CELL grazing and pasture planning has brought a marked improvement in the Hicks family's beef operation, the recent Grasslands Society conference heard.
Barry and Faye Hicks with sons Sean and Duane run a 200-head Hereford breeding program at Kergunyah in the State's North East.
Their 240-hectare property is divided into 50 paddocks, with cattle grazed in a 4ha paddock for 24 hours before being moved on.
Until recent years they ran their beef herd like most conventional farmers, with the herd eating out a large paddock before being moved.
However, their program changed when Mrs Hicks undertook a Feeding Pastures for Profit program with several dairy farmers from the area.
Mr Hicks said they were surrounded by many efficient dairy farmers who were using cell grazing, and they decided to give it a go.
"I used to talk to a lot of dairy farmers and we had a few discussions about why beef farmers weren't doing cell grazing," he said.
"We used to run about 180 cows and calves, now we have brought it up to 200 and we still have room to move."
The ability to increase stocking rates has come primarily from the improvement in pasture quality the new system has provided.
A key to improving the pastures has been the "second bite" rule.
Cell grazing over longer periods – upwards of a week – defeats the purpose, according to Mr Hicks.
"When cattle have been on a paddock for more than three days they start eating a second bite on the grass – that is what we try to avoid as it slows growth down," he said.
"Dairy farmers talk about only taking the grass down to a certain amount of centimetres but beef cattle eat it right to the ground.
"We experimented with moving the cattle earlier but found they leave clumps, rather than leaving more length on the grass.
"When they return to the paddock they then continue to leave the clumps and eat the new grass growing where it has been grazed to the ground."
Italian ryegrass has been the primary pasture sown, along with clover and phalaris, with the ryegrass sown each year for three years before being used for hay and silage and the paddock turned back to natural pastures.
Mr Hicks said the ryegrass had pushed their program along well but they were also seeing good results from natural pastures.
Fertilisers also play an important role in assisting pasture renovation and extending grazing periods.
In the summer cattle are spread out to ensure increased access to shade and after calves are weaned the cows move from cell grazing to strip grazing to limit weight gain before calving.
When the first autumn break arrives all the cattle return to cell grazing for the winter.
Mr Hicks said because of the richness of the grass when cell grazing, it was important to use 5-in-1 vaccinations and feed hay.
"We do that (vaccinate) about four times a year, we do it basically every time cattle are in the yard," he said.
"It is especially important just before the main flush of growth in winter (now) and the main spring flush (September).
"You also have got to feed a little bit of hay – we feed the 500-head herd two round bales a day when the grass has a lot of water in it, otherwise the grass goes straight through them.
"Another thing I have found is the cattle get unsettled and do a lot of walking until you feed them hay and then they become settled."
Hay feeding was one aspect of herd management that had become easier with cell grazing, Mr Hicks said.
With the entire mob in one area feeding time has reduced dramatically, as has the inspection of the cattle during calving.
Mr Hicks said having all the cattle together allowed him to split maiden and second calving heifers from the older cow mob and monitor them more closely.
"It can be harder to see a problem, however, and you have to be more observant because they are all together in one mob," he said.
When splitting the property into grazing cells, the Hicks began by only using single-wire electric fencing, establishing what areas worked best before erecting permanent fences.
"You really have to look at paddocks when you are dividing them up – they need somewhere to camp, trees for shade, an area with feed and the gate has got to be in the right place," Mr Hicks said.
"If you are ever going to split up a paddock, do it the day before when the cattle are elsewhere feeding, otherwise the cattle get will be disrupted and not adjust as well.
"You also have to be regimented with the time of day you move them – cattle get used to the routine and will sit by the gate instead of grazing if you don't stick to the regime."
- Full story in the Stock & Land August 8 edition.