Organic beef breeder gets irrigating

Artesian licence allows Walker family to grow organic cattle feed

Beef
Feed solution: Alec 'Butch' Walker and the forage sorghum crop irrigated by artesian water at Gillespie, Blackall, that he plans to let cull heifers onto shortly. Pictures: Sally Gall.

Feed solution: Alec 'Butch' Walker and the forage sorghum crop irrigated by artesian water at Gillespie, Blackall, that he plans to let cull heifers onto shortly. Pictures: Sally Gall.

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Sixty years ago the Walker family's Northampton Downs stud was synonymous with some of western Queensland's best Merino wool, but it's organic beef that is headlining the Blackall family's operation these days.

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Sixty years ago the Walker family's Northampton Downs stud was synonymous with some of western Queensland's best Merino wool, but it's organic beef that is headlining the Blackall family's operation these days.

After a family partnership dissolution in the 1970s, Alec 'Butch' Walker's parents renamed their homestead block Gillespie and by the early 1980s decided to focus on cattle for management reasons.

At first they concentrated on trading cattle as well as operating a small Santa Gertrudis stud, but were eventually able to consolidate the breeding and fattening side of the business.

Shifting the focus to organic production in 2007 was a decision made to be kinder to the 22,250 hectare property, and to be less stressful on animals and humans alike.

"In a series of good years, Dad ran about 5500-6000 head here, which is obviously a lot of work logistically," Mr Walker said.

"Once you have a break in those seasons, you've got a lot of cattle on and not a lot of country."

Being able to access a 30 to 40 per cent organic premium meant they could reduce numbers by that amount, have more cattle getting to the kill weight, and sustain their income without as much stress.

"You have more options in terms of rotational grazing... which has worked out pretty well," Mr Walker said.

What hasn't worked out so well is the availability of organically certified feed during drought, the latest of which began fairly abruptly at the end of 2012.

Feeding costs have amounted to between $60,000 and $80,000 a year for hay and other products, in part due to the freight component.

When the state government called for tenders for unallocated Great Artesian Basin water, Mr Walker, with a lot of prompting from his mother Peta, tendered for 120ML in 2015.

For $143,000 they received a 110ML 99-year licence and were limited to irrigating 10ha, which Mr Walker understands was about preventing run-off.

Admitting he's no farmer, Mr Walker enlisted the help of Rob Hobson from Cooroy to set up the system, which includes a storage dam to take the water from an existing bore, a 110hp pump, and a travelling irrigator.

The artesian water storage dam holds an estimated 15ML of water.

The artesian water storage dam holds an estimated 15ML of water.

"It's one of the cheaper ways to irrigate," Mr Walker said.

"We didn't want to commit to a pivot because we want to give it a few years to make sure it's a viable exercise and once that's happening, maybe we can automate it a little bit."

After ploughing the former claypan to remove potato vine weeds, and exclusion fencing the 10ha plot, Mr Walker and his Yandina agronomist Karl Tollner planted out a mixture of oats and vetch in April 2019.

The September harvest gave them around 48 tonnes of hay, which they say is not too bad for their first attempt.

Mr Walker has since planted an experimental 3.4ha of forage sorghum with lab lab, partly because people said they wouldn't be able to do it in the summer heat and to test whether they would be able to keep the water needs up.

Looking at the quality of the lab lab legume interspersed with the forage sorghum on the cracking grey soil claypan at Gillespie.

Looking at the quality of the lab lab legume interspersed with the forage sorghum on the cracking grey soil claypan at Gillespie.

It was also experimental in terms of a planting density of 20kg/ha. Because of organic requirements, chemical insecticides couldn't be used and Mr Walker hoped the closer spacing might provide natural protection.

"We'll definitely adjust that in future - apart from anything, it uses a lot of water," he said.

He plans to fatten No 8 and 9 cull heifers on the sorghum before sending them off to the Arcadian Organic and Natural Meat Co.

The irrigation licence and set-up combined has so far cost around $250,000 but the security of being able to put hay away is priceless to the family.

Mr Walker said that with feed guaranteed they would revert to 100pc organic sales and take their cattle through to a heavier weight before marketing them.

Between 2011 and 2014, more than 90pc of their beef production was sold for organic processing but since then they have had to sell more as store cattle to other organic producers or into the conventional market, thanks to not having the feed to finish cattle.

"Prior to this drought, we rarely ever sold weaners," Mr Walker said. "At 18 to 20 months, our steers were 550 or 600kg which was perfect for organics; they would meet their spec pretty spot on."

If it's not broken, don't fix it

Santa Gertrudis was the wider Walker family's breed of choice but Mr Walker said his father's experience in trading and lotfeeding trials with a variety of breeds and crosses showed him that the Santas always performed better.

"Basically, if it's not broken, don't fix it is how we feel," he said.

Frame, fertility and temperament are qualities he looks for above all, saying that size is important at sale time.

While acknowledging the philosophy of US rancher Kit Pharo regarding the importance of pounds of production per acre rather than pounds of production per animal, Mr Walker said price mattered too.

"Kit's in marginal country and he says weaning weight is not affected by the weight of the cow.

"He basically says instead of trying to grow big cows, 650-700kg, you can have two that are 350kg and they'll eat the same as a 700kg cow but you've got two calves.

"Scientifically and hypothetically I agree with that but the fact is, if I've got a pen of cows in Blackall and they're 650 kilos and the bloke next door's got 350kg cows, ours are always going to get better money, so there's still a commercial aspect."

Alec Walker with some of the No 8 and 9 cull heifers that will soon be moved onto the forage sorghum crop.

Alec Walker with some of the No 8 and 9 cull heifers that will soon be moved onto the forage sorghum crop.

The Walkers still run a small Santa Gertrudis stud with 150 cows but thanks to ongoing drought, run a multi-sire, multi-dam operation.

"All the northern paddocks around the house are quite small and traditionally they've been single sire stud paddocks with 40 or 50 cows but we couldn't afford to spoil them," Mr Walker said.

They stopped selling to outside clients in 2003 and run it predominantly for their own use, sourcing sires mainly from Drensmaine and last year from Canowindra.

In their commercial herd they've managed to retain 1300 breeders and about 700-800 dry cattle of various sizes.

Avenues to explore

The irrigation experiment has given Mr Walker lots of avenues to explore such as seeing whether he can amalgamate unused licences and expand the size of the cropping area, and assessing the commercial viability of supplying other organic producers in the region.

Another one is the viability of using composted dung from the organic saleyards nearby in Blackall to fertilise future crops rather than the "obscenely expensive" pelletised fish meal and chicken manure mix they put on the oats crop.

"Organic fertiliser was fully half the cost of that baled hay," Mr Walker said.

"No-one can give me an answer as to why we're not allowed to use urea but we're not.

"I think we probably will go (with the dung) but then you probably need a fertiliser spreader to spread it, so it's whether there's a difference in it commercially."

In the meantime, the changed perspective has seen 40ha ploughed up for dryland farming to experiment with pasture legume Progardes Desmanthus.

"We're waiting for a bit more rain to do that though, to try and improve some claypan-type country," said Mr Walker. "We chose 40ha because the seed's expensive enough and it's not proven here."

And at the end of the day the family has the mental uplift of being able to see something green and growing.

"To see 10ha of green feed when everything around you is dead or dying is a pretty positive experience," Mr Walker said.

Read more: History renewed at Gillespie

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