Operational area

The beef section operates on 1790 hectares of Tocal. The area includes a well balanced mix of grazing country including:

  • 609ha of heavily timbered country,
  • 590ha native/naturalised pasture,
  • 421ha improved pasture and
  • 403ha degraded improved pasture.

Herd size and composition

The beef enterprise centres on a breeding herd of around 550 females. In 2019 that number is reduced to around 450 due to seasonal conditions and a changing market strategy (see below). A total of up to 1400 head can be on hand at Tocal when calves, heifers and bulls are included. The breeding program involves the use of Brangus and Angus bulls to maintain a crossbred herd. The Charolais bulls that have been are used in the terminal herd are currently replaced by Brangus bulls to increase the number of breeding cows back to around 550.

Market

In recent years the major market focus has been store cattle (cattle that are sold to be fattened by someone else). All steers (castrated male animals) born each year are sold as well as excess heifers (young females before first calving). In 2018/2019 ongoing drought across the state, reduced the market for weaners and. Tocal has fortunately maintained good seasonal conditions and so we have chosen to retain weaner steers and grow them out to feedlot entry weight (380-450kg). We will continue this strategy until the market changes.

Income is also received from sales of cull animals. These include:

  • Calves from the terminal herd that are sired by Charolais bulls (giving hybrid vigour to the calves). In 2019 good female calves from rangus bull will be retained in the breeding herd.
  • Cull cows that are not pregnant after joining
  • Some commercial bulls are sold - this is an inconsistent source of income as it is not the focus of herd management.

Each year students in the full-time courses operate a feedlot. This is an educational exercise rather than commercial and as such very little income is made. Twenty-five animals are housed in the feedlot for 90 days. They are fed twice daily on hay, barley and additives that provides trace elements to support animal health.

Age/size when sold

In recent years approximately 450 calves are born, weaned and sold at about 7-8 months at an average weight of 280 kg.

In 2019 we are selling calves at 380-450kg at around 12-18months of age.

Average price

A particularly good year was had on the beef enterprise in 2016; selling prices were high throughout the year. Income from stock sales was $558,817, an increase of 28% on the previous year’s income. Most sales of cull cows were direct to abattoirs except for a spring sale of weaners that was conducted through an online auction house. All calves sold above market value.

Six Brangus bulls from our Elite herd also sold to a top of $5000.

Predictions are for a drop in cattle prices and if this plays out it will be reflected in income in coming years despite anticipated consistent production levels.

Costs of production

Winter pastures including oats, rye, clover, chicory and plantain (composition is determined annually depending on seed prices and seasonal conditions) are sown each year to supplement the native/naturalised pastures that have reduced feed value over winter. Pastures are fertilised to maintain production levels, again decisions are made based on seasonal conditions and recent pasture improvement activities. Predicted cost for pastures in 2017 is ~$125,000.

Drench and vaccines to maintain healthy animals includes routine use of a seven-in-one vaccine against diseases including pulpy kidney disease, tetanus, black disease, malignant oedema (blackleg-like disease), blackleg and leptospirosis. Health costs in 2017 are estimated at $25,000.

Pest and weed control are considerable costs to the enterprise. Control (mostly by contractors) of lantana, wild olive and eucalypt regrowth is estimated to cost $28,000 in 2017.

Maintenance of machinery, yards and fences is estimated to cost $25,000 in 2017.

Labour costs are also taken into account although these are higher than expected on a farm of this size as additional staff are needed to support the education aspects of the farm operation.

Pastures used on the farm

Introduced species such as Kikuyu, Paspalum, Phalaris, and a range of clovers including White and Subterranean are encouraged and sown on the property. They are highly productive pastures that need improved levels of fertilisers or plant nutrients so they are fertilised regularly and subsequently give high levels of production. We try to retain some native species in pasture because native species have the advantages of drought resistance, good recovery after rainfall and they provide habitat and food for a lot of native organisms. The management objective is to maintain a balance between native grasses that tend to be adaptable to environmental conditions and the introduced species that have a higher productivity potential. As a general rule introduced pastures are concentrated towards the front of the property and native pastures towards the back.

