Weaning Cattle – Autumn 2022

Last year we weaned our calves late, and kept them over winter due to the exceptional season we were having. We made it work, partly because of the abundance of feed, and partly because we were rebuilding our numbers to around 15 breeding cows (https://rockfarming.com/2021/06/06/weaning-on-the-rock-farm/).

This year we have chosen a slightly different tact. We have decided to wean our calves before winter, to reduce the nutrition requirements for the cows, and to reduce the pressure on our pastures. The final stimulus however came when I saw there was a special weaner sale upcoming at our local sale yards – which spurned us to action.

Always eager to continue to improve our weaning system, I consulted a couple of wiser and more experienced heads than mine. John explained that he taught the calves to eat hay, buy first putting them in the yards with their mothers. The cows feed from the hay and teach the calves to eat it too. My other mentor Mac explained that the fences have to keep the calves from getting back to their mothers. They don’t have to stop the cows getting back to their calves!

We brought all the cattle into the yards, and spent a couple of days feeding them. The cows who were with us during the drought remembered the sound of the tractor (Pavlov could just as easily have done his conditioning experiments with hungry cattle!). We gave them access to a small paddock adjoining the yards giving them plenty of space to spread out.

A couple of days later we drafted the cows back to another adjoining paddock / lane where they could feed, but come back and visit the calves when they desired. The weaners all then got the latest fashion accessory (a beautiful white NLIS ear-tag). This RFD chipped tag allows the animals and their meat products to be traced back to the Rock Farm. This helps ensure Australian Beef is internationally recognised as being fully traceable throughout the entire supply chain.

The first few hours of separation saw calves and cows happily feeding, however by evening time, the udders filled. The cows returned to the yards and bellowed at the calves, and the calves bellowed at their mothers. This process repeated morning and night for around a week or so, but the intensity reduced quickly – and I felt it didn’t take long for me to feel that the cows were more interested in the hay I was delivering and not the calves!

The hardest part then came in choosing which weaners get on the truck and go to sale. In the end we sold all seven of the steers, and four of the heifers. The steers averaged 290kg, which was a great result considering they were only 7 months old or so. We kept four heifers, bringing our total head on the Rock Farm to 20. Our present holding comprises of 15 cows, 1 maiden heifer due to calve this spring, and our latest 4 weaner heifers.

We will reassess our stock holdings in Spring, but will be likely to sell some cow and calf units before next Summer. It all depends on rainfall, which is our largest determinant of carrying capacity (despite what the fertiliser company tells me). Whilst I love our cattle, I am also very conscious of being a custodian of the soil, and I need to put the need of the soil first. Healthy soil will lead to healthy cattle.

Special thanks to John and Mac for the advice, and a shout out to Jimmy and Kylie who loaded and trucked our weaners to the sale yards in my absence.

Support for total newbies on small farms

Recently many people have chosen to leave the cities and move to the country. The ‘tree change’ phenomenon is nothing new, and many people relish the new lifestyle and opportunities that come from moving to acreage. For some, it is returning to their roots, however for many it is a new experience living on acres. They quickly find that there is so much more to it than ‘buying a few sheep to keep the grass down’. It can feel confusing and overwhelming, but it is great to know that there is support available for newbies.

The most important thing to understand is your ‘why?’. If you are able to understand why you want to live on acres and what you want to achieve on your block, then you are half way there.

If you haven’t yet made the decision to move out to acres, you may like my previous posts about some of the benefits and drawbacks of living on a hobby farm. Whilst my kids have grown since these posts, the issues haven’t changed – except perhaps fuel now takes up an even larger part of our budget. If you have already moved to acres, you may find some of the following information useful.

Firstly there is nothing wrong with being a total newbie. Nearly all of us have been there, and can remember how it felt the first time we realised that small farms doesn’t necessarily mean small problems…

What support is available?

Neighbours are a great source of information. They may have years of experience living in the area, or may be newbies like you. If you’re able to establish and maintain good relationships with your neighbours, it will help you feel comfortable in your new home – especially in times of crisis. It is worth investing in building this relationship – and you might find you share ideas, knowledge, labour, equipment and friendship.

Local Land Services is a NSW government agency, funded through landholder’s rates. Their aim is to help people make better decisions about the land they manage, to ensure profitable and sustainable rural and regional communities. I have found them to be a wealth of knowledge, with some great resources available online and through workshops. The LLS information is easy to digest and applicable for the largest landowners down to small hobby farms. (Edit: A great guide specifically for small land owners that I found particularly useful is the Rural Living Handbook available here: https://www.lls.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0007/1147804/Rural-Living-Handbook-2020.pdf)

Specifically the LLS provide help and advice dealing with:

  • Livestock health and production
  • Biosecurity
  • Pests, weeds and diseases
  • Emergencies such as natural disasters
  • Native vegetation

Each LLS region publish a quarterly newsletter with relevant local information and workshops. Through a LLS program, I arranged for free soil tests, and am currently half way through a two day workshop on how to interpret my soil test results and what they mean.

Small Farm Networks is a network of small farm landowners and provides advice and support for people who live on or manage rural and -peri-urban land for primary production, biodiversity or lifestyle goals. They host a number of really useful workshops and webinars, from preparing your property for bushfire threat, to grass identification field days. What I really like about their program is that it particularly relevant for people like us who only have small herds of animals. I also find they host some really innovative and interesting guests. A lot of the presentations are now held online via zoom, and this flexibility has allowed me to attend far more meetings that I could previously.

Another great community organisation is Landcare. Landcare aims to demonstrate best practices that improve soil and water health whilst maintaining of increasing biodiversity. There are many local groups around Australia who can provide advise and support. Our local chapter hosts regular meetings dealing with topics ranging from invasive weeds to salinity. I have always found the guest speakers informative and engaging.

Sustainable Farms is an initiative of the Australian National University (ANU). This organisation employs a team of ecologists who conduct long-term biodiversity surveys on farms to understand the role of natural assets. I recently attended a field day about enhancing farm dams for biodiversity and water quality outcomes near Goulburn. Hosted by Landcare in conjunction with Sustainable Farms I found the day inspiring, with practical solutions that improve outcomes for farm production and biodiversity outcomes.

Greening Australia is a non for profit organisation committed to restoring Australia’s diverse landscapes and protecting biodiversity and ways that benefit communities, economies and nature. We have found them to be extremely supportive of our attempts to improve biodiversity outcomes through various programs, most recently with the donation of tube-stock to stabilise our creek banks and improve water quality – see my post here.

Each town or village has a range of other community groups and associations. Our village has a population of just over 1000 people in the 2016 census, however proudly supports over 30 community groups. From the Film Society that screens movies monthly in the village hall, to the Men’s Shed, Historical Society and various sporting teams, each group represents an opportunity to meet other people in the area. We are exceptionally proud of our community, but I know our village is not unique. All across Australia each town and village has networks of people who are proud of their community and the people in it. Being involved in these groups encourages me to associate with people from different walks of life. Their perspectives provide a fresh lens to view my situation and I welcome the new ideas.

One group that has developed is an informal group of around 50 landowners in our area interested in Regenerative Land Management. Social media allows us to share ideas and organise visits at each other’s properties. We were humbled to host the group recently at the Rock Farm. We had some great conversations and this has led to us harnessing some other skill sets within to group to help us develop farm plans.

What I have learnt is that some of the best ideas come from people who are unshackled by convention and follow their passion. By reaching out to as many groups as you can, you will find the support you need to help you achieve your goals. Don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions. Take what resonates with your ‘why’. It is a glorious wonderful journey and you won’t regret it for a moment.