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Davies have a lot on their plates

Lauren CelenzaCountryman

Driving through the Central Wheatbelt, you would not expect to come across a large-scale beef feedlot. But if you travel from Burakin to Kalannie, that’s just what you will see.

Phil Davies runs Westbeef feedlot with his sons Nick, Carl and Matt.

Westbeef buys in feed and sells about 15,000 cattle each year, with the capacity for 7500 head at one time. The feedlot covers 28 hectares and the Davies’ own 1200ha around the site, which they use for backgrounding cattle.

Their market is about 70 per cent domestic and 30 per cent export.

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“We were enjoying a reasonable year with the domestic prices around the $4.50 mark, which is high, ” Phil said. “The highest we got last year was $4/kg.

“But the price of grain increased, so the high input costs gobbled up the difference between the $3.90/kg last year and the $4.50/kg this year.”

Phil said high demand for feeder calves from the eastern states this year because of an abundance of green feed meant they struggled to get supply.

“All our calves were going across there so for us to procure cattle we had to pay the higher prices to get them, ” he said.

Phil said the feedlot business was a margins game.

Their inputs include 11,000 tonnes a year of feed grain, 1500 tonnes a year of local hay and straw and underground and scheme water.

Carl said they were even looking into putting in desalination plant so they could use the salty underground water for livestock.

Westbeef buys in Angus and Murray Grey from cattle the southern parts of the State from October to June, and Santa Gertrudis and Shorthorn breeds when northern WA starts mustering.

Phil said the area was well suited to a feedlot, because it was a warm and dry climate with no humidity.

“It’s central in the Wheatbelt so we have access to grain, and its position is readily accessible to the north for delivery, ” he said.

On the side, Westbeef exports bulls for slaughter to Indonesia, Israel, Turkey and Jordan.

Phil was born and bred in Kalannie and grew up on a mixed cropping and sheep farm.

He took over the family farm in 1975 but said he grew tired of cropping and the uncertainly of returns.

“The 1000ha I had in 1990 was too small to make anything off so we sold it off, ” Phil said.

During some of the tough seasons of the 1980s, Phil supplemented the family income in the building and construction industry.

“I always had a passion for animals, so we came back here and I tried pigs in the late 1970s but got out of them again quickly, ” he said.

He decided to try his luck in the cattle industry and built the feedlot from scratch.

They started off with 200 cattle in the first year and they now turnover about 15,000 head a year.

Phil admitted he did not know “a bull’s foot from a cow’s ear” at the time but had learnt quickly.

Now after being in the business for 20 years, his sons are not sure if they want to carry it on.

“The boys have got ambitions to pursue other careers, ” he said.

But despite getting into cattle to try and secure a more constant income, Phil said the cost of production issues were just the same as farming.

Carl said even though beef prices were good, input costs were very high.

“If people want cheap food, you have got to cut corners, but the trouble with agriculture is you quickly run out of corners to cut, ” he said.

“We don’t like to see the producer of the cow/calf unit suffer; they have got to get what they need to keep going, and the price they are paying for fertiliser is so high that they need more money too.”

Nick said consumers were battling to grasp the price of beef where it was.

“They want it cheaper, but it can’t be produced cheaply any more, ” he said.

“People need to face that fact that if they want to eat, they need to pay for it, the price is driven by the basic inputs — fertiliser, feed grain, fodder and fuel.”

Value adding was the next option when profits looked dismal according to Carl.

“We are looking at value adding this industry, there is a big need in the industry for backgrounding cattle (preparing for feedlot) and getting rid of their bugs with vaccines, ” he said.

“Crook animals cost feedlots a lot of money so backgrounding is important. We are looking at doing more backgrounding because we can’t find anyone that will do it for us.”

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