The more resilient native species tend to be the summer growing native pasture particularly the taller warm season species like Kangaroo Grass and Barb Wire Grass. They dominate in areas that are of particularly poor soil (eg slopes and around the timbered areas). They are not particularly resilient to grazing and so are often grazed beyond their capacity especially in dry conditions. These species have therefore been replaced by shorter warm season species like Couch and Carpet Grass. Where fertility has been increased artificially, Kikuyu and Paspalum will also be more prevalent.

Property improvements

Improvements include 82 km of fences, 3 sets of cattle yards and 36 dams. Shelterbelts, shade and wildlife corridors have been established in areas that lack tree cover. Webbers Creek is being fenced off to stop unrestricted stock access. Weed control for lantana, African Olive and other weeds is an ongoing part of the management program.

Access tracks and further subdivision fencing and the use of laneways are part of the future plans for the beef section.

Environment/invasive weed control measures

The main problem weeds on Tocal are Lantana and African Olive. In 2016 a lot of effort was put into control of African Olive in View and Top Bush paddocks this will be on-going in other paddocks for some years.

Eucalypt regrowth is also a significant concern for production and so regrowth is controlled around the heavily timbered parts of the property.

The beef section has attained the quality assurance measures of Cattlecare and European Union accreditation. We employ both the Prograze system of pasture management as well as Landcare principles.

Since the introduction of Cattlecare the practice of hot iron branding has stopped as this damages the hide and reduces its value. Tocal cattle are now ear-marked, management tagged and NLIS (National Livestock Identification Scheme) tagged. Breeding females are also freeze branded. NLIS tags are scanned to assist in the recording of weights and other performance measures. Improvements in technology enable the Tocal beef enterprise to be more environmentally sustainable and to be more proactive in animal health.

In 2018 an area 30 hectares in Top Bush and View Paddocks were thinned of regrowth under a vegetation plan and this area was sown with both winter and summer grasses. Tussocks in 20 ha of Run Paddock were Rota wiped and over 300 hectares of Creek, Lemon Tree, Bush and Holding as well as the horse paddocks were sprayed for fireweed. When the rain came in spring the impact of chicken litter and spraying of weeds made a big difference to pasture growth. Even with a dry winter, spring rain during September and October ensured the production of 150 round bales of silage and 239 round bales of hay.

Day to day management

Day to day activities depend on the season and the demands of the herd. Planning takes into consideration seasonal conditions, herd health and breeding management. Activities to be scheduled include:

The Tocal beef herd is managed in a rotating grazing system with mobs of cattle moved up to three times per week

Calves are yarded and vaccinated three times in their first year with a seven-in-one product and all animals are vaccinated annually with a seven-in-one product

Cattle are also provided with mineral supplements as needed – they often require a selenium supplement as the soil tends to be selenium deficient

Young stock are drenched to control internal parasites

Cows are preg-tested after joining and those not pregnant are sold. Pregnant cows are freeze–branded and join the breeding herd

Marking of young animals includes castrating of male calves and tagging of all calves with ear marks (a ‘T’ out of the ear), ear tag with management number and an electronic National Livestock Identification Scheme (NLIS) button

Cows and heifers are run in eight mobs and are joined with bulls for calving at two different times per year (spring and autumn).

The herd is closely monitored and management decisions are made to maintain its health. For example in 2016 three-day sickness was the worst it has been for many years with some losses in calving heifers as they had never been exposed to the virus. While there is little can be done to help a cow with three-day sickness, animals that are kept quiet and not yarded have a better chance of overcoming the illness.

Maintenance activities also form a large part of the day to day activities including maintenance of machinery and infrastructure.

Student training is carried out on the herd as part of the husbandry and maintenance operations with nine to twelve students rostered to work on the beef section daily.

Herd management

The beef herd is planned to maintain a strong genetic diversity and to ensure calving occurs in suitable seasonal conditions. Two calving herds are run to spread the calving throughout the year – this spreads risk and enables closer observation of calving and young calves.

Cows are joined to bulls for nine weeks and the heifers for seven. The Autumn calving herd calve in March and the Spring calving herd calve in August.

Each year approximately 550 calves are born and are weaned at 9 months.

Thirty to forty cows are impregnated through artificial insemination (AI). AI allows us to access semen from higher quality bulls that we could not afford to purchase. Semen straws are sourced from American and Queensland bulls and in the last few years we have had better results from the Queensland straws. Straws cost between $20 and $80 per straw.

