Grazing boost through better weaning strategy

In their quest for better pastures, Arcadia Valley graziers Matthew and Maryellen Peart have changed how they go about weaning.

The Pearts, who wean 400-500 calves in their certified EU-organic beef operation at “Bundaleer”, 90 km north of Injune, began time-controlled grazing in the late 1990s to address pasture decline.

These days, Matthew Peart said, “instead of growing grass for cattle, we run cattle for grass”.

That philosophy has served them well. Stocking rates have increased from 22 stock days per hectare per 100 mm of rainfall to 36-37 stock days/ha/100mm; while groundcover, once decreasing, now stands at close to 100 per cent.

Graduates of the RCS and Holistic Management schools, the Pearts credit this turnaround to successfully managing the short graze/long rest principles the schools’ teach.

The concept means concentrating as many cattle as possible onto small areas for a short time, so that grass not eaten is trampled to mulch and soil disturbance encourages fresh plant recruitment.

For the Pearts, that has meant creating 70 paddocks out of their original 16, so that stock densities have risen from 0.25 animals per hectare most of the time, to 40-100 animals/ha (sometimes up to 250 animals/ha) for very short, intensive grazing periods.

QCL 2012It has also meant that their ideas about weaning had to change.

To maximise grazing densities, the Pearts bundled all their cattle into one mob. Traditional weaning methods mean splitting the mob and diluting grazing pressure, so in 2002 they turned instead to Easywean nose rings.

The spiked Easywean rings inhibit a calf’s ability to suckle its mother.

The rings ensure a calf is weaned from milk, taking the pressure off its dam “so that it can get on with its next pregnancy”. But because cows and calves remain in the same mob, the maternal link – a link as strong between cattle as it is between people – remains intact.

“It takes the madness out of weaning,” said Mr Peart, who now recognises several generations of females in some family groups.

He considers the main attribute of the Easywean system is the ability to keep the mob together. However, there are other benefits.

Putting in and later removing up to 640 rings, as he has in some years, “doesn’t happen before breakfast”, but can be done in a day.

By contrast traditional yard weaning involves many days work, productivity loss from stressed cattle, and often additional costs from feeding and damaged infrastructure.

Those costs are eliminated with the rings, which present an up-front cost, but can be used many times over. Mr Peart is still using some of the rings he bought in 2002, which will eventually have to be discarded only because the spikes have worn smooth.

No system is foolproof, and nor is Easywean.

Certain cows – Mr Peart identifies these tend to be empty cows in particular – have maternal instincts that outweight the discomfort they get from the rings, so the calf keeps suckling.

Mr Peart said the percentage of such incidents is small, and cows will naturally wean their calves over time.

But to capture these “non-conformers”, he will this year divide the weaners from the mothers with a ‘through the fence’ separation for a short period after the rings are removed.

Because they can still associate with each other across the fence, this method lacks the stress of conventional weaning.

A very small percentage of rings are lost during the 6-8 weeks that the Pearts leave the rings in, “but not enough to outweigh the benefits”.

He has never seen a calf entangled in fences or vegetation by a ring.

“At the end of the weaning, 90-plus percent of our calves have been converted to grass-eaters, while they still run with their Mum,” Mr Peart said.

“We find them a really valuable tool to help us grow grass and the legumes we’re testing. Instead of worrying about broken fences, we can stay focused on maintaining groundcover and plant density, and that ultimately means more beef.”