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Grazing Management

Tom Weckert

SNAPSHOT

Name:

Tom Weckert, “Valkyrie”

 

Location:

Orroroo, South Australia

 

Average Rainfall:

300mm

 

Enterprises:

Mixed cropping and livestock

 

Farm Area:

3000ha

 

Tom and Andrew Weckert own and operate a mixed cropping and livestock business with properties at Brinkworth and Orroroo. The property at Brinkworth is in a medium rainfall area with three quarters of the property cropped and the remainder is pasture for sheep and medic seed. The Orroroo property is a pastoral grazing block in a low rainfall (300mm) area. The Orroroo block was purchased in 2003 and had been set-stocked at relatively low stocking rates for a number of years. Prior to the late 1990’s, parts of the property had been cropped and all had been heavily grazed.

Cropping and over grazing led to soil erosion with a large loss of top soil in isolated areas leaving bare clay pans. The sub-soil is saline and the loss of top soil has increased the salinity at the soil surface resulting in bare areas.

Originally the property was made up of 7 large paddocks and a few small ones. Small mobs of sheep were set-stocked in these large paddocks, which only had single watering points, resulting in poor pasture utilisation and over-grazing around the watering points. After the purchase of more land the Weckerts began to slowly sub-divide the property as funds were available to enable rotational grazing. By 2012 most of the eastern part of the property had been fenced into smaller paddocks with watering points.

The 243ha “Centre” paddock was sub-divided in 2013into 5 paddocks of approximately 50 ha each, using 3,700 m of fencing. Four watering points were added by laying 2000 m of water pipe. In 2015, the Weckerts received funding though the Mid North Grasses Working Group Australian Government project and sub-divided “Middle” paddock (368ha) into three, fencing 3000 m along water ways ,laying 1,500 m of pipe and installing two new troughs.

Watering System

The Weckerts decided not to use central watering yards as they were concerned that this could lead to bare areas and increased risk of soil erosion around them. Instead they have installed watering points in each paddock, placing the troughs well into each paddock to make them as central as possible.

Remote Water Monitoring

As the home property is 130 km south at Brinkworth, travelling to the property to check troughs and tanks is very time consuming and expensive. After discussions with a local technology consultant, the Weckerts have set up four remote cameras that take digital images of the water troughs and emails them to their mobile phones. It is currently set up to take 5 images per day to ensure there is sufficient water and the troughs are clean. It has given the owners peace of mind knowing that the sheep have adequate clean water at all times. This technology requires mobile phone reception so its use might be limited in more remote pastoral areas.

Bare clay pans

There is a large area of bare clay pans spread across the property which is common on many pastoral blocks in the area. The previous owner had ripped some of these areas, which improved water infiltration and trapped seed, improving cover along the rip line (Figure 1).

The Weckerts harvest annual medic seed on their Brinkworth property and remove the medic vine before harvesting the seed. The vine is raked into rows and then baled. Previously it had been burnt but more recently it has been used to feed livestock. However in most years there is far more than is required and they began trucking the straw to the Orroroo block. Initially it was used to supplement pasture feed but they found the sheep did not readily eat the straw and so have begun spreading it onto the bare clay areas. This has proven very successful with medic and barley grass becoming established through and around the edges of the straw.

They also experimented with ripping the clay pan areas but this has not proven to be as successful as spreading straw, with very little germination of plants in the rip lines.

    

Figure 1: Highly saline bare clay area before being spread with medic straw, 2012. Note some growth along old rip lines.


Figure 2: Bare clay area in 2014 after being spread with medic straw in 2012

Figure 3: Centre Paddock 2012 with low levels of native grasses

Livestock

The Weckerts operate a first cross SAMM flock of 900 ewes bred from merino ewes at their Brinkworth property. The SAMM ewes are mated to Dorset rams to produce 2nd cross lambs. Each year another 250 first cross SAMM ewe lambs are mated and then trucked to Orroroo in mid-April. These are mated at 10 months of age to merino rams for ease of lambing. The stocking rate has increased over the last few years from 600 ewes in 2013 (0.42 DSE/ha) to the current 0.66 DSE/ha.

Implementation of Rotational Grazing

The Weckerts currently have 24 paddocks on the Orroroo block and when the last areas are sub-divided there will be a total of 30 paddocks. During summer and autumn, 3 mobs of 300 ewes are rotationally grazed in the smaller paddocks. They are grazed in each paddock for 2 to 3 weeks, depending on its size, with a rest period of 22 weeks. Ewes are pregnancy-tested at the end of April and split into three mobs (twins, singles and ewe hoggets) ready for lambing over winter. To reduce mis-mothering by disturbing the ewes during lambing, they are moved less frequently and could be in one paddock for up to 4 weeks.

The Weckerts emphasise they don’t have any strict rules on rotational grazing and resting paddocks because of the distance they live from the property. Their philosophy is that any rest is better than no rest.

Ideally they plan to rotate 1,100 ewes in 3 mobs across 30 paddocks with a grazing period of 3 weeks with a 27 week rest period. Other options were considered but this was thought to be the best and most efficient with greater stocking density and a reduced number of mobs to check and move.

Figure 4. Remote water monitoring camera

 

Figure 5. Four plain wire fence with droppers and spacers

Improved Grazing Efficiency

The move towards more intensive grazing with larger mobs of sheep and smaller paddocks has greatly improved grazing efficiency. The Weckerts are confident that they can increase the ewe numbers to between 1,100 and 1,200 compared to the 750, which had previously been run on the property.

The Weckerts also believe it is not always about running more ewes but having stock in better condition for sale and ewes fit and healthy to rear a lamb. This results in higher lambing percentages and higher sale prices.

A major problem with this grazing system is that the increasing number of kangaroos, now permanently located on the property graze pastures in the recovery phase. If numbers continue to increase this could have a significant impact on the recovery of pastures after grazing.

Economics

The total cost of setting up the rotational grazing system was approximately $25,837 (Table 1). Using a payback period of 5 years at an interest rate of 6% the cost will be $5,786/year. The current gross margin for their livestock enterprise is an average of $55/DSE. Therefore running an additional 105 DSE ($5,786 divided by $55) will be required to cover the cost. The Weckerts are confident they can stock an additional 350 ewes (600 DSE), which will mean the additional investment will be paid off more quickly.