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Top grass management keeps Aussie farm productive

It is midsummer down here in Australia, having a month ago just passed summer solstice.

I have brought pen to paper following a most interesting visit with Mrs. Susie Clark, owner of Devon Park, a large grazing property in the southwest corner of Victoria, Australia and just south of our place near Dunkeld.

One of the original and iconic properties of the Western District, the farm sprawls over 6,000 acres of rich volcanic plains. It is Devon Park’s top-notch grazing management and cattle that has drawn me to it, but the fascinating history of the grazing operation ends up a close second.

HISTORIC OPERATION

The magnificent bluestone mansion and shepherd’s huts date back to the beginning of Devon Park in 1852. Explorer Major Thomas Mitchell first passed through here in 1836 and the area was rapidly settled shortly after. The Clarkes have owned it pretty much the entire time and is among some of the most prestigious farms in the region, having reached significant prosperity through the raising of wool sheep and the golden eras of soaring wool prices of the 1950s.

Susie Clark’s late husband Jim was an excellent cattleman and horseman and it became a natural shift from their 20,000-head Merino wool sheep flock to pursue their passion for producing top beef cattle and some of the best polo horses in Australia following the woolshed fire in 1996. The Western District is well known for its Polo Cross competitions, using small and tough thoroughbred horses.

The Clarkes perfected the ultimate Polo Cross horse and have sold horses internationally, most significantly to Argentina. At the peak of their horse breeding they had 70 horses. Although I would have liked to have met the late Jim Clarke and learned more about his passion for growing grass and raising cattle and horses, I was thoroughly impressed by Susie’s knowledge of the farm and its operation. Despite having a manager and two stockhands to take care of Devon Park’s daily needs, she undeniably had her finger on the pulse of a thriving grazing operation and with much pride took me on a tour in her trusty 60 series Toyota Land Cruiser, the “hearse.”

STOCKPILED FORAGE

The first immediate observation for me, considering the time of year, was the abundance of stockpiled forage in nearly every paddock. Not unlike Canada, the growing season in Australia certainly has its ebbs and flows, with the main difference being that the dormant growing season is in the heat of the summer when reduced rainfall shuts plants down.

Summer is when farmers most typically hook their tractors onto bale shredders and lay out supplemental feed or fill the bale feeders like producers would do during the Canadian winter. While it does not freeze in Dunkeld, the cooler 8 C to 10 C winter days and reduced sunlight do reduce growth of forages. Grazing management does have to take this into account also.

Also not unlike in Canada, any time feeding replaces grazing, costs go up and Susie proudly shared they rarely have to feed. She was quick to mention the grass health improved immensely when they changed from a sheep enterprise to cattle. Cattle are top-down grazers, she says and in her view sheep are too finicky when they select the plants to graze and can be quite harmful to a paddock’s species diversity.

BUILDING ON 2,500 HEAD

Devon Park runs 2,500 mother cows with an aim to increase to 2,900 head shortly. That is impressive carrying capacity, considering in west central Alberta producers aim for two acres per cow-calf pair just for summer grazing of about 140 days. The Devon Park cattle are mainly black, stemming from the brood cows being 1/4 Hereford, 1/4 Shorthorn and 1/2 Angus and the bulls all Angus.

Most of their Angus bulls come from the Barwidgee Pastoral Co. just a little further south near Caramut www.barwidgee.com.au or Coolana Angus www.coolana.com also nearby, at Chatsworth.

They cross back individual cows to Shorthorn occasionally to maintain the brood cow’s ideal maternal type with deep hindquarters, strong feet, depth of girth and strength in the shoulders. Cruising through the heifer paddocks with 510 first-calf heifers it was not surprising to see the colour dominance of the Shorthorn with several solid red heifers and the odd roan one. Devon Park does all its cattle work on horses, a rarity now in Australia unless you are on the large cattle stations up north. Clarkes believe cattle are quieter when handled with horses as opposed to more common motorbikes.

The calving cycle is swift, beginning in June at the start of winter and lasting seven weeks. Of last year’s 500-some heifers they assisted about a dozen with just three losses. The calving paddocks are grazed down hard as a way to spur on clovers as they come on in late winter and spring without the competition of the grass growth. The most common legume is subterranean-type clovers common in Europe and which can fix significant amounts of nitrogen. The grass species are predominantly rough fescue and cocksfoot (type of orchard grass) with some ryegrass. The ongoing release of the shorter-lived ryegrasses is a testament to the good grazing management on Devon Park allowing plants to go to seed periodically and germinate during the wetter seasons of winter and spring.

The occasional fertilizer application, mainly on newly scarified and seeded paddocks, uses primarily liquid calcium products with N-P-K and S applied with boom-less nozzles on trucks or tractor-drawn trailers. Susie Clark points to recent Australian research showing benefits from adding molasses to the liquid fertilizer providing energy for the soil microorganisms to mineralize locked-up nutrients. As an added benefit the molasses is also a pesticide that works quite effectively to control the red legged earth mite, which is particularly detrimental to clovers.

During the peak growing season in September/October plant tissue samples are commonly taken and analyzed for the status of micronutrients such as boron, manganese, zinc, copper, cobalt. I found the cattle mineral stations noticeably absent from Devon Park’s paddocks, as on many other farms. Perhaps the farmers’ practice of intensely analyzing the forage and supplementing the plants rather than the cow is the reason.

INTERNET MARKETING

Devon Park with its roughly 2,000 calves to market each year has a distinctive volume advantage over other smaller farms and primarily uses Internet marketing through its local livestock agent. The end destination of the calves when sold in late February varies between backgrounding operations and feedlots depending on the strength of the market and price of feed, not unlike the dictating factors of a Canadian market. The calves are six to seven months of age and the 2012 calf crop averaged 600 lbs., which to me is a pretty good indication of grass quality.

As we cruised through the many paddocks checking water troughs Susie mentioned other planned changes. Despite being in her 70s, there is no lack of ambition. Cross fencing and pasture pipeline water development from Devon Park’s dugouts and water wells will ultimately see 30 to 32 cows with a single bull in separate pastures during a six-week breeding cycle.

We sat and had cup of tea in the visiting room of the 160-year-old mansion after an equally impressive look at the gardens. What a way to spend an afternoon, a great place to visit, most impressive stock and a top-notch operation offering an insightful look at cattle production in this part of Australia. †

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