Drought Adaptation: Beef

Tim's time of calving takes the edge off drought conditions

Tim Bending manages 1,011 hectares in the Shire of Murray, including Coolup and Point Grey.

When we spoke to Tim in December, 2023 he was busy navigating his driest season in 23 years. By then he had already taken action by selling some older cows the previous month and before that, had joined cattle later than usual to try and time calving with expected early growth from his 200 hectares of perennial pastures – around April.

We caught up with Tim again in June, 2024 to see how the season played out and how he dealt with the continuing dry season, in which just 4mm of rain fell in the first four months of the year.

“It certainly helped by dropping the numbers in November,” he said.

“We already knew production was down by then. We sold all our older cows, which gets the herd younger, when they are in good condition and prices were still pretty high.

Tim said the aim of the exercise was to maintain groundcover and reduce supplementary feeding costs in difficult growing conditions.

“The big thing that helped us, from what I’ve seen in the area, was our calving date (now starts in mid April),” he said.

Tim said the difference between other people’s cattle and even his early calvers was noticeable.

“The early calvers are struggling,” he said.

“The later ones are holding really good condition, and they’re going to bounce back and re-join a lot easier.

“We dropped calving back because of the cost of maintaining cows when there’s no green feed around. “

Doing the numbers

Tim said what sometimes might seem like a gain in the shorter term, wasn’t necessarily ideal over the longer term and it was worth analysing the numbers.

“You might get heavier calves at the end if you go earlier, but when you work out the cost of maintaining that cow it just isn’t worth it. And when you look at the market, the heavier cattle are making more money right now, but in an average year the lighter the cattle the higher the cents per kilo,” he said.

“For the last 3 or 4 years we’ve been making nearly the same amount of money (dollars per head) for a smaller animal than people have been making for animals that are 50 to 100 kg heavier. And its cost them a lot more, so it doesn’t work out when you do the numbers.

Selecting the right time for joining coming off a dry season

“What’s going to be interesting this year is the joining rates,” he said.

“Our bulls go in, in the middle of July. The cows might not be fat (e.g. 2.5-3 score), but they’ll be on a rising plain of nutrition.”

So given the dry start, how did Tim’s perennial pastures stand up?

“There was earlier feed from the perennials (serradella, rhodes grass and panic),” he said.

“They start shooting up a leaf with the change in conditions so they’re ready to grow. We didn’t get rain from early October so the perennials dried up by December on this sandy country (Point Grey) off the flats.

“If we grazed them you would get a bit of growth but if you grazed it again before it got more rain it would affect the plant.  They do thin out if you’re hard on them. Managed right, they’ll survive.”

The start to 2024 was certainly a tough year in some places for perennials. Mark Thomas who farms at Oldbury, north of Tim, said his perennials failed in 2024, which he believed was due to the low water table that is monitored on his property by DPIRD, and has caused some trees in the region to die back this year.

But Tim still plans to sow more perennials, although he will look at seeding in August instead of September next time.

“When I plough sandy firebreaks, the soil under a patch of perennials is darker and that looks to be carbon build up – I’m sold on them,” Tim said.

“On my Coolup block on more clayey country I’ve gone in with winter active perennials, cocksfoot and fescue, phalaris, chicory, plantain. We did a few trials last year, which was the worst year to do it, but saw that chicory and tedera really hung on.

“You sacrifice a year to get perennials establishment, but it’s the long-term security you’re aiming for. If you can’t drop one paddock out you’re probably running too hard anyway.”

One concern with perennials is the lower production in spring compared to annual ryegrass. But Tim still keeps annuals in his system.

“It’s not going to be solely perennials,” he said.

If I clean up a paddock completely to get perennials established, once I was happy with establishment I would sow annuals into it, ryegrass and clovers. Or if you’ve got a good paddock of annuals, if you knock that out in spring to sow perennials, the annual seed base is there ready for the next winter and the annuals come back up.

“As long as you don’t overgraze the perennials and allow them to establish, they’re going to sit there and go dormant while the annuals kick off, and you’ve got that bit of roughage (from the perennials) with the annuals (in winter).

“If you went too heavy with things like panic that do get clumpy, you might struggle with spring production, but as soon as you get warmth here when you get most spring production these perennials come alive.

“The subtropicals might be a bit later, maybe in the second or third spring graze you will see them coming up.

“They recover quickly with first rains if it’s warm. If they’re looked after and managed well, there’s a huge amount of growth.

“People curse summer rain because it ruins your dry feed but if you’ve got perennials in the system then you’re winning. We don’t get a lot of summer rain, but if you can utilise it when you get it it’s so much better.”

  • This case study is supported by the SW WA Drought Hub, through funding from the Australian Government’s Future Drought Fund.
For more resources, articles and case studies on our work in the Drought Resilience space, click the button below.

We use cookies

Cookies help us deliver the best experience on our website. By using our website, you agree to the use of cookies. Find out how we use cookies.