What the backgrounders do!

FutureBeef asked graziers Kurt Mayne, Ian McCamley, Bruce Mayne and, grazier and feedlot manager Sarah Donovan how they operated their backgrounding and feedlotting businesses. 

How Kurt Mayne meet’s optimum weight on feeder cattle at Broken Plains, Rolleston Qld.

When you’re backgrounding cattle, farming 7600 acres and doing contracting on the side, you’re going to be busy. When Kurt Mayne came across the Optiweigh in-paddock weighing units, he was keen to give them a try.

“We turn off a heavy feeders at 480 to 500 kilograms (kg) as soon as they go over 500kg we lose $150. It’s a minimum of four to five weeks between when you book cattle into the feedlot and send them. To be able to weigh cattle in the paddock with no labour and get accurate data is a game changer”.

“I estimate the accuracy is probably enabling us to put on an extra 20kg per beast because I can make better decisions about when cattle need to be sold. It stops the weights blowing out over the top of the feeder market and I no longer have a bullock paddock. Feeders make more for us than bullocks, plus it’s saving me six months of feed on these animals.”

“We have 7000 acres of Leucaena. It’s the only crop you can grow once and reap rewards from for years and it’s the only crop you can inherit. We’ve just fertilised every row on one side with mono-ammonium phosphate (MAP); its first expense in 30-plus years. I estimate it has given us an extra 0.2kg a day in that time. It allows us to background cattle all year and helps us handle droughts. Our paddocks are rotationally grazed.”

The only supplements currently fed out are blocks to entice cattle onto the Optiweigh units. Currently, a trace mineral block, but when the feed dries off, he’ll use a urea-based block. The cattle use the Optiweigh units well. Mr Mayne puts this down to the fact that they are always tipping cattle into the mobs using the units and the original cattle teach the others. If the units have weighed 50% of cattle in the paddock, he is comfortable that it’s reliable data. Even at 30% of the mob using the units we’re getting good data.

Mr Mayne doesn’t use Hormone Growth Promotants (HGPs). He blood’s (tick fever vaccine), uses a broad spectrum parasiticide and the plunge dip. As his cattle cross the tick line into clean country on route to the feedlot, with cattle being cleared on-farm.

Mr Mayne says “younger cattle are run in mobs of 600 to 700. When they are almost ready to go to the feedlot, the mob size drops to 300 to 400”, and that is when he uses the Optiweigh units. It takes twice as long to draft a mob of 600 as it does 300 and curfew is a massive consideration for him. “When we go to sell cattle, they’re on hay as soon as they hit the yards. We’ll get them in at daylight the day before and have them drafted by 10am. By midday, they’ve been through the plunge dip and from then until 4am they’re in the yards on a hay feeder. We’ll truck them in the dark while they’re calm and they’re at the feedlot off the weighbridge by 11pm or 12pm. The feedlot is 500km away. We budget for them to lose 3 to 5 per cent of their bodyweight in transit.”

Mr Mayne uses a buying agent but sell’s direct to the feedlot. “Lately we’ve bought from Gracemere, but we use AuctionsPlus and paddock sales when we can find them.” Mr Mayne employs a man who is happy to spend a bit of time weaner training. “They’ll stay in the yards just as long as they need to”, he said.

He also hires a consultant to analyse his weight data, along with data from the feedlot including the kill sheets. “I’m going to be able to work out where I get the best 10 percent of my cattle from and I’ll be happy to pay an extra 10 cents if I know they are going to perform better.”


What happens at Lowesby with Ian McCamley of MCC Pastoral, Rolleston Qld.

Mr McCamley aims for a heavy feeder steer with a curfewed weight of as close to 520kg as possible, as he gets discounted over that. While cattle are expensive to replace, he will aim for the top weight.

“Cattle are bought at around 260kg and are worked through the yards and kept in holding paddocks for up to a week. Some may need more time in and around the yards, especially if they’ve never seen a horse or dog. If they are fresh, we tail them out during the day and bring them back into the yards overnight until they are settled. Cattle that have already had a good amount of weaner training won’t need so much handling. We get our cattle used to going through gates and through the race. We purposely put our cattle under pressure, so they learn to handle stress and recover quickly. We want our cattle quiet, so they come up to you in the paddock, rather than run off when we drive around. Everything has been on a truck at least twice: once on the way to the saleyards and again from the yards to here. We feed them a good quality grassy hay while they are in the yards to keep their gut microbes going to reduce performance setbacks.”

