Winter weather

Sam and Prue Pincott running Holbrook Paddock Eggs were challenged by some bountiful winter weather in 2016 that offered both opportunities and management difficulties. Here’s how they approached it.

How was the winter for the chickens with so much water? 
Whilst the wet winter was amazing for our land base, it certainly created some challenges for our enterprises. The actual wet conditions didn’t upset the chooks too much, (they actually like it as the worms come to the top and there are plenty of insects about). It became more of a logistical challenge in getting our collecting vehicle to the portable sheds each morning, along with being able to move the sheds and getting feed into the them. As a result the sheds didn’t get moved as often as normal, for some sheds we had to hand bucket feed from an old sheep feeder into their hoppers and we ended up buying a side by side ATV that we could safely drive to each group without getting bogged. Initially production held well, however our wastage of dirty eggs was slightly higher than normal. We also decided to remove all the agistment cattle to prevent any pugging.

With all that rain the grass must have been very long – great for long legged animals but not for chooks – how did you manage that? 
With such soil moisture and no cattle, (and improved soil health from 3.5yrs of chook manure across the paddocks) the grass growth was amazing. The growth was so incredible that it actually was to the detriment of the chickens. The long strands of grass can cause “gizzard impaction”, creating a blockage in the hens’ gizzard, resulting in either reduced production or death.

What happened?
Our mortality rates certainly increased as a result of the gizzard impaction and our production levels decreased. With the grass so long, it got to the point that a percentage of the hens started laying their eggs in the grass and not in the nest boxes. But on the pasture side of things the farm looked incredible with a diverse range of species in abundance and more perennial grasses (phalaris) appearing.

How did you help the chickens?
Apple cider vinegar is already added to the drinking water to help prevent gizzard impaction. In addition we started putting out tubs of gravel in an attempt to get small stones into the crop of the bird that can then rub together assisting in breaking the grass down. This was successfull to a point. By the time the adgistment cattle returned there was no way we could get the grass down in front of the chooks in a timely manner. We then made the decision (through help of other Holistic Management group 8Families members) that we would cut an area of the farm for hay, removing a bulk of grass and creating a short, open area for the chooks to be moved to. 

Would you have grazed differently knowing what you know now?
YES, but still working out how! We made the right decision to remove the cattle when the paddocks were so wet, however we were 2 weeks too slow bringing them back. More to the point I think we need to look at other animals/tools to use in order to manage such seasons. The improvement to our soil has been very evident this year, so I am expecting this to be an ongoing issue. We need to work out a way to provide a shorter grass environment for the chooks to be on, whilst not overgrazing and reducing our soil cover. 

Advice for others?
We all know every season is different - we need to be prepared to react quicker. Keep looking outside the box for new tools to use. Be open to all options - I prolonged the decision to cut hay for a couple of weeks as it was a practise I didn’t want to use (for the land sake) but it was the right decision for the business. Keep asking the questions - someone will have the answers (I hope!!).

Banking the Grass – why Gill sold the herd

In the very first of our 8 Families new blog, Gill Sanbrook has made the radical decision to sell all her cattle. As an experienced Holistic manager Gill had gone into Summer and Autumn with a grazing plan and as the season deteriorated it gave her all the signs she needed to make a seriously tough call. 

Gill: To off load cattle at any stage is a heart wrenching experience and it didn’t come easily. First I had to go through the decision making process, asking myself "are there any other options?” I can imagine that’s what you’re thinking – what about agistment, what about buying in hay?

But before I share all that thinking, here’s a brief history of my farm - Bibbaringa. It’s a 1,000ha property north east of Albury.  My family bought it in January 2007 during the millennium drought. At the time it was severely overstocked with cattle, sheep and 90 horses. The property was tired, dry and needed a good rest. 

As for me, well my background in property management is based on 20 years of practicing the principals of Holistic Management in the Riverina of southern NSW. I trusted that the process worked and I had the ability to regenerate a stressed property. The goal was to build up a rural business that would be biologically, financially and sociably sustainable. 

So over the last 9 years we planted over 60,000 trees on about 23% of the property, turned 23 paddocks into 60 paddocks, maintained 100% groundcover throughout the year and also applied the principals of natural sequence farming developed by Peter Andrews to repair eroded and scarred areas on the property. We are slowing the flow of water through the landscape and getting the water back into the flood plain and out of the scarred incisions. 

