Quitters can often be winners
Pastoralists and farmers at recent workshops in the southern rangelands and northern agricultural region have been discussing how to 'quit the herd'.
Seminar series organiser Greg Brennan, from the Department of Agriculture and Food, was quick to clarify that the discussion about 'herd quitting' was not about selling stock, but rather about animal behaviour research and stock management.
Keynote speaker Fred Provenza, of Utah State University, described an association of ranchers in the States who called themselves 'herd quitters'.
Professor Provenza said these people saw themselves as breaking from conventional 'herd mentality' to show that low-input agriculture can be profitable and sustainable.
Pivotal to these production systems is the animal behaviour research of Professor Provenza and the BEHAVE (Behavioural Education for Humans, Animals and Vegetation Ecosystems) consortium.
His research has shown that animals demonstrate nutritional wisdom and, given the opportunity, will voluntarily select a diet that meets their nutritional needs.
Mr Brennan said the research had implications for producers in WA and demonstrated the benefits of re-designing production systems to suit the landscape instead of trying to make the landscape fit existing production systems.
"One of the major challenges of southern rangelands and Pilbara pastoralists is managing the dry seasons that can be expected every four to six years," he said. "One strategy to manage this risk is to work in partnership with farmers who can use cereal crops, stubbles and perennial pastures to finish pastoral stock."
The three seminars at Bullara station, Dongara and Meka station were largely funded by Rangelands NRM WA with support from the Mingenew-Irwin Group, Gascoyne Catchments Group, Meekatharra Rangelands Biosecurity Association and Meat and Livestock Australia.
Cattleman Craig Forsyth, president of the Mingenew-Irwin Group and a member of WA Beef Council's Producer Round Table, took part in the Dongara seminar.
"In a time of cost increases, particularly fuel, it was great to hear about the low-cost opportunities for using animal behaviour to make better use of our rangelands and low input forage systems," Mr Forsyth said.
"From my perspective, it's particularly useful knowing how animal behaviour principles can be used to reduce from weeks to days the time it takes for stock to adapt to pastures they've never seen before.
"This makes it much less daunting to move cattle back and forth between agricultural and pastoral country. "
Livestock alliances between pastoralists and farmers have lots to offer both parties. Pastoral breeders can provide the stock for farmers to develop profitable livestock enterprises and thus become less dependent on cropping income.
"I would also like to acknowledge that there was a great deal of collaboration between Greg Brennan of DAFWA, the Gascoyne Catchments Group and the Meekatharra Rangelands Biodiversity Association to have this seminar of three world class speakers here in WA."
Craig Walker, of Primaries Geraldton, took two farmers to the seminar at Meka station, north of Yalgoo.
He said pastoralists mustering sheep for the live export trade would like to be able to send weaners below the 35kg cut off weight for the trade, straight to farms instead of turning them back into the paddock.
This takes the grazing pressure off their country and reduces mustering costs.
Farmers can grow them out to marketable weight on pastures or lupin stubbles from November which fits the pastoralists' mustering programs. Mr Walker is developing a profit share system for consideration by the two parties.
After the seminar at Meka station brothers Bob and Neil Grinham, managers of Melangata and Meka stations, were enthusiastic about providing energy and protein supplements to enable stock to eat plants they normally avoid.
This followed Professor Provenza's explanation that the supplements enable the gut to denature the secondary compounds in plants which are there to protect the plant from grazing.
The seminars also had contributions from NSW farmer Bruce Maynard and Dean Revell of CSIRO and the Enrich project.
Dr Revell explained how shrubs could benefit farmers' livestock business as well as pastoralists.
He also described how CSIRO research showed animal behaviour principles could be used to reduce the adaptation time for pastoral cattle moved to farm pastures.
Mr Maynard was there to demonstrate his 'stress-free stockmanship' methods.
His videos showed how sheep in a 'de-stressed' mob will begin to experiment eating vegetation that they have never touched before, even mature scotch thistle.
At Craig Forsyth's Dongara property last year, Mr Maynard was able to train cattle to eat the rhagodia shrubs that previously they wouldn't touch.
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