During 2018 calving percentages for spring herd remain high at 95 % the autumn herd were similar and improvement on last year although autumn heifers were lower at 65% and breeding these heifers remains a challenge. Total Breeding cow numbers are down to 400 due to 3 tough years and this works towards our drought strategy of selling cattle down as conditions deteriorate. Two low birth weight Angus bulls were purchased from local breeder, Jim Tickle and will be used with heifers to improve calving problems in heifer group.

Selling cattle

In 2018 there was a clear change of strategy in the selling program due to drought conditions, markets and feed availability on Tocal. Previously we have sold weaners straight off the cow but because prices were very low for weaners in the early part of the year, Tocal had pasture due to a reasonable autumn break and total breeding numbers were down on average the decision was made to hold onto the spring and autumn weaners and to grow them out to feedlot entry weight. This meant that 170 head are being held over to be finished and sold next year.

As a result of this approach a reduced cattle sales income of $396,372 was posted in 2018, a reduction on 2017 income but stock will be carried forward into 2019 with an expectation of selling into a higher priced market and utilising the available pasture for growth. Currently, small lots of heifers and steers are being sold as they reach feedlot weight and cows are being finished to sell direct to abattoirs and we are expecting a continuation of firm prices for livestock into 2019 given continuing drought conditions across the NSW.

When selling store cattle they are mostly sold through online sales Auctions Plus. Purchasers then arrange for pick up from the property.

Cull cows and the feedlot steers are sold direct to abattoirs.

In 2016 we also offered bulls for sale through the online platform. Preparations for online sales included:

·        Filming and photography of sale bulls by agent so they can be viewed on Auctions Plus.

·        Scanning for eye muscle area and intermuscular fat.

·        Structural assessment by vet and semen testing.

Water costs

We have a small water usage allocation as this section of the Paterson River is unregulated. Water is used irregularly for irrigation of limited areas of improved pasture. There is no significant cost to the enterprise.

Use of technology

Herd management

We use herd management software that records each time we see an animal in the yards, what treatment they receive and where they go. When they move up the race we scan their NLIS number button – which is linked to their management number – and we can either record what we did to each group and where they went including if they were sold. We can also see on the Gallagher screen when we last saw them, and what has been done in the past. The Gallagher links to the scales in the race and weights are also recorded automatically. The daily records are downloaded to a desktop computer at the end of each day to update our herd management records.

Selling / processing

Online sales are described above.

Pasture/ supplementary feed

Recent introduction of auto-steer technology on some farm machinery and the use of GPS mapping of pasture improvements will lead to a more efficient application of seed and fertiliser and will become increasingly important in the coming years as this technology in integrated into our everyday activities.

Some parts of the property have recently been EM surveyed this information will help us to be more targeted in fertiliser application and manage pastures more efficiently.

What factors make this a good location for a beef farm?

  • High rainfall and moderate climate
  • Good access to water
  • Bos Indicus beef cattle are well suited to the environment here
  • Easy access to major town and markets
  • It’s a beautiful area to work and live in.

What are some limiting factors to beef production?

The coastal location means that soils are not suited to pastures that allow for fattening of animals – it’s why we have a store breeding enterprise.

Flood events can put 150 hectares under water reducing available pasture and affecting the pasture growth across that area. The clean up after a big flood can take a year to get pastures back in shape and replace fencing.

Tocal is a very public beef cattle enterprise; the property can attract a lot of attention and comment about management decisions. It is vital that the social licence for farming operations is maintained as beef breeding and animal welfare issues can impact on our place in the local community.

Effects of global changes

How exposed is Tocal beef production to changes in the global economy?

Fluctuations in global currencies can have a huge impact on the prices we get for our cattle. 70-75% of Australian beef is produced for export so currency fluctuations can make purchasing our beef less attainable in some countries, reducing demand.

Does foreign beef trade policies directly affect Tocal beef production? Why/ Why not?

Absolutely – the clean Australian product image must be retained. This is a major focus of the biosecurity unit of the NSW Department of Primary Industries as well as other government departments.

What external global changes are likely to have the greatest impact upon Tocal beef production in the future?

Extreme weather events and increasing climate variability. Our terminal herd is one of the ways we are addressing this. While conditions are good and feed and water are abundant this herd provides surplus calves for sale. When times get a bit tougher these are the first to be sold to conserve resources for our more valuable breeding herd.