A pasture improvement program is taking Gostwyck Station to the next level in its grazing enterprise, lifting stocking rates and productivity.
The seventh-generation family-owned farm near Uralla has a long history in merino wool production – all the way back to 1834 – but a thoroughly modern management system.
Dan Baker has been managing Gostwyck Station for seven years, taking up the challenge to implement a new sustainable grazing management system designed to lift productivity.
Merino sheep are still the mainstay of the enterprise with 7,000 ewes on 2,600 hectares, but cattle have become an important part of the business as well. “We run a very intensive rotational grazing system with a 500 hectare cell grazing operation and 1,500 hectares of ‘techno’ grazing which utilises electric fencing,” Mr Baker said.
He described the techno grazing system as a set of six long laneways that the stock move along section by section, grazing each area for three or four days. Each system covers around 10 hectares and supports a mob of about 500 dry sheep equivalents (DSE).
“They virtually zig zag up and back these lanes and once they finish the system there’s a laneway in front and they go back up to the start,” he said. “Intensive rotational grazing has really lifted pasture utilisation here quite a lot,” he said. “It’s because the stock don’t end up just sitting at one end of the paddock, they’re actually utilising the whole area and when they move out the pasture is clean grazed for better regrowth potential.”
With their initial goal of increasing stocking rates by 30% already met through the change in grazing practices, the next step was to improve the quality of the pastures.
“We got the results we wanted out of the grazing system, but to go further we had to improve the pasture and grow more feed to graze,” he said. “We established our first improved pastures in 2018 and now we’re embarking on a pasture improvement program of between 200 and 250 hectares a year.
“Our new objective is to lift carrying capacity by another 30%.”
Gostwyck Station’s first new pasture was a mix based on Hummer tall fescue, along with prairie grass, plantain, chicory, phalaris and clover. Hummer is a summer-active tall fescue known for its high yields and persistence. “We chose Hummer because it responds well to moisture, producing a lot of high-quality feed over the spring and summer. It’s a good quality feed too, with a soft, fine stem and good palatable leaves,” he said.
“We wanted a spring and summer active pasture to make the most of our summer dominant rainfall pattern, and that’s working well so far. “In the first year, we had between 25 and 28 DSE/ha on those new pastures, which is quite good considering the farm average was about 10 DSE/ha.”
Mr Baker said the quality of the feed was very important, especially for the cattle side of the business. “Merinos can grow wool on maintenance feed, but cattle don’t do quite so well,” he said. “If you want your heifers to meet joining weight year in, year out, and your steers to make feeder weight as quickly as possible, you really need high quality pastures to drive that weight gain. “Our new pastures have much higher leaf to stem ratio, higher growth rates and higher feed quality – they’re our fattening paddocks.”
He said the Hummer pastures can support two mobs in spring, and even then, controlling pasture growth was a challenge. For example, they generally try to rest pastures for 90 days after grazing as a worm control measure for the sheep enterprise. “We can’t do that with some of our improved pastures because in spring within 90 days they’ve gone gangbusters,” he explained.
“To protect pasture quality and get the most out of them, we usually use the improved pastures for trade steers and yearling heifers, which we can generally re-graze in 21 days during the peak growing season. “We’re purely grazing based here, so feed budgeting is essential to making sure we’ve got enough feed in front of the stock and we’re keeping the pastures sustainably grazed.”
After the success of establishing new pastures in 2018, there was no chance to sow more in 2019 due to the drought. However, the new Hummer pasture rebounded very well, considering it was the driest year on record at Gostwyck Station.
“It went from a paddock that looked like it wouldn’t recover, to one with feed as good as you’d want to see within six weeks of the rain in January,” he said.
This resilience was a good sign considering the importance they place on pasture persistence. They are hoping the new pastures will not need to be replaced for 15 to 20 years. In May 2020, another Hummer-based pasture was established following a forage sorghum crop. This was ready for grazing by the start of November.
“The new pasture was magnificent this spring,” he said. “On one 60 hectare techno grazing system we are currently feeding 150 head of 300 kg heifers and steers and I think I’ll need to take more up there so they can get through it,” he said.
Another 220 hectares of Hummer pasture mix is planned for sowing next April, following a 2020 oat crop and a clean summer fallow. This will be sown with a new double disc machine and supported by a starter fertiliser. “The drought has put us a year behind, but we’re really ramping it up now,” he said. Another 250 hectares is going into oats next year for a 2022 pasture establishment to continue the program.