Central Queensland grazier Will Wilson is strategic when it comes to drought decision making - but it is not an approach that comes naturally to the fourth-generation beef producer.
Even after a lifetime grazing cattle at the family's property near Calliope, Qld, it wasn't until the severity of the last big drought in 2019, and the financial and environmental damage it caused, that the importance of clear thinking really hit home.
Mr Wilson, who runs Calliope Cattle Company, admits emotion-based decisions played far too big a role in the management of family's 13,000 head operation during previous dry periods.
"A cattle producer trying to be logical is sometimes difficult," he said.
"It's a hard thing to change... my thought pattern is always protect, protect, protect that breeding entity and don't undersell the background entity."
But when Mr Wilson held on too long during the last drought, the situation reached a crisis point, the likes of which he had not encountered before.
The company was taking heavy losses feeding 280kg weaners on custom feed to try to find an exit market.
"It's a pretty tough place to be in and it's an unfortunate place to be in," he said.
Having learnt the hard way, Mr Wilson said the business now had a better strategy in place in preparation for the next dry period.
Mr Wilson aims to take better advantage of good seasonal conditions by increasing the stocking rate by up to 20 per cent above his average carrying capacity, giving him a buffer that he can remove at first sign of drier times ahead, with larger scale destocking to follow if drought eventuates.
"It's an easier decision to sacrifice because the hard part when you go into the dry periods is the decision," he said.
"So we've already got identified animals to sacrifice coming into the next dry period, whenever that might be.
"Because our rainfall varies, our actual expectation can't be static. It's got to vary with it. And that's why our stocking density has got to be nimble enough to be able to take the ebbs and flows.
"And whether that's bringing in trade animals... which we've started to think about now, because once again, it makes that destocking decision so much quicker and so much easier than sacrificing the treasured breeders."
He said like many others in the industry, he has often found it difficult to pull away from the management styles of the past.
"You have to treat it like a business rather than a family heritage piece," he said.
"I do it all the time - fall into the trap of thinking 'we'll be right, we'll be right', but then you get a cold snap and no spring rain and you're like, 'oh, we're not right'."
He said decisions made too late could be extremely costly.
"When you ring the processor in November to get a kill space the next week, but they can't give you one for three months - that's where the disasters start unfolding," he said.
"But if you make an exit strategy for 50pc of the cows in June after they preg-test empty, then you can find the value."
Mr Wilson's frank insights have been incorporated into a new research project called Decide and Thrive, which aims to assist producers to make informed decisions about selection and culling during drought.
The project, being delivered by the University of New England, CQUniversity and CSIRO through funding from the Australian Government's Future Drought Fund began by gaining an understanding of producers' current decision-making and management strategies.
More than 30 in depth interviews were carried out with producers and advisors to assist technology developers and farm consultants in how best to offer support to industry to improve drought management strategies.
Mr Wilson said it was a fine balance that the industry was yet to master.
"The one thing that's very hard in this industry is to tell people in this industry how to do what they do," he said.
"So what you've got to do is create opportunities or a pathway that create an action."
Mr Wilson said guiding producers on how to access future opportunities with processors or supply chain partners before they need it, was a crucial part of providing drought decision-making support.
He said producers should also be supported in finding off-farm or alternative income streams to make drought decisions easier.
"I hate paying consultants, so I became one," he said.
"I partnered with someone that I knew and trusted as an expert in the space of cattle production and now he consults outwardly to other people and he and I are the main two people making decisions around cattle."
Mr Wilson said he also planned to start a land management company to capitalise on the opportunities arising through environmental stewardship.
"If you've got income coming from your environmental management that you can baseline your livelihood on, well then making the decision to sell the cows isn't such a tough decision because you're doing it to protect your environment," he said.
The ongoing Decide and Thrive project is working with agtech developers to keep stock selection tools simple to assist with deciding exactly which breeders to keep or cull when entering or exiting a drought.
The team has also developed communications and training tools for extension providers, farm consultants and the Commonwealth-funded Drought Resilience, Adoption and Innovation Hubs to assist in driving adoption by producers of objective stock selection tools and early decision making.
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