Critical questions for drought decisions

Rainfall has been exceedingly low and late for many graziers in southern Queensland.

Some critical questions are…

  1. How much rain will my paddocks receive and retain this growing season?
  2. How much pasture will grow before growth slows significantly with lower temperature and shorter day length in autumn?
  3. How many stock will the pasture and water that is available in autumn be able to carry sustainably until next summer?
  4. What to do and by when if there is insufficient pasture to carry all stock all year?

Pasture growth will be largely influenced by rainfall and land condition.  For example, land with a good cover of deep rooted perennial grass stubble will store more rainfall and respond faster to grow more feed. Sown pastures usually respond faster than natives.

When it rains

If paddocks are bare and stock are in weak condition when it rains, it is important to continue feeding to reduce stock losses from exposure and cattle chasing short, watery green pick. Doing so will also be beneficial to the pastures as it will allow the plants to grow. Resting some paddocks each year after good rain in summer can help to maintain or restore land condition.

Moving forward

In autumn, estimate approximately how many kilograms of pasture (dry matter) is available per hectare in each paddock. Some people are very good at visually assessing pasture yield. For instance, say they guesstimate that there is on average 3000 kg of pasture dry matter per hectare, then if aiming to let stock eat 30% as a sustainable utilisation rate, this allows 900 kg to be eaten per hectare. If a cow eats about 10 kg of dry matter pasture per day, then 900 ÷ 10 gives 90 days grazing per hectare (or 180 days grazing from 2 ha, or 365 days from 4 ha). In drier more brittle environments 15% – 20% utilisation will be more sustainable.

If you estimate that there is not enough pasture to carry all the stock until next summer, what are the critical questions then?

Is it better for you to hold and feed for the long term or start destocking early?

How long could feeding go on for?

Could feeding cost as much or more than stock are worth?

What will happen to:

  • pasture and water reserves?
  • supplementary feed availability and prices?
  • stock condition, value, losses?
  • labour and infrastructure requirements, repairs and maintenance?
  • finances?
  • future rainfall infiltration, storage, runoff and erosion?
  • pasture response and productivity?

Generally long term feeding programs are likely to be uneconomic and stressful to people, stock, pastures, soils, equipment and finances. Agistment or short term production feeding to sell stock takes pressure off pastures and may, or may not be profitable. Calculators on the FutureBeef website can help do the sums for agistment, production feeding and drought feeding versus selling.

The following table is an example of the feed costs for full feeding for maintenance of a breeder for one year. People can use their own quantities, prices and time frames.

425 kg breederGrain : hay
Feed $700/t (70c/kg)Days$/head/period
·   Dry5$3.50210$735
·   Late pregnant7$4.9060$295
·   Lactating9$6.3095$600

This is the cost for feed alone. Total costs will be higher when factoring in labour, interest, stock losses, repairs and maintenance and potential impact on pasture productivity.

Many graziers comment on the importance of having critical dates in late summer and autumn to begin destocking while stock are more valuable for sale and to spare more pasture for remaining stock. The benefits are less stress, less need for feeding, less expense and less rain is needed for pasture recovery and productivity. They also continue to assess and adjust stock numbers according to pasture supply throughout the year.

Having a clear vision and goals for the business also helps in answering these questions.

If the fundamentals of the grazing business is making the best use of soils, rainfall, sunshine and pastures to generate wealth, then are the stock management decisions you are making consistent with maintaining or improving sustainably productive pastures?