Winter cereal crops are filling a nutritional gap for ewes and lambs, and providing a cashflow and stored-feed option, for Alister and Jo Persse on their mixed-farming operation, Burumbah, outside Toobeah in south-west Queensland.
Last year they cropped 515 hectares in total of barley and oats, their biggest area since buying Burumbah in late 2014.
They hope to gradually double this when they finish building a perimeter fence to exclude wild dogs and pigs in this predominantly cattle and cropping district.
Burumbah derives the bulk of its income from lambs sired by Coolalee and White Suffolk rams joined to around 2100 merino ewes, bought as culls of varying age from the Persse familys wool-growing operation at Thallon, 200 kilometres to the west.
The first year we were here, we had problems with pregnancy toxaemia in our twinning ewes, and tests by our vet showed it was caused by nutrient deficiencies, says Alister.
The toxaemia resulted in some ewe deaths, and he says it was a painful 'baptism of fire' to discover the pastures of Burumbah did not provide as much nutritional value as the winter herbage and medics of Thallon, with which he was familiar.
We found out very quickly that we needed a crop year-on-year to fill that June-to-August gap, he says.
Grain feeders, along with calcium and magnesium supplements, were the short-term fix. But its grazing crops, such as barley, faba beans and oats, along with feed supplements and access to a dry body of feed, that will go together to make a good diet for our sheep.
We found out very quickly that we needed a crop year-on-year to fill that June-to-August gap
Help for twins
The Persses scan their breeders and, last year, 45 per cent scanned with a single lamb and went on to the good-quality pasture paddocks at Burumbah, while five per cent scanned empty and were shorn and then sold.
Half the flock were twinning ewes, which were put on to barley over May and June prior to lambing in August and September.
Its the twinners during the final trimester, when the feed demand is increased, that require the best nutrition so they can maintain a minimum condition score of three, Alister says.
He says other factors, including mob and paddock size and access to shelter, also influence lambing survival rates.
We are always working to improve this process to ensure the best possible lambing outcomes, he says.
Its the twinners during the final trimester, when the feed demand is increased, that require the best nutrition so they can maintain a minimum condition score of three
New to cropping
Soon after their move to Burumbah, Alister and Jo bought a 12-metre airseeder and are now sowing barley at 63 kilograms of seed per hectare and oats at 28kg/ha, both with 30kg/ha of Starter Z and at 40-centimetre spacings.
In 2018, they planted a 215ha paddock of oats, and 300ha of barley in three paddocks.
These were sown with the intention of having at least one paddock locked-up after grazing for grain production. But Alister says years like last one, where in-crop rain was negligible, means all winter cereal crops may be used for grazing.
Ungrazed winter cereals in the district have an average grain yield of roughly 2.4 tonnes/ha.
In anything less than an exceptional season, the Persses say they could expect a grain yield of well below that figure.
In dry years, our cereal crops are worth more to us as grazing for lambs and ewes, Alister says.
We made the decision early to graze these paddocks and, looking back on the season we were having, we were happy with that, even though grain prices were very high, he says.
Lambing at Burumbah in 2017 took place on Commander (PBR) barley, and in 2018 was done on Drover (PBR) oats, with access to a timbered paddock to offer improved shelter from the elements, and cover from birds of prey.
Buffel grass and native pasture provide summer grazing for ewes and lambs, and the Persses are keen to try out crops for summer grazing when seasons allow.
Millets and cowpeas are crops we would consider down the track, but we need to be sure theyve got moisture under them before we make that move, Alister says.
Whether were cropping 200 or 1200 hectares, well be value adding through our on-farm storage.
As an adjunct to the grazing options cereals offer, Alister and Jo have plans to install four 75t aerated silos that will enable them to store grain for sheep fodder, or sell to cash buyers.
Whether were cropping 200 or 1200ha, well be value adding through our on-farm storage, Alister says.
Burumbah has a 20km boundary fence and the project, which started in 2017, is well advanced.
The fence uses Clipex steel posts and netting on 7m spacings, and RHS posts at 500m as running strainers, with posts and strainers driven 180cm into the ground.
The fence is 180cm high, topped with two barbed wires, and has a 30cm apron on the external side to further deter wild dogs and pigs. At a cost of $9000/km to clear and build the fenceline, it has not come cheaply, but is seen as essential in an area where invasive animals menace flocks.
It was only a question of when, not if, we would be hit with wild dogs, Alister says.
With the fertility we have in our flock, we are always trying to balance the feed we have with our number of sheep to make sure they are receiving the best nutrition this country can give them, and thats why were getting into cropping.
More information: Alister Persse, 0429 641 186, firstname.lastname@example.org