LESSONS learned in feeding grain-based supplements and rations to cattle and sheep during the 2019-20 drought have encouraged some western Queensland livestock producers to embrace more structured grainfeeding operations this year.
A good example is four recent large greenfield commercial feedlot development applications currently under review or consideration by the Balonne Shire Council centred on St George – two for beef, and two for sheep.
Some have interpreted the development as suggesting the St George region of western Queensland could eventually emerge as another lotfeeding ‘hub’ in Australia, similar to the inner Darling Downs or the South Burnett.
The four submissions currently before the Balonne Shire Council are for:
- A 50,000 Standard Cattle Unit beef feedlot on East Karoon, near St George
- A 10,000 Standard Sheep Unit sheep and lamb feedlot proposed for the same property
- A 2000 head SCU beef feedlot on the Carnarvon Highway, and
- A 45,000 Standard Sheep Unit lamb and sheep yard at Ballandool Station, near Hebel.
The largest of the applications, for a 50,000 head cattle feedlot and an associated 10,000 head sheep feedlot has been posted by the Brown family’s Kooroon Pastoral Co at Westmar.
Kooroon Pastoral is a family-operated enterprise covering properties in the St George and Bollon areas, with operations across broadacre grainfarming, cattle backgrounding and goat production, plus earthmoving contracting.
Like most feedlot projects of this size, the Brown family does not plan to build the yard (subject to approval) to its full licensed capacity from the outset, but would add capacity in stages, Beef Central was told. Given a green light for go-ahead, the plan would be to start stage-one construction by Christmas.
If completed as proposed, the East Karoon yard would be one of only a handful of yards in Australia feeding both beef and lamb in the same facility. JBS Yambinya is another example.
Like many others in the Balonne region, the Browns fed cattle on grain-based rations during the earlier drought, both ‘maintenance’ and ‘production’ feeding. Access to silage was a bonus.
This experience had encouraged and motivated them to extend into commercial lotfeeding this year.
The Brown family has a consistent beef end-market it is servicing, and sees moving to a grainfed certification as a logical step in its business model, in seeking consistency and a market premium for brand programs.
The Browns have an unused water license out of the Moonee River which would be used for stock water for the first stage of the development, but the purchase of more water (either underground or river) would be required to expand the project beyond that.
With grainfed beef volumes surpassing grassfed recently for the first time, Australian beef appears to be slowly moving towards a US style production model, based on fed cattle. That was particularly evident during the drought, but has lingered well past the change in the seasonal cycle, and is showing little sign of slowing down this year.
Land value factor
Another factor raised by local St George contacts spoken to for this report was rises in land value.
“People are looking to extract as much value out of their existing livestock and farming operations as possible,” one contact said.
“Purchasing a separate buffel grass block for finishing cattle looks increasingly prohibitive. A feedlot development to grow out steers and heifers to finished weights suddenly looks very attractive, with cattle property prices at their current level,” the St George local said.
“And it’s easy to pin down the cost of production. You know what your grain and your cattle are worth, and forward contracts on domestic or export grainfed cattle means you can feed cattle with some security of outcome.”
The St George area offered ‘pretty good’ opportunity for further feedlot expansion, another local contact said.
“There’s good road access and facilities, plus good water and grain supply. The only downside is probably freight cost on the finished cattle to market – but it’s western location means its possible to penetrate southern markets, as well as those further east.”
One local cattle business utilising grain regularly sends domestic-weight cattle south to Scone and Tamworth in NSW for slaughter – a distance which was ‘not that much different’ from selling to processing plants located in Queensland’s southeast corner.
Different model than Eastern Downs
St George-based Grant Daniel & Long partner and stock agent Andrew Wardle has a number of clients who grainfed or grain-supplemented cattle and sheep during the drought, who are now investing in dedicated feedlot infrastructure.
Unlike the inner Darling Downs where already-large yards of 15,000-20,000 or more in size keep expanding, yards in the Balonne region tended to be smaller, and integrated within cropping, breeding and backgrounding business, he said.
Yards were also emerging around Dirranbandi, Hebel and Nindigully. Some ‘opportunity’ type yards further south towards Mungindi were currently shuttered, because their owners currently had good volumes of grass on other properties further west.
There has also been growth in smaller lamb feedlots across the area, especially since the drought.
“The feedlots out here in the west are generally put together to value-add the commodities that the operators grow themselves – they do not generally go into the market and buy direct entry weight feeder cattle, like they do back east on the downs,” Mr Wardle said.
“They make their money more off the grass (backgrounding young cattle or breeding their own), and then value-adding their own grain, cotton seed or other commodities through their feedlot. It’s a different model,” he said.
“Some will breed their own, and only trade cattle when circumstances are favourable.”
Mr Wardle said some local operators had used this model for a ‘long time,’ while others were only now moving into it. Some had been feeding cattle unaccredited, on a supplementary grain assist basis, but were now moving into licensed lotfeeding.
Paddock-based grain feeding
“There’s also some other models being employed more widely now, including paddock-based self-feeders, using a feedlot-style ration, while utilising available grass better, and delivering a continual and more predictable weightgain.”
“There’s more of that going to happen, in my opinion – either in registered feedlots or paddock-based systems.”
“More producers here are realising that it doesn’t need to be a drought to utilise grainfeeding rations into their production systems.”
“We’re in an area where at times livestock producers can buy grain a bit cheaper off the header, and with agriculture going very well at the moment, if they can put some money back into infrastructure (grain storage, handling and processing), and decent set-ups to mix and fed their stock, there’s money to be made.”
Mr Wardle said access to staff might be one constraint in establishing much larger feedlots in western parts of the state.
“A big downs feedlot will these days employ 30 or 40 staff or more. That might be hard to do this far west, where a smaller yard can be largely self-managed, within the existing enterprise,” he said.
“I couldn’t see lotfeeding in the Balonne turning into ‘another Darling Downs,’ but there is scope for further expansion here, nonetheless.”
Mr Wardle warned that not all feedlot license applications necessarily turned into ‘bricks and mortar.’ Some were sought simply to add potential value to a property, in the event of a future sale.
“But since the drought, a lot of cattle producers have learned a lot about feeding stock – by necessity,” he said.
“They understand that if it’s done properly, it can be still profitable in the good times, as well as the bad. Some have bought feeding infrastructure during the drought, that they now want to continue to utilise. It’s a new production model – whether it be through a registered feedlot producing grainfed cattle, or simply adding weight and condition to paddock cattle.”
“Others are using grain-based diets to precondition young cattle and get them used to bunk feeding, prior to feedlot entry. Those pre-conditioned feeder cattle tend to go like the clappers when they hit the feedlot, with no setback in the transition onto grain.”
Grain-based production feeding was also a growing trend in the sheep industry, Mr Wardle said.
A major sheep feedlot project was going in at Deepwater, and another application was in place for a large site near Hebel for sheep and lambs.
Other producers were supplementary feeding lambs, in smaller numbers of a few thousand at a time.
Some operators also say Dorper sheep, popular in the Balonne region, are much easier to run under feedlot conditions than Merinos.