Gus's Musings

June 14, 2021

Drought Management

SIL Ewes

This is a lovely complex issue and I therefore want to make sure that I endeavour to respect the many different methods or decisions that people make in finding what works for them and their business.  I reckon the focus on any drought management needs to happen at a number of different levels:

  • animal welfare – Should never compromise the welfare of the livestock.
  • The Land – Need to keep ecosystems and landscape integrity intact.
  • The People – The physical and mental well-being of those on the land is extremely important. This is critical so that good well thought out decisions can be made through this stressful period.
  • Finances – making sure that the period between incomes does not jeopardise the future of the business.
  • Community – The community needs to be able to function, support each other and provide social and fun interaction for members.

I reckon if we could agree on the above points as being the outcomes that as a society we want, then decision making through a framework can become clearer.  Now you might say that this already happens, so why do we need anything formal?  Well currently groups try to suggest that maybe looking after the livestock should be seen as more important than people or community, or even the land.  Reality is that each individual farm has a different mix of values around these issues and we as a broader society need to support them and help individuals to make good decisions, especially when faced with a drought.

What exactly is a drought?  I would define a period of drought as: “An intense dry spell that compromises the farmers “normal” operating activities reducing their income and/or causing environmental damage”.

So now if we look at the basic tools that we might have to manage drought, in no particular order:

  • Hand feeding – Preferably in confinement areas
  • Purchasing more land where feed exists
  • Selling stock – There are many facets here, outright sell, sell and replace with smaller animals, dry animals.
  • Agist stock on someone else’s grass – Build relationships in other areas, increase your network.
  • Lease livestock to others – so you will have your own stock when rain falls.

How do you work out what tool/s suit you best?  This can take a while and should be done while there is rain about and considering the factors above.  In a severe event you may at some time use all these tools, so don’t think that you just have to feed, or only sell!

Our situation:

We choose to run a property that wants to improve our landscape, build our productive capacity in a semi-arid rangeland environment.  We place a very high value on our personal health and state of mind, as well as that of our community, we like being involved with our community and volunteering.

With this in mind we have a written policy in our business that “we do not hand feed commercial livestock” (we consider rams seedstock).  This reduces our machinery and equipment requirements as well as our labour input.  The key risk here is that this drives us to make destocking decisions early as we don’t have the feeding safety net.  A key part of the thinking behind removing feeding from our options is the length of the drought that we have out here and the severity, none of which we know or can predict.

In 2019 when I reviewed the “why don’t we feed?” numbers, I worked out we would have paid just shy of $300/ewe for that year to receive a Gross Margin of $80!  This of course takes into account the depreciation of machinery, storage and the labour associated with feeding, not just the cost of feed delivery.

We also choose to not purchase land elsewhere as we are very connected to our community and recognise that we don’t have the knowledge or skills to manage land in other regions.  We really didn’t weigh up leasing or agisting as we are very comfortable selling our stock and then restocking due to our constant trading mentality and our relationship we have with our stock agent.

Selling decisions:

These can be really tough if you have a business that runs a similar amount of livestock, breeds all of their own replacements and only purchases seedstock.  This is why I consider “conservative set stocking is the best approach to drought management”, as being a large myth!  It is very tough to make good selling decisions if you have no practice and don’t have a good relationship on that level with your agent.

We are members of KLR Marketing “Mastermind” and use their spreadsheets to help us make good decisions (Kelly and I have both done the KLR course).  This helps us make sure we are selling/keeping the best stock for us, as our stock agent has also done it, we all speak the same language.  We also utilise a “grazing/Land management coach” Dick Richardson to help us do feed budgets as well as making sure the quality of feed is suited to the stock we want to retain, no good keeping lambing ewes when you only have dry cardboard in the paddock!  Between these supporters they help us make good decisions and then support us when we make poor decisions, no decision is never an option!  Our attitude is that there is no such thing as a right or wrong decision when dealing with animals and the land, you only have better or worse decisions (Dick Richardson’s thinking).

We have also both completed the RCS “Grazing for Profit (GFP)” course (I have done it twice), this means that both of us again speak the same language, we can bounce ideas and decisions off each other.  Through the course, followed by Graduate Link and Executive Link, this improves the ability of working in groups, respecting and encouraging other opinions, especially when they differ from yours.  This seeking out opinions that differ from yours has been key to us improving our decision making.

So how do we physically make selling decisions?  Any opportunity that we have to identify diversity we take it, like scanning, shearing, weaning, classing etc.  This helps us to identify different classes of livestock and enables us to prioritise a selling order/strategy.  Always having a mob of stock in the sell paddock means you can have a relief valve.  If you haven’t sold stock when you are under pressure of feed supply, you wouldn’t have felt the sheer relief knowing that you no longer need to find tucker for them, that is gold!

In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.

Theodore Roosevelt


Buying Grass


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