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Careful precision in livestock management and the development of a feedlot system now means Andrew Hunter is able to market lambs on his own terms.

He’s been meticulous in developing his own farming operation at “Hills Park” south east of Yerong Creek in southern NSW since he and his wife Jane purchased the farmland from his family in the 1990s. The introduction of intensive feedlotting practices as the steady transition of his operation from a traditional mixed enterprise including broadacre cropping, cattle and sheep, to one that will eventually solely focus on the potential economical gains in marketing the sheep flocks, is a significant risk management tool.

He believes there’s a more consistent income in livestock – especially sheep, particularly with his landscape being one that has grown from 400ha to 1,200ha, and encompasses creeks, tree lines and hills. He also explains that the variation in soil types, from granites to prime red loams, has reduced the number of paddocks that can be cropped efficiently. Andrew and Jane, who have four children – Stuart, Sally, Ronan and Royce – are strongly experienced in business management, having owned and managed a livestock equipment company until it was sold last year to focus more on this property. This strong business knowledge now reflects the fiscal decisions made regarding farm management and structure.

On the morning of my visit to “Hills Park”, which is tucked away along a gravel road just off the Olympic Highway, Andrew has been weaning lambs in the sheep yards with his daughter Sally, who is spending a gap year working on the family property, and two veterinary science students, who are gaining hands-on experience.

He takes a break to explain the operations, including travelling around key paddocks and explaining how the feedlot has been structured.

It was eight years ago when Andrew first began using a basic feedlot system with grain to ensure reliable sheep numbers when chasing premium market contracts in the June/July period. “We initially used some lick feeders in a small paddock around one of the dams, but that was fraught with problems and it was painful getting the induction period right. Even feeding full grain rations with a few feed elements through a lick feeder, we weren’t achieving good results, and there always seemed to be health issues with the lambs,” he says.

“The real quantum move was five years ago when we bought a tub mixer, then set up the feedlot with quality water, and started using the services of (Delta Ag) veterinary consultant Dr Paul Cusack to calculate hay and grain rations.

“Since then it really has been like chalk and cheese. Last winter we inducted 2,000 lambs in one week and the lambs went right through the feedlot, we didn’t have to crutch one single lamb showing they are handling the rations, there was no scouring, and the weight gain and size of the lambs coming through has been really good.”

Not only has the enterprise been changing in the direction its operations is taking over the years, the current breeds of livestock also reflect the commitment Andrew has had in optimising returns and maintaining consistency and reliability in overall farm management. Andrew has been sourcing rams for his maternal composite flock from a Western Australian stud as he says the stud places more emphasis on carcass traits than most composite studs which have been more focused on maternal aspects of the breed.

This year, 4,100 ewes were joined and 5,500 lambs weaned, and in summer, Andrew’s expecting to join 4,700 ewes and wean 6,500 lambs, the numbers increasing significantly since he has been selling the last of his cattle herd in the past 12 months. “That’s one key observation I’ve made with the feedlotting as well. You’ve got to have the right genetics to do it. I don’t think you want too much Merino in your sheep to put into the feedlot, otherwise expenses will chew up any money gained from that… Once you start to spend money, you’ve got to be careful the return is there on the other side.”

The feedlot is situated at the top of a stony hill and has been divided into six pens so up to 3,000 head can be fed at any one time. “We try to keep everything as simple and cost-effective as possible, so good nutritional advice, getting the rations right, and ensuring we’ve got an economical product, along with good marketing support so you can pick your targets, they’re the real keys…” Andrew says the cast for age ewes or fat ewes are generally sent to market direct from the paddock.

Others that require condition can spend three to four weeks in the feedlot or are given grain in lick feeders while they are in lucerne paddocks to extend the lucerne. “The major thing we use the feedlot for is to ration out the paddock feed. “We really focus on getting enough weight on while they’re on grass before we use the feedlot because taking the lambs through from a 30kg live weight to a 65kg live weight you’d struggle to be economical. We know the daily costs of feeding the lambs this way which I believe is absolutely necessary to know whether it is worthwhile to feed. “(The feedlot) is something we definitely use sparingly and as part of our risk management strategy.

There’s no doubting the most economical lambs are the ones we can sell off the mother. We use bins for feeding so when the lambs are on their full ration they need feed twice a week.” Andrew is selective over the marketing of livestock to also maximise profit. “Once you start to spend money on feeding lambs, it makes sense to know the return will be there at the end. We like to forward price a percentage of our lambs so we aren’t subject to the uncertainty of the spot price at auction. If you take a dress weight contract at the time, you know where you stand and I think it makes more business sense, although last year was an exception. We didn’t lock any lambs in as they seemed low. It turned out there was a big upside in the market,” Andrew explains. “For the past five years, (apart from last year) we took out contracts in February/March for a June/July delivery. We typically like to target export lambs and the composite sheep we treat like cattle. We like to maximise income rather than domestic trade lambs which are driven by the market. Because there weren’t any appealing contracts on offer last year, we sold about 80 per cent of lambs through the Wagga saleyards, the other 20 per cent to export, or to supermarkets.” No doubt proving that forward planning for a more consistent approach coupled with significant risk minimisation strategies can be the key to unlocking a more reliable and profitable return.

A formulated approach With no market differentiation between grass or grain fed lamb, there’s a new wave of activity surrounding lamb feedlots, according to Dr Paul Cusack of Australian Livestock Production Services. He believes that whilst it is primarily an opportunistic or seasonal business, the relatively low capital requirements in introducing feedlots allows more flexibility in stocking rates and utilising an entire property. He works with livestock producers across NSW, Victoria, South Australia and into Queensland, to tailor feedlot diets to individual operations.

“I use a least cost formulation approach to a high specification diet. It’s high in energy and high in protein density while using available feed,” Dr Cusack explains.

“Because we’re chasing energy density and we have a lot of rapidly fermentable starch in the diets of Andrew Hunter’s lambs (for example), we use rumen modifiers so we don’t cause rumen upset, and through that we dramatically improve the efficiency of rumen fermentation which gives us a low feed conversion ratio and a high growth rate.”

Dr Cusack says it’s important with lambs to ensure that the macro minerals are balanced to prevent issues with urinary stones, and he explains that certain breeds will perform better in feedlot systems under the same diet.

“The traditional second cross lamb is the best performing lamb in a feedlot. We can achieve reasonable, but not as high, performance out of Merinos, while browsers, such as Dorpers, are quite a challenge to feed in a feedlot because of their preference for a diet relatively high in roughage - we provide them with higher roughage diets to get them to eat.”

Dr Cusack also adds that it’s imperative the lambs are vaccinated on induction into the feedlot to stop causes of sudden death, such as pulpy kidney, which are likely to occur when a rapidly fermented diet is commenced, and a knock-down drench to rid the lambs of worms.

“Other organisations may advocate a lot of other injections when lambs enter the feedlot, but the pre-mix that I put together includes the trace elements and vitamins the lambs require, so provided they go onto the feed well, there’s no point in jabbing them when you’re providing them with the trace elements and vitamins anyway.”

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