs at all. We’ll just close it down and sell the grain … but that hasn’t been the case for the past few years.

“We’ll continue planning our rotations based on best cropping and use our feedlot as a way of value-adding and getting the most out of any by-products, such as straw, and making better use of out-of-spec grain.”

But while lamb finishing has been a boon for the Males brothers, James says that intensive feedlotting is not something to rush into. It requires additional resources, such as extra labour and, he says, a liking for working with sheep.


New scholars eye climate, drones and information technology

Four young grain growers from across Australia were announced as the recipients of GRDC-funded Nuffield Scholarships at the Nuffield Australia 2013 National Conference held in Perth in September.

Ben Boughton from Moree in New South Wales will visit the US, Europe and Brazil to research the potential of unmanned aerial and ground vehicles for the grains industry. Ben works within his family’s business, a 2000-hectare dryland cropping enterprise.

“These systems could allow farmers to monitor crops at a level of detail and timing that is not yet accessible through traditional satellite or piloted aerial photography,” Ben says.

“There is much that needs to be investigated, including platform choice such as multi-rotor, fixed-wing or rovers.”
Chris Reichstein from Esperance in Western Australia intends to research how to best deliver information to growers to influence change in farming practices and lead to improved profitability and sustainability. He crops barley, canola and field peas over 4000ha, using a system that incorporates no-till, controlled traffic, integrated weed management and precision agriculture.

“Farmers are time-poor, so I’d like to investigate the best combination of technology, media, social and scientific means that can be employed to best disseminate this valuable information, and research what role grower groups can play,” Chris says. He hopes to visit countries including the US and Brazil.

Bob Nixon will research techniques and crop rotations for coping with a drying climate. Bob runs a broadacre cropping and livestock operation with his family at Kalannie, WA, where they have 11,670ha planted to wheat, canola and barley. He hopes to visit Canada, the US, Israel and Argentina.

“We can’t make it rain and we can’t rely on prices to always be high, so the answer must lie in making the most of available R&D and ensuring we get the best outcome we can from available moisture,” Bob says.

The fourth recipient, Nick Gillett, comes from Bencubbin, WA, where he co-owns and manages the Gillett family farming operation, cropping 5600ha of wheat and more than 900ha of barley. He intends to study ways of improving crop germination and yield in a drying climate.

“I feel most farmers have sharpened up agronomically, but we still need more reliability with crop establishment and yield to mitigate the severe hardship consecutive bad seasons cause,” says Nick, who intends to visit India, the US, Mexico and north Africa.

“I’d also like to visit the Department of Agronomy and Plant Breeding in Iran to discuss germination enhancement, as well as investigating tillage techniques and row spacing in South Africa.”

– Alexandra Roginski

More information:

James Male,
0429 203 702, 
jamesfmale@gmail.com

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GRDC Project Code NUF00010

Region South, Overseas, North, West