Study warms producers’ hearts

Rebecca TurnerCountryman

Rural Solutions SA senior consultant Sean Miller recently returned from a Jack Green Churchill Fellowship tour of northern US and Canada, where he investigated how cattle were successfully managed outside barns during extremely cold winters.

The results spell positive news for Australian producers wanting to supply the relatively new, but expanding, Russian live cattle export market.

Dr Miller said Russia was seeking to rebuild its beef and dairy herd to 40 million head by 2020, after almost completely destocking.

He said there were currently about 22.5 million head of cattle in Russia, of which only 200,000 were beef cattle, which was well below levels of 60 million head at the end of the Soviet era.

Latest LiveCorp Livelink figures show Australia exported 5547 head of cattle to Russia from July 2010 to February 2011.

This was more than double the number exported during the same period the previous year.

Dr Miller said his tour of research facilities and properties in the US and Canada confirmed that Australian cattle could be managed to adapt to living outside in cold conditions, such as those experienced in Russia.

For the Russian beef industry to progress towards a more profitable beef production system, it has been recognised it must move away from raising cattle in barns over winter and shift to outside management and less reliance on hand feeding.

“The feedback we have been getting from Russian buyers is they are concerned Australian cattle won’t survive in these cold conditions,” Dr Miller said.

“We need to reassure them this won’t happen and show that correct management will allow Australian cattle to perform in theses extremes.”

As part of his Fellowship, Dr Miller visited Canada’s agricultural research facilities at Sherbrook, Quebec, Lethbridge and Alberta and US Department of Agriculture centres at Mandan, Northern Dakota, Madison and Wisconsin.

Dr Miller also met beef producers in Montana during February and March this year, including one of the US’ top Angus breeders, Darrell Stevenson, of Stevenson Angus.

Dr Miller said the breeder’s strong message was that management was the key to successfully running cattle outside in cold conditions, rather than the source of cattle.

“This came from an obvious competitor supplying cattle to the Russian market, saying all cattle will adapt,” he said.

Dr Miller said the physiology of British breed cattle meant they had a natural genetic makeup for a thick hide and hair growth in cold conditions and these traits were not lost in Australian British breeds.

“The key to cattle survival will be good management,” he said.

Dr Miller said the biggest cost of beef production in the US and Canada was feeding cows in winter and this had driven the industry to breed animals with better feed conversion efficiency.

He said reducing feed costs had also resulted in producers adapting herds to pasture-based feeding systems instead of supplementary feeding.

One technique in this system was stockpiling hundreds of bales of hay in a small area to use as cattle feed in winter, with the added benefit of enriching the soil with organic nutrients and reducing fertiliser costs.

Another method was swath grazing, using crops such as barley swathed to about 25cm.

Cattle could access this dry feed during winter, even in snow if it was less than one metre high.

Dr Miller said Australian producers now had a key opportunity when dealing with Russian buyers to encourage the adaption of good management and handling techniques for cattle once landed in Russia.

“Investors in the Russian beef industry are seeking information and are generally new to producing beef, so we have an opportunity to develop their understanding,” he said.

Dr Miller’s full report will soon be available on the Jack Green Churchill Trust website and he will attend field days and producer events in 2011.

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