Focusing on high growth when selecting bulls is paying off for Mick Kelsall, who's breeding a consistent line of Angus and Angus-cross feeder steers and heifers.
Mr Kelsall oversees operations on five NSW properties - 4046-hectare Parraweena at Willow Tree, 607ha at Hernani and 202ha Grafton, and Marengo (2023ha and another 2023ha of forestry grazing) and Achill West (2428ha) near Armidale, running a large-scale breeding enterprise and finishing the majority of progeny.
"Cattle numbers are down considerably with the drought but the idea is, at Achill West we'll run 900 cows and 100 replacements, and an 800-head cow herd at Paraweena," Mr Kelsall said.
"All the progeny comes this way, to Marengo and the Hernani block, and we grow everything out."
Having a block on the Clarence River at Grafton ensures a good supply of hay.
"We bought that 12 months ago because of the drought and whacked in 50 acres (20ha) of oats, and 50 acres of sorghum," Mr Kelsall said.
"We've already got two cuts from it, so it's paid off.
"The market wasn't real flash so we were able to keep all the weaners and grow fodder to feed over winter.
"If we can grow our own fodder and breed our own weaners, we're not at market pressure."
The Willow Tree block has Hereford and black baldy breeders, joined to Angus bulls, and there's a small herd of crossbred cows at Marengo, but the bulk of cattle are Angus and Angus-cross.
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"We've always had a British-based cow herd but because we were growing everything out we saw we needed a genetic improvement in the steers and heifers," Mr Kelsall said.
"Three years ago we went hard in buying Angus bulls, about 20 in the first year from a few different studs, and we kept going back to Eaglehawk because we really liked the type of bull they breed.
"Out of all the bulls we tried, the Eaglehawk bulls stand up to the country, and I really like what they're doing with their breeding program.
"At Willow Tree it's hilly but with good black soil on the flats, and at Achill West, the eastern side is traditionally sheep country.
"Eaglehawk bulls get around and walk out really well, and they can handle the terrain because it's very similar to where they're bred."
Mr Kelsall focuses on growth traits when selecting bulls, as all progeny is grown to feeder weights and sent to Whyalla Beef feedlot at Texas, Queensland.
"We do want to work on carcase but for now we need growth - good 200-, 400- and 600-day weight gain," he said.
"We wanted a bull that did the job for steers and the replacement heifers.
"We like that moderate frame, really easy doing bulls that producer deep, thick calves.
Three years ago we went hard in buying Angus bulls, about 20 in the first year from a few different studs, and we kept going back to Eaglehawk because we really liked the type of bull they breed. Eaglehawk bulls get around and walk out really well, and they can handle the terrain because it's very similar to where they're bred.
"We've been getting really good replacement heifers from these bulls as well.
"They're also really even bulls, so we're producing a very consistent animal."
Mr Kelsall aims for his calves to average 450 kilograms to 460kg when they leave the farm, at milk-tooth.
The weight gain starts with an intensive weaning program.
All calves are yard-weaned and scanned into a livestock management program which allows the teams to record all treatments and weights every six weeks.
The yard-weaning program includes seven days on feed in the yards and another week in holding paddocks.
Mr Kelsall aims for weight gain of at least 500 grams a day from the calves after weaning.
"If they go over the scales and they're under that, we sell them. All the light calves are sold early.
"We also cart all our own stock to the feedlot, so we've taken control of the whole operation.
"Whyalla appreciates that background information, especially the treatments.
"By the time they're sold, they're well handled and all their treatments are done, which reduces their downtime of adjustment in the feedlot.
"They're ready to be on feed from when they walk off the truck."
Focus on fertility
BREEDER fertility is a priority for Mick Kelsall, and it's been even more important with the current drought.
He's about to be even stricter on fertility.
"At the moment we have a 12-week joining for the heifers and cows, but I'd like to go to a heifer joining of nine weeks," he said.
"We pregnancy test and anything that loses a calf, or has a late calf or bad udder we've been culling, especially this year.
"What we saw last year regarding the quality of genetics, is that you can get a lot of secondary calves from some breeders, for the same amount of feed down the necks of those cows.
"Those cows will rear a secondary little calf, so we're better off getting rid of her to have a cow that would produce a top-quality calf.
"With secondary calves, even when you wean them, they take the same pasture, drench and inputs as the other better calves.
"The heavier culling means there's not a big tail-end.
"Our top calves are gone at Christmas, and if you keep secondary calves you're still trying to shift them in May when you've weaned the next drop."
Selling the lighter calves paid off this year, despite a drop in the cattle market.
"We weaned everything we had early and sold all the crossbred calves, then we went through the rest and kept the best 300 heifers and best 300 steers.
"We did take a hit in the saleyards.
"Our best steers made $500 a head and heifers $420, but looking at it now, it was sensational money because I didn't have to feed them.
"After that Dorrigo sale heifers were only making $200 and steers $400."
Improving soils and pastures
Mick Kelsall has been developing much of the country at Marengo, where the steers are grown out to feeder weights, by introducing an all-rounder pasture of cocksfoot, fescue, plaintain and prairie grass, along with a few ryegrass paddocks.
"Those pastures have taken a bit of a beating in the past 12 months," he said.
"The drought meant we had to destock Achill West and bring 600 cows to Marengo.
"We only kept 700 weaners.
"We were able to put cows out in the forestry, so having it locked up for the past three years and ready to use was quite helpful.
"We put the cows there after weaning and pregnancy testing, and they calve down there, then walk them home after winter."
Mr Kelsall said he rotationally grazes the cattle as much as possible, giving the paddocks plenty of rest.
"We try to stay on top of stocking rate and pasture density, monitoring days of grazing and rest periods," he said.
"We fertilise and lime, but not without a soil test, so we know what we need, where, and how much.
"We use a little bit of nitrogen and phosphorous where we have to, and a lot of time, which boosts soil fertility.
"We also mulch organic matter and aerate as well in the summer."
Being able to grow crops at Grafton has been a big help in the drought, with Mr Kelsall having to supplementary feed the young heifers prior to joining.
"We'll give them bit of grain through self-feeders but they're our replacements so they're worth it," he said.
"At least we're not putting grain into the tail end."