Searching for answers

In Blog by Trent SiddhartaLeave a Comment

Earlier this decade, beef producer Tom Archer recognised “without really knowing why” that “Rexton” was in bad shape.

The 2400 ha Goondwindi property he and wife Antoinette were managing for his wife’s parents, John and Anne, had extensive areas of bare ground, poor pasture diversity and abundant woody weeds.

He went in search of answers in 2003 at one of Resource Consulting Services (RCS) Grazing for Profit schools, and found himself managing on an entirely new footing.

Since 2002, Goondiwindi has experienced the same weather cycles that have affected much of eastern Australia: big rain events followed by prolonged dry spells, allowing very little continuity in pasture growth between rains.

Nevertheless, Mr Archer said, he has now managed through these cycles for seven years and seen an encouraging improvement in pastures and the general resilience of the property despite the rough seasons.

“One of the important things about RCS education is that it teaches you to concentrate on those things over which you have control, both in your business and grazing management.

“That breeds confidence, which increases when you see that despite the problems, you can still make gains in some part of your business.”

The Archers followed up the Grazing For Profit course with RCS’s three-year Executive Link program, which puts producers on “boards” that peer-review each others businesses.

Executive Link encourages couples to recognize shared goals, as well as individual ones. “It means you end up rowing the same boat,” Mr Archer said.

That proved doubly important when succession saw the take over from the Lloyds as a separate entity.
Following a frequent path for an RCS graduate, he began to divide the property up into grazing cells to more efficiently match stocking rate to carrying capacity.

The property’s watering system needed a complete overhaul, allowing a direct investment into a system that supported time-controlled grazing without compromising any existing infrastructure.

Originally the primary goal of the business was to supply cattle to the Lloyd’s feedlot, so trading domestic and export feeder cattle has been a natural enterprise.

Trading cattle allows the Archers to more flexibility to cash in on a flush of feed after good rains, and just as quickly move cattle off when feed budgets start to edge toward the red.

Over seven years, the emphasis on resting pasture during its early growing phases and maintaining ground cover is moving “Rexton” away from the boom-bust cycles of its former state, despite the boom-bust nature of the seasons.

“Unfortunately, what we’ve mostly learned to do since working with RCS is to manage drought,” Mr Archer said. “But at least we’re now more comfortable with that, even if the bank balance isn’t quite so comfortable.”

He’s still waiting to see what the property is now capable of under a “normal” season, but he’s gratified by how it’s performing under less-than-ideal conditions.

“We can now take advantage of bigger rain events, and for longer,” he said. “We’re aiming for the maximum pasture response from every drop of rain we get. And we’re seeing progressive ecological recovery even in tough times.”

“When we came here the place had been overgrazed by sheep, and there was no Mitchell grass that I knew of. Now we’re seeing swards of it returning across the property.

“Overall, we’re seeing a move to a much more diverse range of plants, especially desirable grasses–and because there’s more of that, there are fewer weeds.”

Meanwhile, Mr Archer is exploring a much broader suite of management options than he once might have considered, thanks to the RCS emphasis on busting deep-rooted mental paradigms.

Ongoing education and open mindedness to new ideas, which are put through a thorough process of review, has seen the emergence of new strategies considered beneficial to the business.

The Archers have been using biodynamics on the property for the past three years, part of a multi-pronged quest to be running at 20 stock days per hectare per 100 millimetres of rain in the medium term, and 30-plus stock days per hectare per 100 millimeters in the longer term. Though some paddocks are achieving this level of production, this season they are short of that goal, Mr Archer said.

“But I don’t see any reason why we can’t get there on our current level of management. All we need is more favorable seasons on our side.”
Story and photo: Matthew Cawood, Rural Press