Growing profit from the ground up

White clover yields dual-purpose benefits

Case study: Rob and Eliza Tole
Location: Cressy, northern Midlands, Tasmania
Property size: 545ha
Average annual rainfall: 680mm plus irrigation
Soils: Heavy black cracking clay with banks running up to a light loam
Enterprises: Sheepmeat (lamb production and trading), summer and winter irrigated cropping

White clover brings dual benefits for northern Tasmanian farmer Rob Tole — a valuable seed crop followed by a high-productivity pasture for finishing lambs. (Photo: Catriona Nicholls)

Rob and Eliza Tole are excited about the recent addition of white clover to their mixed farming enterprise in the northern Midlands of Tasmania. Typical of Tasmanian farming systems, the Tole family juggles a range of enterprises across their irrigated and dryland operation.

Peas, poppies and potatoes form the basis of their irrigated summer crop options, with irrigated perennial ryegrass and clover, lucerne and white clover pastures, forage brassica crops forming the basis of spring and summer feed for their lamb finishing system. A combination of irrigated winter cereals and annual ryegrass mixes provide winter feed.

“We turn off lambs every month of the year, with a view to finishing more than 11,000 lambs annually,” Rob said. “So my aim is to produce as much dry matter as possible throughout the year.”

“We look at sourcing lambs at about 36 kg and finish them on brassicas during summer and late autumn, a winter wheat–annual ryegrass mix is used through winter, and lucerne or perennial ryegrass/clover pasture during spring and summer. We struggle to finish the lambs on the perennial ryegrass, so we were looking for another high-productivity perennial option in addition to the lucerne.

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We had actually tried white clover years ago for seed production, but it failed and we were scared off. But after talking with other farmers who were using it, we were confident enough to give it another run.

We already had 35ha of lucerne and we wanted to have a crack at the clover seed game — a dual purpose option makes sense. We went with a variety that promised high seed production and worried less about the dry matter production potential.

We put in 10ha of white clover for seed in a paddock that had been cropped for four years and it was really successful, yielding 1000kg/ha of cleaned seed per ha. The seed came off in late January and four weeks later we had a high-productivity pasture to finish our lambs on.

The white clover breeders seem to have ironed the bugs out and this time round we are thrilled with how it is going.

The first year the grazing options are limited and we focus on the seed production establishment and then harvest for seed and then we virtually have two years of high-quality lamb production. At this stage we will probably keep it under white clover for three years before putting it back into our cropping rotation.

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Our lucerne paddocks are confined to our more flood-prone areas and they are usually under pasture for five or six years before we clean them up with 12 months of cropping. In saying that, we have just pulled out a lucerne pasture after seven years, which will go into peas during early November.

By mid-February we will have harvested the peas and it will go back in to lucerne and the following spring it will be ready to start grazing again.

Although the country floods, the soils are free draining and the flood water is on and off again within 24 hours, so the lucerne doesn’t get wet feet for too long.

The key to our success with finishing lambs on lucerne is a weather-proof mineral supplement. Our country is low on magnesium, which affects nutrient absorption and growth rates. For years we used to make our own supplements with crushed dolomite, molasses, copper, cobalt and zinc and had a rough idea of the percentage of each one to include.

Over time as the enterprise mix changed to include more cropping the labour-intensive and the supplementation program fell by the wayside. But as market conditions have swung back around to favour sheepmeat we revisited supplements — we were also losing a significant number of lambs on our lucerne to red gut, which prompted us to look for solutions.

We have chosen to go with an ad-lib weatherproof mineral lick and our lamb losses on lucerne have dropped to 1% and we achieved increases in dressing percentages, which equate to more than $3/hd.

We tested all our lucerne, ryegrass and clover pastures and found the standard blend had all we required. Currently every lamb on the place has ad-lib access to the supplement, except when they are grazing fodder brassica crops (which don’t show as many mineral deficiencies). It nearly sent us broke in the beginning as the lambs just ate as much as they could get and the advice was to keep feeding, their intake will level out. Sure enough, as deficiencies were addressed the consumption rates reduced significantly and now their consumption is around 20 grams per day per head.

One of the success factors of this system is the simplicity and low labour required. We found a few surplus grain feeders, so we can tip a dozen bags in each feeder and that will last two weeks — making it a low intensity job. We can put large quantities out and it doesn’t go to slush or set like a brick after rain or irrigation.

