New research is under way to address the challenge of how to increase the weight and profitability of cull cows for Northern Territory producers.
Challenging dry seasons, high grain and transport costs and limited market options have often seen producers left with no choice but to retain surplus breeders. In turn, stocking rates and mortalities can increase, reproductive performance fall and land condition deteriorate.
Previous research has shown cull cows could generate up to 50 per cent of a northern enterprise’s total annual cash flow, however, how to capture that opportunity has been a challenge.
A Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA) project involving the University of Queensland, Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, and Northern Territory (NT) Department of Primary Industries and Resources, is aiming to address the issue.
Led by the NT Department Primary Industries and Resources beef officer Dr Kieren McCosker, the project aims to provide objective information on three short-term feeding strategies to increase the value of cull cows prior to slaughter or market.
These strategies are:
- Grazing on the floodplain (high-value, abundant pasture) throughout the dry season.
- Short-term (60–70 days) lot feeding at the Katherine Research Station with two ration options: 1.High-value corn-based ration sourced from Queensland ($750/t delivered from Queensland). 2. An NT- produced live export (shipper) pellet ($435/t).
Dr McCosker said while the research was initially designed to generate information and demonstrate potential ways of improving the quality and value of cattle supplied to the Livingstone Beef processing facility (currently closed), the outcomes can still be applied to take advantage of other market opportunities.
The project involved 156 head of commercial cattle that were less than 420kg, under body condition score three and dry.
“The most cost-effective option for improving the value of cull cows for the years and cattle we observed, and at the cost of feed we were able to source, was the floodplain option,” Dr McCosker said.
“It provided the lowest cost of gain, assuming a $4/week adjustment rate, however, this is not an option for everyone.”
The NT’s sub-coastal floodplain regions play a significant role in the live export trade, covering roughly 6,800 square kilometres, with a carrying capacity of about 170,000 head, depending on wet season rainfall.
Dr McCosker said the floodplains provided an opportunity during the dry season to value-add most stock classes and were most suited to trading and short-term agistment.
During the study, the project team measured the performance of two cohorts of cows grazing the floodplain during 2016 and 2017. Cows were drafted into three weight ranges and observations were taken at the time of being introduced to the pasture, about two weeks later and just before the point of sale. There were differences between years.
“While grazing the floodplains in 2016, cows continually increased in weight, gaining an average of 32.4kg from day one to day 35 with their average daily gain decreasing over time,” Dr McCosker said.
“However, in 2017 we observed a 3pc reduction in weight at two weeks after introduction, but had regained this weight loss by day 31.”
Dr McCosker said despite these fluctuations in weight, there were no changes in eye muscle or fat depth and only a minimal increase in body condition score.
“A potential explanation is that changes in stomach contents were having a large and confounding effect on liveweight, even though we took some measures to control this,” Dr McCosker said.
Nestled within this study was a sampling program to investigate rumen microbial population changes during the cows’ initial adjustment period on the floodplains and how these were potentially associated with performance. These analyses are ongoing.