The rainfall in the past 9 years has varied from 450mm to 1,050mm. The past 12 months was 635mm (average rainfall of 750mm). The spring rainfall did not come until November, which in my view was too late to build a bulk of feed. Although we had good January rainfall of 100mm it did not provide the bulk of feed normally experienced from the summer perennials. The temperatures were all above average including higher winter temperatures, which encouraged reasonable growth during those cooler months.

At Bibbaringa the cattle are run in one mob of about 300 to 700 depending on the seasonal conditions. I vary the number according to pasture monitoring and based on a planned grazing management process developed by Alan Savory and Holistic management.

In the past non growing season the paddocks were grazed based on a 150 days recovery period between grazes and about 90 to 120 days in the growing season (Spring).

During February the warning signs began. The cattle were needing to move faster than the plan and not leaving as much feed behind in the paddock as I would like, to maintain the 100% ground cover. So I sold 150 head. 

I run the property on my own with the help of casual skilled cattlemen when cattle come into the yards. I have a well-designed set of Pratley cattle yards built in 2007. With holding yards we can easily process 800 head in one yarding and this is all done very quietly and smoothly. 

In February/March the first draft of sale cattle included dry (not pregnant) and older cows and older steers retained to make up numbers. Usually I sell store weaners during November at 12 to 14 months of age but this year I retained them to make up numbers. The mob was reduced to 400 head including weaners, cows and heifers.

By the end of April I had one month’s feed of planned non growing grazing in front of me. This means the cattle had not grazed these areas since November 2015. However the native pastures had not recovered to my satisfaction and I had other issues at hand;

  • Paddocks not recovering after 150 days rest
  • Soil moisture was non existent. The soil profile needed good rains.
  • My dams were ok in the areas to be grazed. But not good enough for my comfort
  • The forecast was for late autumn rain and possibility of El Nino breaking down and La Nina developing into the winter months. I was not confident about this forecast as Bibbaringa had been missing many of the fronts coming through.
  • Cattle prices were good and if the dry continued the price could drop
  • (on the other hand) April/May is always a tough time and don’t lose heart. It will rain. 
  • I was not set up to buy in feed and would have to involve neighbours
  • I did not want to sacrifice ground cover to hold cattle.
  • Temperature would soon drop which would limit grass growth 

I have always viewed my cattle herd as a tool to build up the biodiversity and resilience of Bibbaringa. At this point of time my emphasis is on building diversity of soil and plants and re-energizing Bibbaringa. I also want to live a happy, healthy, stress free life. These were my options;

  • Sell all the cows
  • Sell the weaners
  • Sell everything
  • Buy in Feed

I spoke to a number of people including members of my network of Holistic Management colleagues (I am in an HM support group that meets every 6 weeks) and they challenged my decision making process in a positive way. Some of their comments were 

  • "I got into a tight situation once and held on, but in hindsight I should have sold earlier."
  • “Look at your goals and options, get an agent to get value and work out what is overpriced and underpriced. Work out the best way to market. Don’t do a fire sale. We may not get any effective growth until Spring.”
  • “There are always opportunities in the market you just have to look for them. Better to sell earlier than hold on. “
  • One contact said he was not pessimistic about the season and thought I should sell weaners. And reminded me it is a tough time of the year.
  • "Maybe our country is not suitable for 24/7 grazing. It is not a crazy idea to destock each December and buy back when the season builds up. When farms have been overstocked it takes time for them to respond.“
  • “Don’t make rules about what you should do and not do. Make your decisions based on seasons. Even after rain the grass has to grow. The property can do with a good rest."

By this time we were due for one of our management group meetings which just happened to be at Morundah on the plains of western NSW. 

As we all sat around the old homestead’s big wooden table I put the decision to the group and we ran it through the 7-Testing-Questions that lie at the heart of Holistic Management decision making. By the time we were at question 6, which is the ‘gut feel’ question, I knew they all had to go.

That was on the Monday and by the end of week the cattle had been sold through Auctionplus, private sale and direct to meat processors.

I have not looked back since making the decision. The property now has time to rest and recover and I have an opportunity to travel and re-energize before planning for restocking later in the year.

With a grassed up canvas I will have multiple options for re-entering the cattle business.

I studied KLR marketing in February this year which has boosted my confidence in trading – so I may not buy stock that needs a full 12 month grazing period. 

The money is in the bank, the grass is growing, now it’s raining and I feel it is WIN WIN.