Many South East and western Vic beef producers can stack the weight on their weaners during spring off perennial pastures, but some find their young cattle at a standstill or even losing weight through summer and autumn.
A Meat & Livestock Australia-funded project hopes to come up with good post-weaning strategies to keep them moving forward.
Three producer groups - facilitated by the MacKillop Farm Management Group - are exploring ways to fill the feed gap, from feeding silage to grazing fodder crops.
Bool Lagoon's South Killanoola, which is participating in the four-year project, had success with a Super Sudan forage sorghum crop in 2019.
Manager Dean Eastwood says in the past, their heifers have been put back in the paddock after yard weaning without much thought, but he now recognises the opportunity to lift productivity.
His goal is to ensure they put on at least 750 grams a day in the critical period between weaning and mating.
He sees it as important, as the heifers are only 14 months of age at joining in May - a month earlier than the main herd is mated.
"It would be nice to see them at 350 kilograms by the 15th of May for the start of our mating and we have battled to do that.
"It has generally flowed on that they have not quite grown out as well as we hoped."
South Killanoola's herd is made up predominantly of Angus, along with some black baldies and Herefords.
Owners the Seymour family have an outstanding reputation for turning off well-bred weaners.
For many years, their March/April-drop weaners were sold in January sales at Naracoorte, but for the past three years they have changed tack, marketing their European Union-accredited steers in the paddock.
In late October, all the calves in the drop are yard weaned. The steers are sold a month to six weeks later, manly through AuctionsPlus.
In recent years, South Killanoola has been retaining 85 per cent to 90pc of its heifer calves annually to build its herd.
"My philosophy has been to let the bull make the first decision on who is going to get in-calf, but it gives us options by mating them," Mr Eastwood said.
Last year, the 330, 2019-drop heifers were weighed and split into two groups. The lighter weights (under 320kg) went onto 37 hectares of forage sorghum while the 170 heavier heifers were supplemented in the paddock with silage.
The animals grazing the crop gained 0.8kg/day, but those on the silage actually lost an average of 20kg during January-February.
Mr Eastwood says it taught him a valuable lesson - the need to weigh heifers at least every eight weeks.
"We thought we had our (feed) budgets worked out but we found out we didn't - it's not a great feeling when the scales show a negative weight gain," he said.
"We upped the silage by about 30 per cent to those on pasture and pushed them pretty hard so they gained a fair bit of weight in a short time."
He was relieved the conception rates between those heifers fed on silage and the forage sorghum were similar, but calculated it cost them $11,000 in lost weight.
Mr Eastwood says the forage sorghum, which was sown in the first week in December and grazed in early February for nearly three months, stacked up well financially.
He estimates they were $34,000 in front based on the $7000 saving in silage costs and the total kilograms of weight gained, which he valued at $4/kg.
The $25,000 of input costs, including seed, fertiliser and irrigation, were deducted.
The plan for spring 2020 is to sow sorghum again under one of their pivot circles, but also put in some dryland sorghum and millet as a comparison.
On-farm he is hopeful of seeing the payback through a few per cent lift in the success rate of their heifer AI program.
If we are going to stay in a weaner-based system then looking after the females is the most important thing.
For the past four years, heifers have been joined by AI, which ensures about half the heifers calve across four days and also gives a "genetic kick", with high growth, low birthweight sires used.
While COVID-19 has prevented face-to-face meetings of the producer group so far, Mr Eastwood says the chance to discuss ideas with like-minded producers was a big drawcard.
"It won't just be the heifer program where we might be able to see something working that we can copy, there will be eight or 10 other things at least," he said.
"If we are going to stay in a weaner-based system then looking after the females is the most important thing. Even if we keep the steers longer, we can't lose sight of the fact that our core business is run around females."
MFMG chief executive officer Meg Bell, who is part of the project team leading the Producer Demonstration Site project along with PIRSA Rural Solutions, says it will come up with a range of strategies producers can use to keep their weaners growing, but will also help them fine-tune their data recording.
"We are really encouraging producers to trial things they might have been thinking about for a long time but didn't have the confidence to do, so that we can provide them with a supported learning environment," she said.
"We won't necessarily be able to compare data from year to year as participants won't necessarily be doing the same thing in each year of the project, but we will have really good datasets within years looking at a variety of different feeding regimes."
Within each of the three groups in the Upper SE, Lower SE and western Vic, there will be a focus farm, and these farms will each host a field day as part of this project, allowing producers to see which feeding regimes have worked well.
An opportunity exists to join one of the SE groups.
- Details: Meg Bell 0433 499 630.
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