A genetic focus on positive fat and low milk figures in their Angus herd helps Tieyon Station owners Paul and Jo Smith get through extremely dry and hard times of farming in central Australia.
The couple normally run a 6000-head, self-replacing, continuously-mated Angus herd across their 650,000-hectare property at Kulgera on the SA/NT border.
But last year only 30 millimetres of rain was recorded in January and then another 90mm in November, with nothing in between.
Mr Smith feels this year is shaping up to be similar, with only 30mm received for the year, mainly in May.
"This isn't the driest ever situation we have been in - we had a prolonged dry period from 2002-09 - but we have gone from quite a good situation to quite bad in the space of 12-15 months," he said.
Mr Smith said since taking over the operation in 2005, he has mostly dealt with dry times, but their focus in breeding a hardy, highly-fertile Angus female means recovery could be relatively quick.
"Since 2003, the main EBV trait we have targeted is positive fat and we put a limit on mature cow weight and milk," he said.
"Chasing high milk without the pasture to support it doesn't work in our environment. The cow will pour all her energy into the calf and then die, then the calf dies alongside her.
"We cap milk at breed average or less, while we want as much positive fat as possible.
We have been doing this for more than 15 years, and now we have a breeder herd that if there's a sniff of green feed, their response is amazing.
"We have been doing this for more than 15 years, and now we have a breeder herd that if there's a sniff of green feed, their response is amazing."
But the ongoing dry conditions has forced the Smiths to destock heavily, down to about 2000 head, comprising 1500 breeders, with 450 steers on agistment in Qld.
The Smiths would normally target the grass-fed Jap Ox market through Teys, selling their finished steers at about 550-600kg.
But the drought has meant many steers were weaned and sold immediately into feedlots.
"We had rain in November, which enabled us to hold on to our breeders, but then we didn't have much summer rain so that's when the real destock began," Mr Smith said.
The Smiths have also put a stop spend on buying bulls this year.
The bulls run with the cows year-round.
The body condition of the cows is dictated by the feed available, with joining generally occurring after summer rainfall.
About 75pc of the calves drop in the spring.
Mr Smith said the Angus females' ability to respond and lay down fat reserves, and therefore maintain body condition, meant their fertility and calving rates had not suffered.
Pregnancy rates this year averaged 65-70pc, with some groups up to 85pc.
"I was quietly happy with those rates, considering the lack of rain for such an extended period," Mr Smith said.
Round one of weaning is generally March to May, when the calves are 5-6 months old, or 180-200kg, depending on the season.
"This year, the calves were weaned down to around the 140-150kg mark, which meant we had to market some of the younger, lighter cattle off the property," Mr Smith said.
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The next round of mustering will be in September.
Mr Smith said they destocked hard because they were very cautious about the future.
"The whole country is waiting on a good crop, and this season needs to be above average to ensure grain supply is better and prices come back," he said.
"It would also replenish hay supplies.
"We now have a little bit of green pick from the May rains, but the band of rain was only about 30km wide, so it has only gone through one-third of the property.
"It did put water in dams and spread the cattle out in those land systems, so that's a great help, but we are still waiting for summer rain to grow a substantial body of grass."
Mr Smith said thankfully it didn't take much rain to recover their country.
"We have our breeders poised and ready to respond the minute we get rain," he said.
"It will take us a while to build up an inventory of bullocks again, but we have been in this situation before, we know the strategies to get us through these periods."
CELEBRATING A CENTURY
THIS year, the Smith family celebrate 100 years since Tieyon Pastoral Company was established.
Fourth generation station manager Paul Smith said the family first arrived in Alice Springs in the early 1900s, having moved north from around Farina in SA.
In 1919, the main homestead lease was bought and Tieyon Pastoral Company was formed.
The Smiths were the first pastoralists to run Angus in central Australia.
Paul believes his great-grandfather Frank saw an advertisement for the breed and wanted a point of difference.
"There wasn't a lot of boundary fences back then and everybody had Shorthorns," he said.
Frank bought the station's first Angus bulls in 1925 from Wellington Lodge, Tailem Bend, and by the 1940s, the herd was predominantly black.
Through the 1990s, genetics were sourced from Raff Angus, Qld, while in the early 2000s, when Paul took over, they entered into a breeding program with Bruce and Libby Creek at The Basin.
These days, the herd is based off Texas Angus, NSW, and SA Angus bloodlines of Granite Ridge, Sterita Park and Keringa.
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