The supplements cost about $1/hd average across the total lamb enterprise over a 12-month period. Not only are the lambs gaining weight faster and reaching target weight earlier, with the reduction in losses on lucerne and increased dressing % this alone is enough to pay for the supplementation.

Brassicas

Alongside the lucerne and white clover we are still looking for feed during mid to late autumn after our summer crops (peas, poppies or potatoes) are harvested — that is where the brassicas come in.

We’ve gone with the newer, faster-maturing varieties that are ready for grazing in five to six weeks (compared with 12–14 weeks for the traditional varieties).

When the brassicas are done we look to establish some sort of crop or a winter-wheat– annual ryegrass mix possibly followed by a spring crop. It is all about growing as much dry matter in the shortest period of time and turning kilograms of dry matter per hectare into kilograms of lamb per hectare.

The secret for high winter production is to have the wheat/ryegrass mix going in as soon as summer crops come off at the end of January — we have the drill following the harvester and get water back on the crop while we still have the heat and daylight to get it established. If we can achieve this we can have mouths on the paddock in five weeks.

If we are delayed to the third week in February it is then six and a half weeks — by the end of February it stretches out seven weeks after sowing before they are ready for grazing.

Perennial ryegrass

Although we can’t finish the lambs on our irrigated perennial ryegrass, it still has a place in our system for backgrounding.

These pastures are a mix of perennial ryegrass (12kg), red clover (4kg) and white clover(2kg) and we expect them to last for about three years. We have no problems establishing the clover in the mix, the key is keeping the ryegrass short enough to keep the clover competitive. Red clover is more erect so does well in with the ryegrass.

We bring the lambs in at about 35kg and we aim to get them to about 42kg on the ryegrass before finishing them to about 47–48kg on the clover, lucerne or brassicas.

We also have ryegrass on our dryland paddocks, which is predominantly for our ewes and can be in for much longer than the irrigated paddocks.

Pasture managementRobbie Tole _ ewes in winter copy

 

There is no hard or fast rule about grazing across our pasture base — lambs tend to be set stocked and are on the place for an average of about 12 weeks.

Ewes tend to move between the dryland and irrigated pasture paddocks and are set stocked once lambing starts.

There is no doubt that strip grazing or at least one or two cuts of hay or silage help keep lucerne productive. The past couple of years we have reverted to set stocking the lucerne and it shortens the life, but it comes down to time and management.

The lucerne paddocks can be difficult to manage because of floods and temporary fencing — you tend to be pulling up in case of floods, which just takes labour when we don’t seem to have it.

Our focus is to keep the pastures productive, so if the grass gets away I run the mower over it if there is too much I bale it and use it for roughage during winter.

We topdress our pastures with a mix of single super in the autumn and urea during spring. Corby grubs are a major management issue in our pastures —we spray regularly to keep them under control.

Extra energy through grain

All our lambs on lucerne, winter wheat annual ryegrass and perennial ryegrass have free access to barley, mixed in a product to restrict intake. Our aim is to get them to eat 150–200gms/day of grain without gorging themselves.

Grain is vital in terms of the speed of turn-over — especially on lucerne — it gives lambs that extra energy to grow fast. Lucerne is low energy and high protein — with the barley we are giving them a high-energy supplement. To the best of my knowledge we have not lost a lamb fed on the treated barley. It is both and insurance policy for lambs on grain and make managements easier — the same management for all the lambs — we just open the chutes in the feeder right up knowing the lambs are safe.

Feed budgeting

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We’ve just employed our advisor to carry out monthly pasture measurements, pop the data into a spreadsheet and I am juggling stock numbers accordingly. I used to do it on the back of the envelope but I wanted to quantify a lot more of my available feed to budget the lambs coming so I can be sure to grab opportunities when they arise.

I don’t think I am far off, but you look at the great pasture managers in New Zealand and they are really focused on feed budgeting — I think there is a lot we can learn from them. We’ll try it for 12 months and see how it goes — if I think it makes a difference we’ll probably get our own plate meter and start doing it ourselves.

System sustainability

Our business is about getting a sustainable mix between livestock and cropping. The pastures add a sustainable deep-rooted element to the system that supplies nitrogen and boost soil organic matter.

Our pastures and fodder crops are all about growing dry matter and being able to match lamb supply and market demand— about selecting the right species for the right paddocks and season and to fit in with the cropping program.

Rob and Eliza Tole Greenvale Pastoral
M: (Rob): 0407 818 252
E: greenpast@bigpond.com