Regenerative grazing pays off for Cluain

Organic growth for Cluain beef

Beef
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After many years of running a low input, low cost grazing system Cluain, south of Lucindale, has taken the natural progression to an organic beef operation.

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A LOW input, low cost grazing system is paying off for Callendale beef producers Hamish Macdonald and Christa Mlakar, who see the system working well into the future.

Hamish's parents Byron and Sally Macdonald had been spending large amounts of money on synthetic fertilisers at Cluain, and decided there had to be a more sustainable way.

In 1996, after attending a RCS Grazing for Profit course, they pushed the stock together into one mob and began fencing into smaller paddocks.

Hamish and Christa have continued this on, with the 1700-hectare property (1600ha arable) a network of wagon wheels divided into about 120 paddocks, separated with single wire electric fencing.

The 700-head herd rotationally grazes through the phalaris and perennial grass-based pastures, with paddocks spelled for up to 90 days at a time, depending on the season.

Cluain has also timed its calving to make the most of the spring pasture flush.

The July/August-drop calves are weaned and the steers sold in January at about five months of age.

"We are aiming for around a 500-kilogram calving cow that is readily pregnant so we can turn off a steer at 230kg at five months of age and have a heifer calf that can get in-calf to calve with the rest of the mob."

"If it was a really shocking season we might sell a reasonable draft of the heifer calves as well if we don't think we can carry them through the summer," he said.

By turning off their calves early, Cluain has been able to largely avoid supplementary feeding, with only three truckloads of organic hay bought in annually.

We are really looking at the all-round biological system, including the soils, - Hamish Macdonald, Cluain

The main animal health expenses are a couple of mineral supplements which total about $6000 a year.

"We try and have Beachport Liquid Minerals in the water all the time, which is probably more than they suggest but any of the excess mineral goes out on the dung so we are getting the benefit there," he said.

They also use an organic loose lick from Ag Solutions in Qld.

Twenty years on from turning their back on high input farming, Hamish says Cluain has managed to still support a similar stocking rate, but importantly the country appears healthier, especially digging under the surface of the soil.

"We are really looking at the all-round biological system, including the soils," he said.

"That is one thing that I think is a bit of the missing link in conventional and Western-style agriculture.

"The science of farming is very good but it is purely chemical based with a whole lot of other areas not even considered."

Cluain pursues organic 'niche'

EACH year, Cluain's calves sold in the Naracoorte weaner sales attract strong competition, but Hamish Macdonald and Christa Mlakar are hoping to grow this further through their recently-acquired organic status.

In 2016 the property achieved organic certification through AusQual, which they say after years of minimal inputs was a natural progression.

"It was an economic opportunity and it wasn't a stretch practice-wise, the only thing we had to change was some protocols," he said.

They believe they have already seen a couple of benefits, although acknowledge the premiums for those selling finished cattle on-hooks are more evident than in the saleyards.

"In 2017 when the cattle job jumped, we sold our weaners and all the pens were bid on by organic buyers but they were all bought by the commercial guys, so I think they (organic buyers) pushed the price up," he said.

"And last year we started selling a whole lot of cull cows to the works and they sold $200 a head better than non-organic."

Mr Macdonald says the biggest challenge is following organic protocols, including animal health, but is hopeful the extra effort will be worth it.

"The risk in farming is not being economically viable, but hopefully we can secure our future being part of a niche and hopefully growing market," he said.

"Personally I would like the food we grow to be organic," Ms Mlakar said.

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