Grass fed in Gloucester

Grass fed re-boot takes effect on the Gloucester River

Beef
Change of plan: New beginnings for Angus breeder James Hooke, Skibo, Glouceaster, after recent rainfall.

Change of plan: New beginnings for Angus breeder James Hooke, Skibo, Glouceaster, after recent rainfall.

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From brown paddocks to green growth, the transformation at Gloucester is remarkable. Angus producer James Hooke, Skibo, has seen the fruits of prior planning.

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A return to viability in the Gloucester area has blossomed since Australia Day with more rain falling in a month than all of 2019 - in excess of 500 millimetres in places.

The result has seen a great transformation, from short brown Kikuyu dominating the hillsides to a verdant green. For third generation grass fed beef producer James Hooke, Skibo, on the Gloucester River, the relief is palpable.

"There's no chance of stopping the grass now," he said, throwing his hands in the air.

Before Christmas Mr Hooke was spending $10,000 a fortnight on Victorian hay and grain, feeding 400 steers for both store and finished production along with 200 breeders.

"I was having a dollar each way," he said.

Most importantly for this Angus breeder, he has maintained his core breeding herd through the worst drought since his grandfather bought the farm off the Yates' family in 1913.

At the time it was all timber with an orchard on a bend in the river. Beef came after ringbarking and burning of mahogany and cabbage leaf gums to make use of alluvial clay loam.

Remaining wild apple tree show where the best soil lies.

'Boss' Hooke, as he was known to all including his wife, was an ambitious bullock man who had a nose for fine land and a preference for full mouthed steers. James' father, Benjamin, transitioned the herd to Angus, initially buying 60 Angus heifers off Glen Avon at Guyra in 1968 with the intention of producing Angus/ Hereford with milk. These days James runs 200 Angus breeders and still bids on Glen Avon bulls.

James Hooke, Skibo, on the Gloucester River, with re-growth in his brand new paddocks and cattle ready to take advantage of it.

James Hooke, Skibo, on the Gloucester River, with re-growth in his brand new paddocks and cattle ready to take advantage of it.

During this last drought, irrigated river flats proved critical to drought production, and a paddock of chicory, lucerne and rye has jumped in response to all the rain.

"Introducing chicory was the best thing that happened for our district," he said, praising its deep tap root.

"It hasn't died and is seeding itself."

Paddock preparation for the mixed grazing crop involved zero ripping, with glyphosate sprayed to suppress rather than kill.

"If you spray it all out you'll get every weed in the world. It makes the ground hard. We've got to be smarter in how we do things," he said.

James' agronomist Matt Thompson is helping to enact management change, and sometimes his question is blunt.

"He says if you can justify the cost of what you are doing then go ahead, but show me," James said.

Reducing weed opportunity is best down during the heat of summer, he added.

"It's the same with worms in cattle. The time to drench is before a drought when the sun is at its hottest. You clear the gut and any that are passed are killed by the sun and you can get rid of a population bank," he said.

Skibo calves with Amos Vale Angus blood.

Skibo calves with Amos Vale Angus blood.

Working on a beef premium

James Hooke, Skibo at Gloucester, produces MSA grade steers, ideally 320 kilograms dressed weight at 20 months.

Production steers finished on grass are sold to Wingham Export Beef, which is less than an hour away, where Skibo Angus ends up in NH Foods' premium grass-finished branded label, Manning Valley Naturally.

"I like the fact that we get instant feedback from the processor," Mr Hooke said. "I like that we supply a premium product rather than a commodity which is known to crash in value.

"It is important to impress on producers that as the middle class of Asia grows, they won't want a six-year-old bullock from Australia. They can get that from places like Uruguay."

Skibo continues to source bulls from Guyra, and has sourced some from Wattletop prior to their dispersal.

"These produce calves with length and width across the rump," Mr Hooke said.

He doesn't chase low birth weight, saying sooner or later the herd will only be able to handle low birth weight calves.

"At some point the neighbour's bull jumps the fence and you are puling out a calf. I select on moderate birth weight and I don't buy heifer bulls. I haven't pulled a calf in seven years. My calf puller has rust on it."

Cows are culled for temperament. Calves are yard weaned and turned out straight away onto strip grazed paddocks, with up to six mobs on the move during winter.

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