THE CLIMATE KELPIE BLOG: Climate forecasting drives a land-centred approach to cattle farming

Posted by BCG on 28th June 2019

When Gillian Sanbrook moved from the Riverina plains at Jerilderie to the Wymah Valley, in the South West Slopes of NSW, she expected to find reliable rainfall and plenty of cattle feed. But the area known for its 750mm annual average rainfall has been anything but cooperative. Since she arrived on the 990-hectare property, Bibbaringa, 12 years ago the seasons have been widely unpredictable ranging from 380mm to over 1000mm.

Image 1: Gillian Sanbrook’s mantra is 100 per cent ground cover, 100 per cent of the time. Source: The Australian (with permission).

The last few growing seasons have been particularly late with no real spring or autumn, meaning not much grass was produced before the cold winter. After some serious soul searching, Gillian realised she would need to take a more opportunistic approach to cattle farming, not dissimilar to the one she had left behind in the west.

In April 2016 she bit the bullet and sold her entire cattle herd. Since then she has focused on buying in around 500 head of steers or heifers and finishing them up over nine months or so, selling off at 500-550kg.

Forecasting climate and grass

Her approach relies on a blend of seasonal forecasting and a clear understanding of how much grass she has in the paddock.

Image 2: Steers in a phalaris paddock in August 2018. Planned rotational grazing protects ground cover and enables good growth from minimal rainfall. Source: Gillian Sanbrook

The bulk of her climate forecasting comes from the Bureau of Meteorology forecasts, their reports on the recent climate including the monthly reviews and regular webinars. Climate forecasts are also a hot topic amongst friends with some sharing information they get from forecasting subscription services. Gillian notes that, “When our friends in the Western Riverina are having a tough season it usually means we will too. I use all of these forecasts to make stocking decisions at the start of autumn and end of spring.”

Gillian uses her own spreadsheet system to manage livestock and paddock feed. Based on her knowledge of past performance and how much grass is on hand she can then forecast the carrying capacity of her land. The cattle are moved between the 60 plus paddocks every two to five days leaving the paddocks to rest for three to seven months, depending on the time of year.

In March-April 2019 she made the decision not to restock at all, “this year’s forecast was not good and there was not enough water in the dams.”

Looking after the land

It’s an unusual approach in a region where most graziers manage a herd to maintain and improve their own genetics. But Gillian sees others grazing their land back to the ground and watches the soil blow away over the summer. She has seen enough of that out west and wants to preserve her groundcover as top priority.

“My mantra is 100 per cent ground cover, 100 per cent of the time.”

“When I came here the land was badly degraded. My first step was to destock and wait for the groundcover to return. The second was to re-fence into numerous paddocks that enable planned rotational grazing.”

Image 3: Around 20 per cent of Bibbaringa, or 70,000 trees and shrubs, has been planted since 2007. Source: Gillian Sanbrook.

She also planted around 20 per cent of the land to trees, shrubs and native grasses, which as they have matured have become part of the grazing rotation.

“It has taken a long time, but I now have reliable groundcover and am rebuilding soil organic matter. In the last three to five years I’ve introduced contour banks to slow the flow of water across the property allowing more time for it to be absorbed. It’s a Holistic Management regenerative farming approach.”

“I know I am unusual here but I have my own Holistic Management support network through ‘8 families’. We meet every six weeks to share ideas, as well as learning from speakers and tours. I also facilitate three other farmer groups, helping them build their support networks.”

Image 4: Contour banks slow the flow of water across the property allowing more time for it to be absorbed. Source: Gillian Sanbrook.

A pragmatic approach to business

“Each year I make a decision about whether or not livestock will be profitable. Climate risk is an important part of that decision. If the season isn’t going to cooperate, I’ll invest my money somewhere else.”

Gillian is always looking for ways to differentiate her product to improve income. As a commodity it is difficult to set a price, but Gillian is trying to add value by producing grass-fed beef with no antibiotics or hormones. “I had a go at the EU market but at the moment there is no premium. The 8 families are about to partner with a mobile abattoir company, which will reduce costs, be better for the animals and hopefully provide a better route to market with full traceability.”

At Bibbaringa, Gillian has built a more diverse lifestyle where the land is the focus, rather than the livestock. “By looking after the land, I am in a much better position to look after the livestock. Some might consider it risky to sell out completely, but when conditions improve, I am the first one with grass so I’m buying livestock before prices go up.”

Image 5: Slowing the flow of water has enabled native vegetation, such as the phragmites, to re-establish without any intervention. Source: Border Mail (with permission).

While cattle are still the main source of income when they are on the property, Gillian focuses on other activities when they are absent. The shearer’s quarters have been converted into an Airbnb, which provides some income. Gillian has also become involved in an art program, Earth Canvas, that aims to showcase the agricultural landscape from the perspective of both the artist and the farmer.

“I came here seeking a less risky and stressful approach to agriculture. I didn’t find the reliable climate I was looking for, but my experience in the Riverina has given me better way to understand and work with climate variability.”

Links/Learn more about Gillian’s approach by reading her Climate Champion profile from 2016.

Watch Gillian’s videos on Managing landscape in variable climatic conditions and the importance of building a ground cover blanket for resilience.

Gillian Sanbrook, 0428 696 724, gillian@bibbaringa.com

Interview date: 3/4/2019