Phosphorus at Watson River

A GrazingFutures Case Study

“On Watson River we do our P lick order for our cattle before we do our food order for the station.” — Cameron Quartermaine

The productivity and profitability of many northern Australian beef businesses rely on timely and adequate phosphorus (P) supplementation. However, industry adoption of phosphorus feeding, particularly over the wet season, is modest at best.

The Queensland Drought and Climate Adaptation Program (DCAP) GrazingFutures project assists beef producers to identify phosphorus deficiencies, tailor supplement recipes and adopt practical feed delivery systems. When implemented on deficient country, phosphorus supplementation greatly improves the herd performance.

In many cases, innovative supplement delivery techniques and persistence are necessary to overcome access challenges during the wet season. However, the Quartermaine family of Watson River have developed a profitable and innovative phosphorus feeding program, overcoming this issue.


Watson River station, located just south of Weipa on Cape York Peninsula, has an annual rainfall of 1500 mm. Like many areas across north Queensland, the soils are acutely phosphorus deficient with limited paddock access during the wet season. With a mix of sandy and clay soils on forest country, Watson River runs 1300-1500 Brahman breeders and progeny.

Weaning rates, including joiner heifers, average 57% and breeder losses range from 2-3%. Weaner steers are transported to a second property on the Atherton Tablelands where they grow to around 320 kg before sale. Buyers pay premium prices for Watson River steers due to their agreeable temperament and quality.

It is about a decade since the first phosphorus case study was completed on Watson River station. At that time, Cameron and Doreen Quartermaine had developed the 89 000 hectare property to the point where half was fenced and the balance was bush country. During the intervening period, intergenerational transfer has occurred with Luke and Ally Quartermaine now managing Watson River. Their goal is to continue developing the bush country and equip a third generation with the necessary skills to take over the beef operation.

Feeding phosphorus

Aside from property development and herd improvement, the most significant strategy applied over several decades has been the phosphorus (P) supplementation program. Considerable effort is made to ensure phosphorus is provided to all cattle for the entire wet season. As Cameron says: “On Watson River we do our P lick order for our cattle before we do our food order for the station.”

The lick recipe

The Watson River wet season phosphorus recipe (Table 1) has been used for decades, reliably providing adequate P intakes. Feeding the lick in sheds eliminates rain spoilage and maintains palatability. Over the wet season mature breeders require at least 10g P/head/day, while weaners and replacement heifers require less.

Using the recipe in Table 1, the Quartermaines aim for breeders to consume around 80 g/head/day, which at 12% P (as fed), delivers the amount of phosphorus required.

Many producers are hesitant to use GranAm™ in wet season lick recipes as some cattle are turned away by the sour taste. On Watson River however, the cattle are not deterred, with the GranAm™ providing protein in the late wet season as pasture quality begins to decline.

Five per cent lime is commonly used in exposed wet season P loose licks (eg bulker bags). The lime forms a surface crust, thereby weatherproofing the lick from wet season rains. At Watson River, all supplement is fed under substantial lick sheds, potentially making the lime unnecessary. High humidity during the 2019/20 wet season caused some crusting of covered supplement and may have restricted intakes.

Table 1. The wet season lick recipe is 12% phosphorus as fed and is readily consumed by all classes of cattle on Watson River.

IngredientsInclusion rate (%)
Gran Am10
Trace minerals1

The impact of phosphorus on pasture intake

Phosphorus supplementation on Watson River greatly improves pasture intake over the wet season. The Quartermaine family have found this to be critical in maximising herd productivity, including liveweight gain, pregnancy and lactation.

The herd and economic benefits of wet season phosphorus are highlighted in an analysis conducted by the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (Table 2). When compared to not feeding phosphorus supplements, phosphorus supplementation on Watson River increased weaning rates from 46% to 57%. Similarly, breeder mortalities were reduced from 6% to 3%.

Feeding phosphorus also increased female and steer sale weights by 7% and 9% respectively. Even though the number of weaners only increased by 29 head, the overall lift in herd efficiency due to phosphorus supplementation improved profitability by 60% (Table 2).

No wet season phosphorus
With wet season phosphorus
Total adult equivalents (AE)21002100
Total cattle carried24672341
Total breeders mated and kept15581347
Total calves weaned776805
Weaners / total cows mated46%57%
Overall breeder deaths6%3%
Female sales / total sales39%46%
Total cow and heifer sales224336
Total steer sales388401
Average female price$687$784
Average steer price$382$514
Direct costs excluding bulls$50 005$70 917
Bull replacement$32 245$26 737
GM per adult equivalent$111$177

Overcoming wet season access issues

The difficulty of delivering lick during the monsoonal wet season should not be underestimated. However, due to the considerable gains to be had, the Quartermaine family designed infrastructure and management systems to overcome this issue.

Cameron and Luke have installed four shipping containers at points around the property for bulk lick storage. These containers hold 14 tonnes of lick and are filled prior to the wet season. Quad bike and “side-by-side” bridges allow access over flooded creeks to deliver lick to 31 covered troughs throughout nine paddocks.

The lick troughs on Watson River are well sheltered from monsoonal rains by wide corrugated iron lick sheds. Each trough holds roughly 240kg of supplement (12 x 20kg bags). Lick shed materials range from steel, to strong and termite resistant bush timber, such as Cooktown ironwood.

All lick sheds include back rubbers to control buffalo fly on breeders, weaners and calves. The buffalo fly insecticide and oil is also stored in the shipping containers. “Side-by-side” and quad bikes are used during the wet season to check cattle, fill lick troughs and charge back rubbers.

Herd and land management

Luke and Ally have used the opportunity provided by recent cattle prices to cull a portion of the herd. This has effectively halved the stocking rate on the fenced section of Watson River. The aim is to improve land condition through wet season spelling, and reduce end of dry season mortalities. The cull of breeders and replacement heifers has resulted in a an even tempered breeding herd with better reproductive performance.

The feeding of wet season P supplements and the focus on temperament allows for an early and efficient first round muster. The timely weaning helps preserve breeder body condition.

The future of Watson River

Watson River currently has approximately 325 hectares of improved grasses and legumes, as well as a hay paddock. The fertilised hay paddock produces sufficient hay to meet the herd requirements, as well as a surplus supply for sale. Future development plans include:

  1. Subdivision of existing breeder paddocks for pasture spelling and improved herd management.
  2. Installation of additional waters and cattle handling facilities on the remaining bush country to expand the breeder herd over time.

As the next generation of managers on Watson River station, Luke and Ally share a passion for, and a commitment to, the northern beef industry. Their clear focus on feeding wet season P, herd management, moderate stocking rates and wet season spelling are the key strategies for a successful beef operation for years to come.

This article is an abridged version of the case study compiled by Emily Corbett (DAF Beef and Feedbase Team, Mareeba), Fred Chudleigh (DAF Toowoomba) and Luke and Ally Quartermaine (Watson River), August 2020.

To read the full case study, click here.

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