Quality Graze – so much more than a rotational grazing project!

Quality Graze is a grazing strategies trial being run on the Department of Industry, Tourism and Trade’s Old Man Plains Research Station (OMP), located to the south-west of Alice Springs. Long term grazing trials are rare and extremely valuable and after 10 years of operation, Quality Graze is providing ground-breaking information on the strategies that offer the most potential in the unique Central Australian environment. Quality Graze has national recognition and is a flagship program for grazing management in arid and semi-arid rangelands.

 What is the project really about?

The success of any grazing strategy ultimately depends on matching stock numbers to the feed available. For the past 20 years, the department has recommended calculating long-term carrying capacity (LTCC) using the EdgeNetwork® Grazing Land Management (GLM) method. The GLM method was used to calculate the carrying capacity for each of the grazing strategies in the Quality Graze project, providing a practical demonstration of the methodology.

There are six different grazing strategies being implemented, with half of these involving paddock rotations to spell pastures. The strategies are:

  1. Set stocking determined using GLM (stock numbers don’t change), no spelling.
  2. Set stocking but at a rate 50 per cent higher than GLM determined rate, no spelling.
  3. Set stocking with spelling (part of every growing season).
  4. Set stocking with spelling (every second growing season).
  5. Flexible stocking (annual adjustment of numbers), no spelling.
  6. Flexible stocking with 12-month spelling every second year.

OMP has approximately 350 km2 of pasture within 5 km of water and a carrying capacity of about 750 animal equivalents (AE). That’s about 2.2 AE per km2. The Quality Graze trial primarily uses steers to measure and compare production from each of the grazing strategies, however, the breeding herd of Droughtmaster and Droughtmaster cross cattle are also incorporated into some of the strategies. The breeder herd ranges from 300 to 400 breeders, depending on season.

One of the biggest issues for Central Australian pastoralists is managing a production system in a highly variable climate and it is important that any grazing strategy recommendation addresses that. The Quality Graze production system is structured to turn off a relatively consistent number of 30‑month-old steers each year, at a quality suitable for the premium beef market.

The trial will answer these questions:

  • How do recommended carrying capacities perform?
  • Do spelling and rotational grazing provide any benefits?
  • Is set stocking the way to go or should stock numbers be adjusted according to the season?
  • How important is stocking rate to long-term productivity?
  • Can land condition be maintained or improved whilst maintaining animal production goals?
  • Is consistent production of 30-month‑old steers achievable regardless of season and which strategy is best suited to this?

Since the project began in 2010, OMP has experienced both the wettest year and the driest three-year period on record, providing a test of the strategies in a range of seasonal conditions. Additional research questions have emerged, including the economic costs and benefits of the different grazing strategies.   As well as contributing to sustained or improved cattle production and land condition, it is really important to producers to know how to maximise financial return and stabilise income across wetter and drier years.

It looks like the carrying capacity is right

Researchers believe that carrying capacity determined using GLM methodology has been the key to maintaining good land condition and consistent production values through a full range of seasons. It could be the most important number.

  • In the very wet years at the beginning of the trial (2010 to 2012) land condition appears to have improved, even under grazing. Buffel grass and other grasses have spread across the landscape and been maintained.
  • In drier periods, when rain does occur, OMP gets good growth. Rarely do the managers think, “Hmmm, it didn’t respond very well”.
  • Breeder herd production figures are consistent and high. This suggests that cattle have enough to eat and are healthy enough to grow and/or reproduce.
  • Steers achieve higher growth rates in paddocks with recommended stocking rates, compared with those in more heavily stocked paddocks.
  • There has been sufficient carryover feed during dry periods (2018 to 2020) to maintain pretty consistent cattle numbers without the need to agist, or wean earlier than our usual practice, or provide supplementary feed.

Rotational grazing and spelling offer additional benefits:

  • Putting stock onto ungrazed feed can help them put on condition quickly. In 2020, steers put in a paddock with reserved feed prior to sale, showed a considerable increase in condition.
  • In dry years, cows that appear stressed post-weaning have the opportunity to quickly recover when they move onto fresh feed.
  • Managers have peace of mind as they know they have feed available in the event of a failed growing season.
  • Fresh paddocks will typically have feed up to the watering point, so cattle conserve energy and minimise heat stress associated with walking long distances.

 It is possible to turn off a consistent number of high quality steers every year

Table 1 provides a good summary of steer performance to date. Key points to-date include:

  • Every year, regardless of season, every steer has been trucked. This is not the ‘cream-of-the-crop’, it’s the whole age group of steers going to the abattoir. Figure 2 shows a representative individual from each year‑branded group of steers.
  • The numbers turned off every year have been very consistent, providing some ability to predict income.
  • Steers do not require additional feed, even in very dry years. In 2019, a separate feeding trial was conducted in the last month prior to trucking. It showed no advantage between steers eating pasture only and those who had access to lucerne hay.

Table 1 Quality Graze

Year
brand
Steers (n)Avg liveweight at
28-30 months (kg)
Avg carcase
hot weight (kg)
Avg price per kg
($)
Avg value
($)
Compliant
(%)
Total value
($)
2011120571302.73.20971.0521116 525
2012119594314.23.551115.8322133 899
201397596320.24.161332.6433129 266
2016155565287.84.961428.6283221 436
2014163585305.85.121569.5584255 837
2017140563284.45.131480.2284205 570
2015140594305.95.451671.9661234 074
2018168254.25.791472.0661247 305

 

 Why is it working?

Researchers believe production has remained consistent, with stocking rates ensuring there is always enough feed for every animal to realise maximum productivity. Appropriate stocking rate also means carryover feed is available in dry years and herd numbers don’t need to be changed much. Stable herds should mean consistent production.

 When will we know more?

Pasture and land condition, steer performance and breeder herd productivity for the past ten years are being analysed with results anticipated to be released in 2021. Opti-Graze is a project looking at the economics of the OMP grazing strategies and comparing them with typical commercial practices. Results from this project will also be available in 2021.

Contact details

For more information, contact the Quality Graze project manager, Chris Materne, Pastoral Production Officer on (08) 8951 8135.