No standing still at Surbiton

Heifer fertility key to durability for Dillon family at Surbiton

Beef
Numbers game: Sean Dillon, Surbiton Station, Alpha said the family operation was around 1400 head under capacity but there are plans, via a property purchase at Barcaldine and a lease on country on the Isaac River, to breed numbers back up. Picture: Sally Cripps.

Numbers game: Sean Dillon, Surbiton Station, Alpha said the family operation was around 1400 head under capacity but there are plans, via a property purchase at Barcaldine and a lease on country on the Isaac River, to breed numbers back up. Picture: Sally Cripps.

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Giving his young females a chance to put weight on earlier and a ruthless culling program has been integral to turning around fertility issues for the Dillon family at Surbiton Station north of Alpha.

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Giving his young females a chance to put weight on earlier and a ruthless culling program have been integral to turning around fertility issues for the Dillon family at Surbiton Station north of Alpha.

The family celebrates a century of continual ownership on the central Queensland property this year and is already working on the blueprint for the next century, listening to Sean Dillon.

His parents Jack and Elsie moved to Surbiton when Surbiton South, traditionally the family's Merino sheep breadwinner, was sold in 1998, and began developing the rough cattle block.

"I think Dad always knew what it could do," Mr Dillon said.

"A lot of people wondered why we kept the scrub block but he realised - we were running 800-900 (cattle) on 50,000 acres, breeders and fattening through to bullocks.

"Now we're running 2000 breeders and steers and doing it easier. I know they made the right decision."

Not only have they pulled approximately 10,110ha and blade ploughed 3235ha in the last 20 years but 75km of fencing built prior to the 1970s has been renewed, and the cattle yards have been completely rebuilt.

"We haven't stood still, and it's been really rapid development in the last four years, but cattle numbers have got to that critical mass where we can branch out, buy another place, in the comfort that this place can now really tick a lot of boxes and, without a lot of further significant investment, continue to produce for a while."

In previous generations the Belyando River frontage country has historically been for fattening bullocks but since 2014 the family has transitioned to running more breeders for a feeder weight operation, and is using the better quality flood country for their heifers.

"We're getting more weight early into them, so we're getting them through to sexual maturity a lot earlier," Mr Dillon said. "There's about 8-10,000 acres of pretty rough spinifex silverleaf ironbark-type country, what I would call desert country, and we try to keep our females out of it until they're 4.5 to 5 years old, when they've reached their bodyweight."

Surbiton cows and progeny have enjoyed a reasonable season on the country north of Alpha.

Surbiton cows and progeny have enjoyed a reasonable season on the country north of Alpha.

His keenness for getting bodyweight up early stems from a yearling joining program and culling for fertility at the first preg test.

The family's preference is for Santa Gertrudis and Santa-cross cattle, partly because of their marketability.

"We've found them to be no-one's cup of tea but everyone's got money for them," Mr Dillon said.

"There's the boutique breeds like Charolais, they get fashionable for a period of time, they're like flared jeans.

"The thing that's always in is stubbies, shorts and thongs and that's Santas for us."

He said they had handled it when the 550mm annual rainfall country received 75mm in 16 months, prior to March this year.

Cattle being mustered at Surbiton in January this year, when drought conditions were at a peak on the property.

Cattle being mustered at Surbiton in January this year, when drought conditions were at a peak on the property.

That was when the tail end of ex-Tropical Cyclone Trevor finally splashed some rain around in parts of the state's centre.

Being 1000 head understocked at Surbiton, thanks to having shifted all their steers to 3235ha of land leased at Middlemount, and having "fed and fed and fed" to keep all their productive breeders, Mr Dillon described their situation as 'pretty lucky'.

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Bolstering their ability to manoeuvre has been the purchase of 4045ha Mac Downs at Barcaldine, another of their drought management strategies.

"An indirect benefit has been still drought related - we've allowed our country to recover quicker and better because we haven't had to stock it straight away, but it's also given us a pretty exciting opportunity because we kept our cattle numbers," Mr Dillon said.

"With where cattle values have gone, we're thinking (the leased country) will continue as a medium-term option for us.

"You can't buy a place at the moment where the interest-only payments equal what I'm leasing that for, and run 1000 steers on it."

The Barcaldine property is in a different rainfall area, is freehold, and will soon be enclosed in an exclusion fence.

The family has adhered to the Santa Gertrudis breed for a long time but that hasn't precluded them from taking on board the experiments conducted by the growers Mr Dillon rates as some of the smartest cattlemen in the industry, John Burnett and Brett Nobbs.

Thanks to the ruthless fertility culling program starting in 2009, the Dillons were buying cow calf units as replacements for their empty females, chasing Brahmans to add constitutional durability in tough times.

After experimenting with Angus bulls, Mr Dillon discovered the progeny of Santa bulls over an Angus-Brahman cross cow were the best cattle he has bred to date.

"That three-way rotational stuff, John Burnett pioneered that when I was in short pants and you've just got to look at his cattle," he said. "I think pound for pound he breeds the best cattle in the Clermont district."

The next stage is one that Brett Nobbs has been working with, using Simmental bulls to try and put more weight on the straight Brahman cows in the herd.

"I need them to have a little more weight so I'm going to go Simmie over the Brahman and then Santa back over the Simmie, just to pull the hair back out of them a little bit," Mr Dillon said.

"That'll be a three-and-a-half year process.

"I've seen the Simmental-Brahman cross and I've watched it for a few years, wondering whether it was another fad but John Burnett and Brett Nobbs have been using experiments like that for some time and if they think it works, it works."

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