Prolonged drought conditions are impacting cow fertility in herds throughout Victoria, raising concerns about future cattle supply.
Tim Faithfull, who is based at Calulu, near Bairnsdale, pregnancy tests about 30,000 cows each year in eastern Victoria and Gippsland.
After almost 20 years in the job, Mr Faithfull said scanning results were at unprecedented low levels.
“Some have been really bad, especially where it’s dry in East Gippsland,” he said.
He has seen rates in herds as low as 40 per cent scanned pregnant this year, and he said it hadn’t been uncommon to see only half the cows successfully in-calf.
On average, most producers’ scanned in-calf rates were down by 15-20pc on their long-term average.
He said it hadn’t all been bad, with some farms bucking the trend, and scanning at their usual 90-95pc, particularly in areas not as badly impacted by the drought.
Those able to afford feed to maintain nutrition in their cow herd had also fared better than those who couldn’t afford it, but these producers were hard to come by, Mr Faithfull said.
“A lot of people looked after their second-calvers, because they’re normally the hardest to get in-calf. If they were fed early enough, they got good results,” he said.
He said some producers used the low fertility levels as a herd culling barometer.
He said some sold all the empties, some sold a percentage of the empties, some sold empties and bought pregnancy-tested-in-calf heifers, and some attempted to re-join empties.
“One person at Ensay didn’t get great results, but chucked a bull out again straight away and nearly all got in-calf,” he said.
Cattle and sheep producer Stephen O’Brien, who has properties at Swifts Creek and Tambo Crossing, only had a third of his cows scanned in-calf when he pregnancy tested early last year.
“Normally I’m ruthless with empties, anything that’s not in-calf goes, but we pregnancy tested 230 cows, and we can’t just go and get rid of 160 cows, we’d have nothing left,” he said.
He said the real financial stress will come next financial year, when he sells a significantly less than normal amount of 12 month-old calves.
He pregnancy tests his current lot of cows next month.
From previous drought experiences, Newcomen Hereford stud principal Barry Newcomen, Ensay, realised the importance of feeding during dry seasons.
While the feed bills were substantial, his cow herd scanned at 90pc in-calf.
“If you feed your cattle properly… even though the cattle mightn’t get fat, they’ll still cycle,” Mr Newcomen said.
“Considering the season, and it’s been a terrible year, that’s alright.”
A high level of destocking saw the national herd decline 2.5pc year-on-year, to an estimated 27.3 million head in June 2018, according to Meat & Livestock Australia.
As a result of increased slaughter, MLA has predicted the national herd will decrease a further 3.8pc to 26.2 million head by mid-2019.
Radfords managing director Rob Radford, Warragul, said the impact of declining herd numbers and concerning fertility rates throughout Victoria would be felt across all of the supply chain.
“There’s no winners in drought; we went through this about three years ago, when there was record low cattle after the drought four to five years ago,” Mr Radford said.
“I’m not saying prices will get to the level they did then, but there’ll be a huge impact.”
He said he will be relying on supplementary-fed cattle out of feedlots.
“With grain prices the way they are, guys custom feeding will need to cover their costs when selling to processors, and then we have to pass those costs onto retailers, who will have to pass them onto consumers,” he said.
He anticipates supply to be hardest hit at Easter.