MAKING the change to a pure Angus herd has enabled South Australian beef producers, Yellowie Station, to better respond to seasonal conditions and provided increased marketing flexibility.
Owned by the Nutt family, the mixed farming operation covers 4046 hectares in the state's Mid North, near Hallett.
Managed by Chris and Tracey Rains, the Yellowie Station enterprise currently runs 640 Angus breeding cows and grows about 1821ha of wheat, barley, export hay and pulse crops. They also run a self-replacing Merino flock comprising 1600 Old Ashrose-blood ewes.
When Mr Rains took over the management of Yellowie six years ago, he decided to make a switch to breeding Angus to increase the marketing opportunities for their cattle.
Breeding from a mixed base of cows, they culled very heavily in the first year and built numbers up from there.
"We decided to focus purely on Angus due to their productivity, growth rates and the premium in price," Mr Rains said.
"There is also a diverse range of Angus genetics available to select from.
"Although our country is predominantly sheep country because the grass growth is pretty short here for most of the year, the cattle have done well."
They started purchasing Angus bulls from the Moyle family's Pathfinder stud, Gazette, Vic, in 2016 after seeing their display during the SA Beef Week field days.
"I had been on the hunt for an Angus stud and was really impressed with the structure, growth and type of cattle Pathfinder was producing," Mr Rains said.
"Due to the variable season conditions here, the main driver in our bull selection is growth rates as we need to be able to turn steers off as quickly as possible."
Mr Rains likes to use both visual appraisal and estimated breeding values (EBVs) for his bull selection with a focus on growth, birth weight, maternal traits including fertility and milk production, and carcase quality.
"I look at structural soundness, head and bone structure, length of body and squareness from the shoulders to the hip bone, we like nice, long, deep cattle," he said.
"In terms of EBVs, 200 and 400-day growth is very important. I want them to hit +48 for 200-day weight and +85 at 400-day growth, we try to buy low birth weight bulls with high growth rates.
"I also look for at least +65 for carcase weight and +6 for eye muscle area, and the scrotal circumference raw measurement for fertility."
Two to three Pathfinder bulls are purchased each year at the stud's sale in the south east of SA with Mr Rains preferring to turn the bulls over every three years to ensure fresh genetics are introduced regularly.
A split joining is carried out with the majority of cows joined for eight weeks from March onwards to start calving in the following December/January while the remaining breeders are joined from late October to produce August/September-drop calves.
"When we first came here, we found the bulls had been left in with the cows year-round and about two-thirds of the calves were born in January and February and the other third were born in spring, so I just stuck with nature and didn't work against it," Mr Rains said.
"It is a bit different as most people around here would calve in the autumn but it has worked well for us so far."
All the cows are pregnancy tested and any not in calf will be joined up again to increase replacement numbers. Current conception rates average between 91 to 92 per cent.
The cows run on stubbles through the summer and also have access to lucerne and native grass perennial pastures. The summer-calvers are supplemented with hay to maintain cow condition.
Mr Rains is a firm believer in educating calves from birth and focuses his efforts on working with the cows and calves regularly to settle them down. This then makes yard-weaning easier.
"From the time they are born for the first six months of their life is the most important time to educate them, that's probably my biggest motto more than yard-weaning," he said.
"We handle them regularly, using horses, motorbikes, dogs and with people, and then when it comes to weaning, they settle down very quickly."
The calves are yard-weaned on hay for about five days and handled extensively through the yards. They will then be split into their sexes and moved onto good quality pastures to be grown out.
Yellowie's original breeding goal was to produce steers reaching about 450 to 500kg live weight at 12 to 14 months of age.
But with the current high prices, they have been selling their weaners at 8 to 10 months of age at between 220 to 300kg live weight.
"The main goal has always been to turn the steers off as quickly as possible so we could focus on looking after the heifers and building our herd numbers," Mr Rains said.
"Over the years the growth rates of our Angus steers have really lifted and that's why we've been able to get the weight on them a lot earlier.
"During the dry times from 2017 to 2018 and into early 2019 we set up an on-farm feedlot to finish the steers in.
"The steers went in at about 430kg live weight and at the start they were doing 1.6kg/day of weight gain.
"By 2019 they were up around 1.8kg/day so they are gradually improving which has been good to watch."
In 2019, they also gained European-Union accreditation which Mr Rains believes has opened up more marketing opportunities and further increased their premiums.
"Despite the paperwork, the EU accreditation has given us more options for selling our cattle and I think it gives buyers a guarantee of quality," he said.
"At certain times we've been 30 cents a kilogram above market rates, plus with the premium from the Angus at 10 to 15c/kg, we're gaining a premium of nearly 50c/kg by having it, it's definitely been worthwhile."
The majority of the heavier steers are sold to local feedlot Princess Royal and fed on under the EU program, while the weaners have been marketed to the Thomas Foods feedlot at Tintinara, SA, as well as through Teys Bros.
About 120 to 130 heifers are kept each year as replacements, with selection focused on structural soundness, body length and depth, and head structure.
The heifers are run in their respective calving mobs and weighed every three weeks in the lead-up to joining to ensure they hit the minimum target weight of 330kg which Mr Rains said they are achieving easily. They will be classed two weeks before joining at 15 to 17 months of age.
"We are breeding more than 250 heifers each year but only keeping about half this number to give us better quality cattle and that is changing our herd hugely and at a quick pace," he said.
Heifers not kept in the herd are sold as surplus breeders or to feedlots, depending on the market and prices.
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