Grain and graze works wonders for Don

Headshot of Cally Dupe
Cally DupeCountryman
Binnu farmer Don Nairn with barley cut for hay (left), a strip of barley (middle), and grazed barley (right).
Camera IconBinnu farmer Don Nairn with barley cut for hay (left), a strip of barley (middle), and grazed barley (right). Credit: Countryman

A grain and graze program is working wonders at a Binnu farm, where the sheep are round and barley heads are bursting after just 240mm of rain, writes Cally Dupe

Don Nairn’s face glows as he waves a hand out of the window of the ute, gesturing towards a paddock of fat, healthy Merino ewes with Texel lambs.

“I just love these sheep, and they love barley,” he smiles, turning to face us as he puts a foot to the brake and stops the ute.

He rotates his sheep on winter cereal crops and stubble, and has been fine-tuning the process since 2003.

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We step out of the ute, and into a 90ha paddock divided into three 30ha paddocks with electric fencing, for rotational grazing.

We stand in a patch of evenly grazed barley standing about 30cm tall. A herd of about more than 300 mated Merino ewes and Texel lambs calmly watch on.

Looking around, lines of windrowed barley cut as hay lines the ground of the next paddock, with just a fine, electric fence and a strip of thicker barley separating the two.

“My farm is a grain and graze farm, because we have stock, and we grow the crops for the sheep,” Don tells us.

“You need to be able to graze it off early, and the crop has to be able to sustain a heap of sheep stomping across it.”

Sheep at Don Nairn's Binnu farm.
Camera IconSheep at Don Nairn's Binnu farm. Credit: Countryman

The Binnu property is awash with thick paddocks growing grain for delivery to CBH and for stock, with plenty of green feed in the form of barley and rye corn to go around.

Mr Nairn runs a nearly 3370ha cropping and sheep operation across 2497ha of his own land and 900ha of leased land east of Binnu.

He is one of the last farmers running sheep in the northern margins of WA’s grain-growing areas.

His favourite are the Texels, but the majority of the sheep flock is still Merinos.

“I like the Texels because conversion from feed to meat is very good, and the growth rates are fantastic,” Mr Nairn said.

“They do so well on that rotational grazing system and they seem to convert that Moby barley into muscle really well.”

The Nairns run about 20 Texel rams, 15 Merino rams and 1200 Merino ewes.

A second-generation farmer, Mr Nairn is passionate about livestock and believes there is still a future in running sheep with a grain and graze operation.

“Without that system, I wouldn’t be running sheep,” he said.

The property has been in the family for 60 years, and Mr Nairn helped to clear the property with his father and brother.

A self-described sheep enthusiast, Mr Nairn sells nearly all of his wether lambs to WA abattoirs south of Perth and sources his Texel rams from Te Rakau stud at Moora.

Grazing crops was born out of necessity at Mr Nairn’s property, where the sheep component was historically a lot of effort for little return.

Binnu farmer Don Nairn with barley cut for hay.
Camera IconBinnu farmer Don Nairn with barley cut for hay. Credit: Countryman

In 2001, after a examining the relative returns from cropping and livestock on his farm, he decided a change was needed.

The options were simple — get out of sheep entirely, or change the grazing system to boost sheep numbers.

Two years on, he started strip grazing on 117ha paddock of grazing oats with 500 Merino ewes, divided into five even paddocks.

After trying a variety of pastures, including sub clovers and seradella, he and his now late wife, Paula, turned to forage pastures.

They were pleasantly surprised by the early vigour of the cereals compared to pasture legumes.

“I went away for a weekend and a mob of sheep went across my Moby barley grain crop,” Mr Nairn said.

“I thought it has just wrecked my crop. I could barely even see the crop, because they had eaten it all.

“I took the sheep out and it came back like you wouldn’t believe.

“From then, I had no concerns about grazing my crops.”

The rotational grazing system starts about June 15 and involves four small lambing lots and five secondary lots of 17ha as the “main hub”.

Bigger paddocks are divided into cells, and after leaving the secondary cells they go into bigger paddocks on the farm separated with electric fencing.

The grazing carries on until the end of October, governed by rainfall. “The sheep come into this big hub where it is controlled for lambing,” Mr Nairn said.

“And then we open the gate and they walk themselves into these secondary lots. After the secondary lots, they drift out into bigger paddocks cropped for grain production. Those grain crops are grazed once, giving those secondary lots time to recover, and then they come back again.”

Mr Nairn believes the practice has stopped sheep from overgrazing a specific part of the farm and ignoring other areas.

He divides bigger paddocks sections by installing and moving temporary, electronic fencing, choosing whatever size he needs.

I like the Texels because conversion from feed to meat is very good.

Don Nairn

Currently, Mr Nairn’s smaller grazing paddocks include five 17ha lots, two with rye corn and three with barley.

Grazing delays the maturity of a crop — so Mr Nairn believes it is important to graze evenly to avoid variability in crop maturity.

But he hasn’t found a significant yield penalty at harvest, and still harvests some of the grazed grain crops for delivery to CBH.

“A long time ago, we decided pastures didn’t work well enough here, we were always waiting for a spring break and it was just too late,” Mr Nairn said.

“About 70 per cent of our forage crops are seeded dry, and the other 30 per cent are seeded after we have finished the rest of seeding.

“You need to be able to graze it off early, and it has to be able to sustain a heap of sheep stomping across it.”

Mr Nairn has tried a wide range of forage crops since he started rotational grazing, and settled on a handful of barley and ryegrass cultivars.

For barley, he uses Moby and for rye he uses corn rye and Southern Green — which are only harvested for retaining seed on-farm.

A long time ago, we decided pastures didn’t work well enough here, we were always waiting for a spring break and it was just too late.

Don Nairn

While any grain crops can be grazed, Mr Nairn said if he grazes wheat, he prefers to use the Chief variety.

Starting his journey involved attending a lot of grain and graze field day in Wagga Wagga, and doing his own research.

These days, he plants about 100ha of rye corn and 100ha of Moby barley for his sheep.

Nearly all of the grain and graze crops are dry seeded early, in April, with the hope they will emerge on a rain event in May.

“If it rains in the middle of May, it gets up and away and we put the lambs and ewes on it by the middle of June,” Mr Nairn said.

Texel sheep at Don Nairn's Binnu farm.
Camera IconTexel sheep at Don Nairn's Binnu farm. Credit: Don Nairn

The grazing part of this year’s program started on June 19 when the ewes, midway through lambing, were released from the lambing lot to walk into a secondary, 17ha paddock.

They will then be rotated across a series of grazing paddocks, potentially including one graze across grain crops set to be harvested.

In terms of growing grain for delivery to CBH, it was a “lucky” season that started out dry but was bolstered by a two big rainfall events — 40mm in July and 50mm in August.

About half of his program was dry seeded before a series of small rainfall events got the crop up

He seeded his usual 2800ha program in, but dropped canola out of his program and stuck to wheat and lupins for harvesting grain.

About 70 per cent of the cropping program was put to wheat, and 30 per cent to lupins, attributing the wide range of varieties to his agronomist son.

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