“At induction, cattle receive tick fever vaccine, a management ear tag, pour-on for ticks and worms and are weighed. The ear tag is correlated to the NLIS tag for traceability and for tracking weight gain. The pour-on has both a broad spectrum anti-parasitic and tick development inhibitor.”

“We draft cattle into weight lines up to four times with the first split at induction. The lighter cattle do better when they are with cattle of a similar weight, and we segregate heavy lead cattle, so we are not mustering mobs unnecessarily. Cattle drafted into a line all within 20kg of each other can often have a 70kg to 80kg difference between tops and tails a few months later. If cattle need to come through the yards for tick treatment, we use the opportunity to draft them into tighter weight groups. We’re using Optiweigh units in the paddock to identify when cattle are ready to market.”

“We have transitioned from sending a finished grass-fed certified bullock to turning off feeder steers. If we stay with the feeder market, we will give HGPs some consideration. We dropped HGPs when we were focussing on the Meat Standards Australia (MSA) market. If the feedlot is using them, then we may as well be getting some weight benefits from them too. However, they do reduce eating quality, so I will be watching for what the market signals. It will be interesting to see if it becomes more economic to finish grass-fed ox rather than sell feeder cattle once the Australian herd numbers build up again.”


How Bruce Mayne manages the backgrounding herd at Fairview, Calliope Qld.

Mr Mayne purchases weaners through the saleyards, and because of that they come with some yard and truck experience. A lot of the time they come straight off the dam and are re-weaned in the yards for five to seven days on hay. This practice assists in clearing out any potential weeds from their system.

“We use HGP’s on the Brahman-type cattle, not the flatbacks. The flatbacks get a premium price from Coles, and that’s a non-HGP market. When we give the HGP to the Brahman-type cattle depends on the season and what sort of feed they are going on. We won’t use a HGP until we know feed quality is high.”

“At weaning we give them 5 in 1 and botulism vaccines. We’ve had high three-day losses the last couple of years, so we are going to start with a three-day vaccine too. They get a long-action injectable at weaning to treat internal and external parasites. The feedlot where we have been sending the Brahman cattle offer a premium to cattle vaccinated against Bovine Respiratory Disease (BRD). We’ve been giving them a shot at least 10 days to a month before they go, so the cattle can build up some immunity.”

“We buy animals around 180kg to 200kg, aim to put at least 200kg on them and sell at 380kg to 420kg. The last time I weighed cattle off Leucaena they had gained 2kg a day, but there are times when they only do 0.3kg or 0.4kg. It averages at around the 0.65kg to 0.7kg a day. My son Kurt loves his Optiweigh in-paddock weigh system, and I can see why they are beneficial for a larger operation. We’ve only got 3500 acres here and it’s easy for us to go grab 230 head off a water and weigh them.”

“It’s all about the trade. If we sell a 400kg animal and replace it with a 200kg animal and there is a price margin of $600 to $700 between them, we are happy. Leucaena has made a massive difference to our business, both here at Calliope and when we were at Rolleston. We also have a centre pivot over grass pasture.”


Preconditioning feedlot cattle paramount to good performance with Sarah Donovan, Duaringa Qld.

What do feedlots look for in backgrounded cattle? Sarah Donovan, of Donovan Cattle Co, shares some advice with FutureBeef.

“We maintain a commercial breeding operation and buy in weaners to fully stock our backgrounding block. We operate a small feedlot which allows the finishing of our cattle, the buying in of feeders when the market allows and the custom feeding of outside cattle.”

“The preconditioning of feedlot cattle is paramount to good performance. Early vaccinations and follow up boosters, tick/worm control, and a low stress weaning program prove highly favourable to good average daily gains (ADGs). Maintaining good rumen health via solid nutrition is also important. Feedlots obviously chase consistency in performance and will pay a premium to acquire cattle from proven suppliers.”

“We get a variety of animals into the feedlot and those that are drought affected have a much slower start than those that have had good nutrition. It can take these animals two to three times longer to move on to a finisher ration – therefore, overall ADG can be greatly impacted. We’ve seen variances in ADGs from 0.4 to 0.8+ kilograms and higher mortality rates, mainly due to the impacts of prior nutrition and lack of handling. Of course, genetics play a role as well.”

“Thorough mob socialisation well in advance of feedlot entry is also important. The mixing of mobs on entry increases stress and in turn the instances of bovine respiratory disease (BRD), which is the most common cause of death in feedlots. Where possible, feedlot cattle should receive all treatments in advance of feedlot arrival – including 5-in-1, botulism, tick/wormer, BRD related vaccinations and hormone growth promotants (depending on the target market).”