Striving for weight gain in the drought – Improving market access and other flow on effects

A GrazingFutures Case Study — compiled by ConnectAg


Bindy and Ben Lasker “Beechwood”, Teelba attended the GrazingFutures Hold ‘Em or Fold ‘Em — risk-based decision making and resilience workshop in Surat.

“Beechwood” is an 11,000-hectare property near Teelba in southern Queensland. Beechwood is owned and operated by Ben and Bindy Lasker. The Lasker’s run a self-replacing cattle breeding operation comprised of a Santa Gertrudis based herd. Normally they run up to 1000 breeders, turning off feeder steers to local feedlots, while retaining the heifers.

Ben and Bindy are first generation landholders who have done the hard yards to bring themselves into the beef industry. In November 2019, at the height of devastating drought, Ben and Bindy attended the Hold ‘Em or Fold ‘Em – Risk Based Decision Making and Resilience workshop in Surat.

During this workshop, producers gained an improved understanding of:

  • meeting market specifications
  • feeding cattle during the dry season
  • options for sourcing drought feed
  • business decision making
  • mental wellbeing.

The Lasker’s commented:

“We could so easily have not gone to this workshop, but we are so glad we did.”

Changing nutrition during the drought

Prior to the workshop, the Lasker’s felt financially they couldn’t continue to feed their stock to maintain the herd due to ongoing harsh drought conditions. Plus, they had no confidence in the saleability of stock they had on hand to offload and destock further. They had already reduced the herd to around 650 cows and about 500 weaners, compared to normally running 1000 breeders.

As a result of attending the workshop the Lasker’s focused more on the nutrition of the cattle, moving from a maintenance ration to a weight gain ration. Doing so would open market opportunities for their stock should the drought continue. The Lasker’s commented:

“By bringing our cows up to a particular weight we could sell them direct to the works and make much better money per animal than what we were looking at if we had sold them as light stores in December and reduced the cost of feeding by going to a maintenance ration at the time.”

The cows were fed a high quality, ‘feedlot’ formulated ration. Ben and Bindy were confident the additional cost would reduce further economic risk based on their recent learnings.

Undertaking early weaning

Workshop presenter, Roger Sneath, said early weaning removes the lactation stress on the cow, making it an an excellent management drought management strategy. Roger added “The lactating cow will receive little benefit if fed extra feed while still supporting a calf. The additional nutritional benefit will just go through the milk to the calf.”

From the workshop advice, Ben and Bindy weaned as young as 5-6 weeks old, feeding a pellet ration from a local manufacturer. Feeding a high energy, high protein ration, formulated for specifically for early weaners is crucial to early weaning success. Ben and Bindy were able to meet the nutritional demands of these weaners by feeding the pellet ration together with a good quality oaten hay. Breeder cow condition and health also improved as a result of removing the calf.

“The cost of the feed was terrifying, but we had the confidence of a formulated ration to bring the cows up to market specification and improve sale price,” — Bindy.

The value of the workshop for producers

The Lasker’s found the nutritional advice, and Andrew Wilkie’s objective livestock marketing information advice very beneficial.

Andrew discussed market options and the ability to sell cows direct to the works once they had reached market weight. He advised against producers keeping old cows on farm when they are struggling just to maintain weight. As a result, the Lasker’s made the decision to feed for weight gain, rather than maintain condition.

“We asked ourselves – do we sell all our cows now for a low price and low weight, or, do we put money into nutrition to increase their weight?” Ben remarked.

The workshop presentations provided clarity regarding the decisions that needed to be made. Prior to attending this workshop, the Lasker’s felt as though they were not handling the drought well.

Benefits of feeding for weight gain during drought

Increasing the nutritional ration from maintenance to weight gain meant the cows reached saleable weight suitable for selling direct to the works. Selling the cows earlier and lighter could have resulted in financial loss. However, by sale time, it had rained enough to grow useful pasture and the Lasker’s considered retaining the fed breeders as they had reached a condition score 3, and were therefore suitable for joining.

Positive unintended consequences

As a consequence of the poor-quality diet due to the drought, the calving window had progressively become longer than desired. Improving the breeders’ nutrition helped re-tighten the calving window once there was a break in the drought. This meant only one weaning round, thereby reducing workloads and easier management of the herd. It has also meant the Lasker’s had a consistent, larger line of weaners than they would normally expect.


Other unintended benefits included improvements in fertility. Ninety-eight per cent of maiden heifers pregnancy tested in calf in 2021 (well above industry average). In 2020, 95% of their maiden heifers that had been fed the high-quality feedlot ration were in-calf. Before 2019 (prior to the workshop), the Lasker’s would generally expect conception rates of around 85% in maiden heifers.

The increase in pregnancy rates is a positive consequence of the improved nutrition from such an early age. The 2021 maiden heifers weighed in at 480-500kg at around 18 months old.


Improving nutrition has enabled the Lasker’s to retain a profitable sized herd without purchasing replacement stock. They have also taken advantage of the record market, selling the early weaned calves from December 2019, as heavy steers early in 2021 for $1600 / head. Had the Laskers sold them as calves/weaners in late 2019/early 2020 they would have received around $120 per head.

Forage crops

Normally the Lasker’s would plant 350 hectares to oats to provide feed in winter. However, as a result of learnings from the workshop, they grew a forage sorghum crop instead. The forage sorghum provided a good quality roughage for the early weaners, hay production, and 1000 tonne of silage.

Breeder numbers were reduced by 30% to mitigate future poor seasons. Reducing numbers will make the pastures go further at “Beechwood” and reduce the impact of dry seasons and drought by preventing over utilisation.

Wrap up

From the workshop, Ben and Bindy, learnt enough to collectively take back some control. They have also created some key rules to ensure they ‘make a move’ when the seasonal conditions and other influences are right. This will ensure their business is more resilient when faced with challenging droughts in the future.

Ben summarised with “Even though the drought cost a lot, it has had financial benefits flowing on into the future.” Bindy said:

“Because we went together and both heard the same information, we were then able to discuss options for our business and implement them immediately. Had we not been there together we may not have had such a good outcome.”


The Hold ‘Em or Fold ‘Em – Risk Based Decision Making and Resilience workshop was a collaborative event led by ConnectAg on behalf of Maranoa Regional Council. This was a partnership with the Queensland Government GrazingFutures project and the Tackling Regional Adversity through Integrated Care project.

This article was a slightly abridged version of the original case study created by Gina Mace, ConnectAg, on behalf of GrazingFutures, June 2021.

To read the entire case study, click here.