THE CLIMATE KELPIE BLOG: When it comes to rainfall – all bets are off

Posted by BCG on 12th September 2019

There are pretty long odds on keeping cattle productive when the northern wet season fails to deliver. But Queensland cattle producer, Ian MacGibbon, has a strategy to meet that challenge head on.

“You don’t make money speculating on rainfall,” he says, “managing risk by managing costs is vital.”

Image 1. Ian MacGibbon.

His 13,700-hectare property is spread between St Lawrence and Marlborough in the Fitzroy region taking in both coastal land and river country.

“We typically get floods every two years in the river country; we’re prepared and expect to have to replace fences. But in 2017 Cyclone Debbie caused unprecedented damage on our coastal land. We lost cattle when the water rose so fast that even piles of big rocks were moved 500 metres from the creek banks.”

Image 2: Cycle Debbie caused unprecedented damage.

Throughout the year Ian carefully monitors seasonal rainfall and adapts his business with a focus on maintaining profitability.

Key strategies include managing stock numbers to protect ground cover, an increased focus on rotational grazing to improve grass composition and adjusting the joining time to maximise cow condition.

Keeping pastures productive

When the 2018-19 wet season yielded only 50 to 60 per cent of the usual rainfall, Ian made the decision to reduce stock numbers substantially, selling down more than 900 head above normal annual sales.  Effectively cutting stock numbers from roughly 5,000 head down to 4,000 head. “In these coastal areas you cut your throat if you over graze, and the market was good” he says.

“Selling those cattle meant we had more grass in the paddock this winter than we had last year, while some in the area were buying in feed. It’s a long time if you have to feed till Christmas.”

Image 3. Ian’s mantra is to protect his ground cover.

Ian’s mantra is to protect his ground cover allowing him to take full advantage of any water captured, “My goal is to make sure our grass is ready in one or two rain events. You need to make the water work for you.”

“Around 10 years ago we started experimenting with rotational grazing, dividing a couple of our 1,200-hectare paddocks into four, with the aim of spelling on an ad-hoc basis over the wet season.” The results were spectacular with dramatic improvements in the grass composition, particularly with the regeneration of native grasses and stylos that perform better in dry conditions.

Image 4. Ian has found dividing paddocks to practice rotational grazing has led to a spectacular improvement in grass competition.

In the last few years, Ian has taken it a step further and cut his paddock size again. Those 1,200-hectare paddocks have now been cut into six, around 200 to 250 ha. Cattle are grazed in one while the other five spell.

Monitoring rainfall has also motivated Ian to pushed joining back to 1 December. “We used to join from 1 November, but we found that the feed was running a bit behind and that meant a lower calving percentage. Cattle condition can deteriorate over the winter, so we need to wean early and maximise condition before joining.”

This matches the local ‘green day’ of 1 December for St Lawrence – the date by which 30 mm of rainfall is expected within a three-day period.

Managing risk

Overall, Ian’s approach to dealing with climate variability is about maintaining income while reducing risk. He believes “You make your money when the chips are in your favour. When everything is running well, go hard. When things don’t run your way, focus on your business and costs, not on speculating.”

Minimising costs is an important part of this approach and is reflected in his choice of cattle, “While the high-content Brahmans don’t attract a premium they suit this country well. Breeds that do attract a premium price cost more to run, and sometimes struggle to survive. We don’t operate meanly, but do focus on keeping costs down. We want to get the most bang for our buck.”

Image 5. Ian uses high-content Brahmans for coat and resilience.

This desire to spread risk led to him to diversify into sugar cane, purchasing a 280-hectare property at Millaroo in the Burdekin. “I like the certainty that comes with irrigation.”

While Ian oversees the management of both properties, his physical work is focused on the grazing business with the cane business (500 kilometres north) run by a manager.

Keeping track of the rain

In the grazing business, Ian compares his 12-month rolling rainfall total from his own records to local averages to plan his stocking rates. In the last two years he’s only had five-eighths of average rainfall, which means he’s only willing to hold five-eighths of his potential cattle numbers. He also uses the CliMate app to keep track of where he is compared to seasonal averages.

Currently, Ian does not believe the longer-term forecasts are reliable enough to make decisions about purchasing cattle on the strength of a seasonal forecast. “I don’t bet on future rain. It is better to buy cattle once the rain is in the ground.”

In the cane business, he uses the Bureau of Meteorology short-term weather forecasts to plan activities such as planting or spraying, and to schedule water. “The forecasts help us to get the work done in one go and not be interrupted by rain.”

The next project on the agenda is to improve grass budgeting techniques to help with planning for nutritional requirements from the end of April through to the start of the wet season.

For Ian, going with the short odds has allowed him to maintain a profitable business. “The forecasts need to get a whole lot better before we’re willing to bet the farm on predicted rainfall.”

Learn more about Ian’s approach by reading his Climate Champion profile from 2015.

Contact

Ian MacGibbon, 0447 569 284, ametdale@bigpond.com