There's no secret knowing a good return on your livestock investment relies on a rising plane of nutrition from a young age.
Killed cattle with low ossification scores are worth more money because they're softer; usually younger and displaying best weight for age. Researchers now say fat cells laid down when calves are weaners form the foundation to good marbling and feeder production systems that maintain at least a stable plane of nutrition will see the end results rewarded.
At Tiah River via Walcha three generations of the Mackaway family breed and trade cattle, to supply JBS at Scone with a B-Double load of prime steers every fortnight during summer. A recent consignment averaged 402kg carcase weight, heavier than the usual average of 380kg, for two year olds with 2-4 teeth, which meant they loaded 52 head, not the usual 54 to truck down the New England Highway to the Hunter Valley.
"We've never paid so much to purchase cattle but we've never had such high margins to work with," says Owen Mackaway, of Mackaway Pastoral, who with his wife Leone is stepping back from the job to let their son Mark and his wife Cathy run the show. "Our cattle normally don't go backwards here, although our winters don't help."
"We put a lot into it," says Mark, who now also oversees the family's chicken shedding enterprise at Tamworth. "And we get a lot out of it. That's why we get the results. But it comes at a cost."
Their own Shorthorn breeders are put to Charolais (heifers go first to Angus) and Charolais/Shorthorn, with calves weaned at 10 months around 280kg to 300kg.
"We don't wean earlier because the cows get too fat. We've got to keep some condition off them to reduce calving problems," says Owen.
A lot of new purchases at that same weaned weight come from the Macleay, through the Kempsey yards, all inducted as if they never had any vaccinations before.
"We weigh them every eight weeks when they are yarded to see what's coming on and needle them for pulpy kidney if the season demands it. At the height of this summer cattle were putting on an average of 1.8-2kg/day - we were getting up to 3kg/day before the drought. We actually needed more sun this season," said Mark.
Access to chicken manure has transformed their improved pasture, spread at the rate of four cubic metres to the hectare and repeated every couple of years. The cost of transport factors heavily, but not so much as to tempt them towards conventional chemical fertilisers. "We've been here at Tiah River for 14 years and have only ever used chicken litter," says Owen. "At first the tussocks were so big you couldn't drive over them."
In that time paddocks have been sown down three times, starting with a brown fallow and then a crop of rye grass to provide protein while controlling broad leaf weeds. That rotation is followed by permanent pasture that includes Quantum and Fortune fescues; Holdfast Phalaris; Lazauley cocksfoot; NZ and Hypha white clovers and Relish red clover.
"That's our shotgun mix, spread at the rate of 20kg/ha." says Mark.
They are experimenting with four year rye grass variety Impact2, replacing annual rye, and so hope to reduce compaction created by annual runs of tractor and seeder.
This season has been so bountiful and the clover so prolific that bloat has become an issue, but there's enough grass in the mix and the issue has been managed with supplements made available through lick blocks and also barley hay. The challenge is a welcome one when they recall bare paddocks during the drought.
In fact, the Tiah River has stopped only twice in recorded history - for one day in 1935 and again for six weeks in 2019.
Renovating paddocks continues two years after the rains returned and the 800ha property is now running close to its stocking rate achieved before the drought - 1400 head. Currently they run 1000 head but 120ha are out of production as sowing continues.
The soft and sweet fodder suits the mainly British bred and Charolais-infused cattle they target.
"Three quarters of their herd makes the JBS grid for grass-fed and anti-biotic free meat. The remainder that do not fit into that category are kept separate.
"We've always grown our cattle through," commented Owen. "Before this grid we targeted the Jap Ox market, We'll stick with what we do best."
Producers who tick the boxes on their Meat Standards Australia score card are now being rewarded with price premiums that make it worth investing in further improvement.
"Ten years ago the price incentive wasn't there to create greater value," says Dr Peter McGilchrist, senior lecturer in meat science at the University of Armidale. "But that's changed in recent years."
Producers that consign livestock that score well on the Meat Standards Australia index now access premium prices 10-30 cents a kilogram carcase weight above the grid.
"Before there was no real reason to breed better and producers just focussed on weight gain. Now there is no better incentive to do better and these prices will drive change."
The two key factors at this level of eating quality involve marbling and ossification - or weight for maturity, both of which improve when young cattle start out well and keep growing.
"Fat cells are laid down in young animals," Dr Gilchrist says. From birth to weaning weight is a really critical time. Calves fed through the drought survived and look good but they were sluggish in the feedlot."
"Energy is the key, Dr McGilchrist says. "It is important to set animals up to meet the market by weighing more at an earlier age so they deposit fat - like at a feedlot but on grass."
As a bench-mark, pasture with 10.5-12 megajoules of energy and 14pc protein should deliver 1.5kg a day of growth in cattle.
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