FOR many producers battling the debilitating drought sweeping across the state, the decision of feeding or offloading cattle is the hardest management choice of them all.
But, imagine being just one year into building an Angus herd of up to 600 breeders when rainfall forecasts evaporated.
It was a prospect faced by Yarrowyck beef producers and former Sydney business owners Andrew and Cathy Williamson and their daughters Kate, 12, and Tess, 9, after moving from a smaller property in the Southern Tablelands to the New England in December 2016.
Bringing their core herd of 100 breeders with them, they spent much of their first season building fences and preparing soils for the start of their ‘fertile seasons’ in the 800 millimetre annual rainfall area.
In a cruel twist, the first 10 months of 2018 bought just 230 millimetres, most at the beginning of the year, and from May to September they spent up to $300,000 on freight to haul hay and silage from as far as Victoria.
“The problem is because of the nature of the drought, the way it was so widespread, our first thought was we’ll find some agistment,” Mr Williamson said.
“We couldn’t. Our second thought was we'd sell them but we had just paid big money for them and we didn’t want to give them away.
“So we thought we will try and feed them.”
“It was a good herd, we invested carefully and considered very carefully our numbers as per our business plan,” Ms Williamson added.
As if the constant demands of hand feeding weren’t enough, their herd was also impacted by pink eye and ringworm with the couple making their own ‘cow patches’ to reduce the spread of the outbreak as the herd was hand-fed in close proximity to each other.
They established a feeding timeline, with a deadline of spring to remain viable.
But, things finally started to look up.
A mob of weaner steers and heifers, held over to build up condition, are now bound for the Glen Innes saleyards, hoped to be rewarded by a rain boosted market kick.
A 50 millimetre rainfall earlier this month came just in time for the Williamsons of Myanbah at Yarrowyck who proceeded with their standard October to December joining period.
Their young breeders, only on their second and third calves, were paired with Angus bulls selected for ease of birthing, intramuscular fat, 400 day weight gain and temperament.
“Despite the fact we had thin poorly breeders, we decided we would still commit to buying bulls and pretend everything was going to be normal,” Andrew Williamson said.
“As it turns out the rain came at the right time and they put on the weight and a bit more vigour and we look like we are having a pretty good joining season.”
The recent rainfall also produced very little run off, something the Williamsons didn’t complain about for the benefits it will provide to their soil moisture.
Last year they were able to apply 200 tonnes of superphosphate to parts of the 1400 hectare (3500 acre) property with Mr Williamson now focusing on other soil health opportunities.
“Mulching definitely has a benefit particularly if you have cattle through first and all crap everywhere,” he said.
“Mulching that along with some grass they don’t want to eat just seems to reap the benefits.
“It’s a far more natural process than chemical super.
“When the rain came it was those paddocks we mulched that came good first and tended to be less weed burdened.”