Fattening bullocks is an end-game that remains alive and well on the North Coast where a 12 month turnaround at the moment can net as much profit as a weaner.
In fact grown steer prices have fluctuated the least over the last year and are just under 270c/kg liveweight. Compare that to the Eastern Young Cattle Indicator on carcase weight which has traded well below last year’s prices to reside at 502c/kg.
Of course it takes grass to finish and not everywhere has this, unlike the lower Macleay, Nambucca and Clarence valleys. Here, on coastal Kikuyu and Paspalum, even full-mouth bullocks continue to pull their weight.
Brian Killmore, is the third generation producer to finish grown steers on coastal black soil flats, at “Smoky”, just behind sand dunes at Kinchela via Hat Head. Here on 1000 acres with a view to Smoky Cape, hence the property’s name, Brian, his wife Margaret and his father Charlie run 400 grown steers.
“We used to carry 700 but now we run less and sell more. It’s about turnover,” he said.
The bigger steers bought in, at 600 to 700kg, might only graze on Smoky for three or four months but the majority are turned off after a year.
Brian and Charlie, together, buy mostly out of the Grafton saleyards because the Clarence Valley supplies Brahman/ British composite steers, four to six and even eight tooth and already weighing from 380kg to as much as 580kg. Specific large bullocks, which supply the Killmore family with a quick turnaround, have received bids above $1500 and their enthusiasm for the right article usually tops the sale.
But price is not something Brian worries too much about.
“Markets involve things we as farmers can’t control,” says Brian. “What we can look after is weight gain. It’s all about kilos.
Grid prices at abattoirs punish bullocks that come in too heavy but Brian says bigger the better and in spite of some cents per kilogram penalty the gain from a well muscled grown steer makes their practice worthwhile.
“We also sell when they’re fat. We might only send 20 at a time Wingham for processing,” said Brian who recently upgraded his truck to a Freightliner semi.
Charlie Killmore at 93 years old spans the generations. He can recall droving pigs to Kempsey market from his father’s property up Taylors Arm, where trees were felled by ax and crosscut saw before the first crop of corn was sown with a walking planter. Pigs followed the corn. It was two days’ walk to Kempsey at the time and camping with pigs proved perfect as they huddled together all night.
It wasn’t long before bullocks proved profitable in the emerging valley and Brian’s grandfather who was a go ahead sort of bloke purchased properties up the valley and down on the coast.”Smoky”, with a view of Smoky Cape, proved ideal as a fattening block and today the 1000 acres carried 400 head.
The downside to a Coastal Kikuyu paddock on the lower Macleay is that floods and wet winters kill the Kikuyu. For that reason alone the Killmores avoid breeders, although they do have upriver country at Temagog where they can send cattle in an emergency. But mostly they manage at home.
Every year they bale their rotating crop of cowpeas and millet, about 200 round bales, which is feed insurance when paddocks go under water. Cattle during those times are let in around the house, which sits atop an ancient sand dune from a time when the sea was closer.
While windmills filled water troughs with surface water in grandfather’s day, reticulated ground water replaced that when Brian’s father adopted the idea. As exposed surface water can go sour in lowland country the sweet sand-filtered bore water is a factor in cattle contentment.
Paddock maintenance is central to the business, with Charlie more than happy to spend hours slashing before the Kikuyu and Paspalum begin to lodge, at about 30cm,
“I often get on the tractor feeling unwell and get off it feeling much better,” he said.
Each summer a portion is planted to cow peas and millet followed by winter rye with red and white clovers. It might take another dozen years before that portion is planted like that again with Kikuyu and Paspalum dominating for the remainder.
Bullock finishers pleased with growth margin
Of course some cattle come to Kinchela more easily than others, and that has a lot to do with how they’ve been handled by humans before. Brian says there is a wide variation.
When new cattle are brought on to the property they get a 5:1 vaccine. If they have come from Grafton, as they mostly do, they have already been dipped for tick.
These new cattle, excited by all the handling, often spend a few quiet days in a sparse paddock, with open stringybark trees leading to Banksias but when they have acclimatised they go on to fenced pasture with a single string electric wire on outriggers which stand proud from the barbed wire.
Brian Killmore uses dogs to push the cattle up against that wire and they soon learn what a single strand can deliver.
Once the grown steers are cut out into a suitable mob – based on their finishing ability – the steers are only confined by single strand electric wire.
The fencing is flimsy but with so much green pick to choose from the cattle are content where they lie. And in fact they do lie – chewing their cud, which in a dairymans’ parlance indicates easy doing.
When they need to be moved older cattle from Brahman cross mothers that spent their formative years in the bush respect humans only on horseback and with dogs that prevent them running.
“If you come to them as anything else they will just laugh at you,” he says