“I really enjoy rearing calves,” Lachlan McLeod said, standing among a mob of groggy calves, their bellies swollen with fresh milk.
Just as well. The Calrossie dairy farmer has up to 250 in the shed at once during spring and another 50 in autumn.
Rearing and selling dairy-beef is part of a diversification strategy that pays off most years and which, Mr McLeod says, had “saved us a few times”.
The decision to diversify came after Mr McLeod and his wife, Vicki, began breeding a three-way Montbéliarde, Holstein and Swedish red crossbreeding program for their herd of 340 milkers about 15 years ago.
The McLeods’ breeding regime involves a synchronisation program with five weeks of artificial insemination that is mopped up with natural black Angus bulls.
Crossbreeding has slowly improved their empty rate from 18 per cent to 10-12pc, which Mr McLeod puts down partly to greater body condition – something which also brings benefits at the saleyards.
Mr McLeod rears all the dairy steers and Angus crossbreds alongside his replacement dairy heifers on milk and grain before weaning at around seven weeks.
Feeding the young calves might sound labour-intensive but Mr McLeod has developed a well-oiled routine to keep it as simple as possible.
“Yes, you need good calf rearing facilities but I can rear them all on my own,” he said.
“I have a 50-teat feeder on the telehandler and put that down in front of a group of 40 at a time.
“When they’re finished, I just move it on to the next group, so there are no buckets to fill or anything like that.”
Weaners are reared on leased land, generally until they are sold as 18-month-olds weighing about 300 kilograms, although they are sold younger in tough seasonal conditions.
“We were lucky that the opportunity to lease country came up at about the same time as we began crossbreeding,” Mr McLeod said.
“It’s a way to value-add without outlaying extra money.
“The first few years, beef prices were pretty ordinary but, three years ago, prices doubled overnight.
“Our best results have been $1200 for an 18-month-old Monty but they’ve been as low as $700.
“It just depends on the market.”
Asked whether he had ever regretted the decision to rear dairy-beef cattle, Mr McLeod chuckled.
“I’m regretting this year,” he said.
“We’ve had to buy in hay, they’re in poorer condition and it’s a poor market.
“We’ve sold the big ones already and kept about 200 calves.
“I’m just optimistic that once the drought breaks they will be worth a lot more.
“Yes, there have been a couple of tough years but they would’ve been tough whatever you did.”
Mr McLeod said the dairy-beef rearing element of his business brought added confidence.
“It increases our ability to get through the ups and downs of dairy and flatten our cashflow,” he said.
“When we need extra cash, we know we have steers to sell.”
Bringing added diversity to the McLeod business is a herd of 100 Angus-Friesian-cross cows that are joined to Wagyu, whose progeny are sold at 16 months of age, weighing about 350kg.
“The Wagyu is quite lucrative but limited in scale,” Mr McLeod said.
“We don’t want too much exposure to any one market.”
Mr McLeod described rearing dairy-beef cattle as a “partial solution” to the bobby calf challenge facing the dairy industry.
“There has to be a market for all these cattle at the other end,” he said.
“People have to be prepared to raise all these calves and have the resources to do it.
“This whole thing only works because we can lease country.
“You don’t have to milk dual purpose breeds, either – you can be successful with dairy steers but it all goes in cycles.
“I was at the market last week looking at Friesian steers selling for $200 that would cost a lot more to rear.
“I feel sorry for producers who have hung onto them hoping it will be profitable but the cycle will turn and the dairy export job will come good again, too.”
Source: Farm Online