Grazing Matcher helps farmers adopt drought resilient practices

Grazing Matcher participant Courtney Bombara with fellow participants.

Livestock producers are making better quality fodder and feed budgeting decisions thanks to the annual Grazing Matcher program.

The program kicked off almost seven years ago as a joint project of South West NRM and Western Beef Association. Now it also has support from Meat and Livestock Australia and the WA Government’s Healthy Estuaries Initiative, while South West NRM is now providing support as part of its South West WA Drought Hub role, funded by the Future Drought Fund.

The aim of the program is to help eight grazing enterprises per group per year adopt rotational grazing, conserve better quality fodder and make better feed decisions.

According to some of the 2023/24 participants… 

Courtenay Bombara

Courtenay Bombara manages 6,500 ewes on 2,500 hectares in Dinninup with her family. Grazing Matcher prompted her to cut hay for the first time, and demonstrated to her family the value of feed testing hay to optimise feed decisions.

“The hay was originally a barley crop/pasture but it was full of ryegrass so we decided to cut it for hay,” she said.

“The course taught us when to cut and the benefits of cutting early, so that was something we implemented and will continue. We learnt to do a dry matter test in the field before baling, and the feed test came back with NDF (Neutral Detergent Fibre) at 50% which was great (indicates good quality hay).”  

The program also highlighted for Courtenay the importance of condition-scoring animals to help assess the effectiveness of feed budgeting, especially in early summer when dry conditions cause a drop in the quality of pasture.

While Courtenay knew about condition scoring, the program prompted her to make it a bigger focus so that animals needed less supplementary feed over summer.

“I do all the feed budgeting on the farm but also work full time. So, even though I was familiar with condition scoring, because I’m not there every day, I now get our worker who has the DPIRD condition scoring app on her phone to score 20 animals for me every time she gets a mob of sheep in,” she said.

“This year when the pasture dries off, we will condition score just to make sure we’re feeding them enough. Normally we would wait until a bit later, by which point they’ve probably already lost weight.

“But now we will make sure they keep their weight from spring (unless too high condition) so we don’t have to put that weight back on with grain over the dry summer which is expensive.”

While rotating sheep can be tricky due to the risk of mismothering during lambing, Courtenay has seen the benefits it provides and plans to have a bigger focus on rotations where she can.

“The course highlighted the importance of rotating stock and how to improve pasture utilisation,” she said.

“We already had a grazing rotation but it wasn’t a planned rotation. Now the plan is, after marking the sheep, we’ll mob them up and start rotating.”

Luke Palmer

Another Grazing Matcher participant was Luke Palmer who took part in the program with his boss Dean Ryan from Quinninup.

Together, they manage 400 hectares, running both sheep and beef. Luke found the most valuable aspect of the program was understanding when to cut hay and silage, when to roll it and how to ration it properly.

These factors are critical to maximising the quality and digestibility of fodder, reducing the amount wasted by animals during feed-out and making it easier to maintain or gain weight over dry seasons and thus reducing livestock emissions.

“We normally cut later in the season, particularly the silage. It was actually quite a shock to hear how early they recommend cutting it,” he said.

While Luke was familiar with rotational grazing from his experience on other farms, Dean was a bit less familiar.

“The program was really good for him and me, because it showed him that I wasn’t just making it up.  So, it’s given him more confidence in what we’re doing,” Luke said.

However, Luke was still able to learn something knew when co-presenter Dan Parnell explained how to plan paddock rotations and how to drop paddocks out of the rotation for fodder when pasture growth rates exceed animal consumption.

“Dropping paddocks out of the rotation for hay or silage was when light bulbs started to go off in my brain, to drop paddocks when grass starts getting away from you.”

Looking at the differences in quality between hay and silage, and understanding the need for adequate roughage in the diet to avoid animal health issues was also useful.

“Dean wasn’t convinced that we needed to cut any hay, but because we have a lot of irrigation, it’s been beneficial to cut more hay to slow down their digestion.”

Like Courtenay, Luke was also prompted to focus more on condition scoring to assess the effectiveness of his feed program and plans to implement this before joining with rams and bulls.

“We did condition scoring for sheep and the cattle this year. That was something I’d known about but we hadn’t done formally,” he said.

Luke agreed that discussions on allocating feed were also valuable.

“The rationing side was really good as well. We feed out a grass-fed ration, so knowing when to feed that and balancing the carbohydrates (energy) and protein was great.”

Conclusion

The program has improved the efficiencies of these producers by helping them increase the quality of fodder they will have to feed over summer and other dry seasons. This will reduce wastage of feed and more easily meet the animal’s nutritional requirements over dry summers while maximising growth rates and reducing their livestock emissions.

They are better able to allocate feed by having fodder tested to understand its energy and protein value, and by understanding the higher nutritional requirements of some animals such as young growing animals and lactating cows. And they can check the effectiveness of feed budgeting programs by better use of condition scoring to assess whether animals are gaining or losing weight at critical times of the year.

The program addresses two South West WA Drought Hub priorities:

  • Information about feeding strategies, and
  • Best management practice for feed production that matches animal requirements while minimising emissions.

For more in-depth insights on outcomes of the Grazing Matcher program, visit the project page and look for the article series.

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