A focus on fertility, temperament and growth is paying off for Gordon and Alexandra Dickinson, with their large-scale Angus breeding operation consistently producing an ideal feedlot steer.
Spanning three properties in Victoria and SA, the Dickinson's family-owned company comprises the 3800 hectares Nareen Station and neighbouring Barrama, at 3600ha, both near Coleraine, along with a 2000ha farm, Boyong, north of Robe.
The 2000-head Angus cow herd is the backbone of the Nareen Station and Barrama breeding program, run alongside a self-replacing flock of 24,000 Merino ewes, while all the calves are sent to Boyong to be grown out.
When the Dickinson family purchased Nareen Station more than 20 years ago, it was home to Hereford and Hereford/Simmental-cross cows. With the feedlot market firmly in their sights, the Dickinson's introduced Angus genetics and have gradually made the transition to a pure black herd. In 2019, the last of the Nareen-bred Hereford cows were sold.
"Our system was set up to sell feeder steers and there is definitely a price and demand difference with the Angus," Mr Dickinson said.
"We also wanted to move away from having to dehorn and the eye cancer rate was an issue.
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"But the frame and durability of the Herefords are good traits.
"If there is a risk in our change over to Angus, it is in maintaining frame and muscling, so we put significant selection pressure on heifers at classing for these traits."
Nareen Station are long-term clients of the Weeran Angus stud at Byaduk, Vic, and have more recently introduced genetics from the Foster family's Boonaroo stud, Corndale, Vic, and Stoney Point, Meningie, SA. They purchase about 15 bulls each year.
We are primarily a breeding business so we need self-replacing females that are healthy and fertile with sufficient milking ability to get an attractive weight calf weaned off at a relatively early age.
Mr Dickinson employs a strict criteria for his bull selection, using a combination of estimated breeding values (EBVs) and visual appraisal including structure, frame, feet and temperament.
"Temperament is a priority, we run a work force of up to 12 people, including young jackaroos and jillaroos, and we don't want any of them getting hurt," he said.
"Although it can be difficult to assess on sale day, we think we've identified studs that have the temperament under control.
"When looking at their EBVs, we are conscious of calving ease, a moderate birthweight, 400- and 600-day weights in the top 40pc and a mature cow weight that is moderate to slightly heavier to maintain size.
"As well as the EBVS being right, the bull needs to be in the top 30pc for body weight when compared with his peers on sale day."
The breeding program is split with half of the cows calving in spring and half in autumn.
A tight joining period of eight weeks is maintained for the cows, while the heifers are mated for six weeks, starting two weeks earlier than the cows, to give them extra recovery time before their next joining.
"A split calving makes it easier for us to spend more money on bulls to get the best genetics we can," he said.
"We've been able to reduce our per calf costs by nearly 50pc as the majority of bulls will work twice a year.
"It also means we have a consistent throughput of calves going to Boyong each year."
Current conception rates average about 90pc. Heifers are supervised during calving with their assistance levels steadily reducing to 5 to 8pc, while Mr Dickinson admits the cows don't receive any special management during calving.
Any empty cows or heifers at scanning or calf marking are culled.
"We are primarily a breeding business so we need self-replacing females that are healthy and fertile with sufficient milking ability to get an attractive weight calf weaned off at a relatively early age," Mr Dickinson said.
All the calves are yard-weaned on hay for 7 to 10 days before being trucked to Boyong.
The autumn-drop calves are weaned in October at eight months of age and arrive in Robe averaging about 300 kilograms.
As the feed quality and quantity starts to fall in late February, the spring-born calves are weaned at six months of age and sent to Boyong. They are generally lighter than the autumn calves, averaging 250kg.
On receival at Boyong, the weaning process continues. The calves are divided into their sexes, supplemented with silage and handled extensively through the yards.
They are also drafted into 20 to 30kg weight range categories so they can be managed accordingly.
The Dickinson family aim to turnoff the steers at 500kg by 16 to 17 months of age with the majority going to European Union-accredited feedlots owned by Thomas Foods International or Princess Royal at Burra, SA.
The autumn-drop calves are generally sold from June through to September, while the spring-born calves are marketed from November to January.
"The feedlot market suits our operation, Mr Dickinson said. "We are aiming to average 1kg/day weight gain from weaning to feedlot entry and we are achieving that quite comfortably.
"We could sell the top end of our calves very well at the weaner sales, but if we look at the result across the total drop of steers, the feeder market is more profitable for us."
The heifer weaners are classed at Boyong with a focus on temperament, frame size, body weight and structure.
About 200 heifers from the autumn-calvers and 200 head from the spring-calving herd are kept each year.
"We put a lot of selection pressure on the heifers as we only need to be joining the top half," Mr Dickinson said.
"We are looking for animals that can hold condition, get pregnant and successfully rear a calf.
"By taking the heifer calves to Boyong, away from the sheep and pregnant cows, we can have them 60 to 80kg heavier at the same age than if we just ran them at Nareen and Barrama."
The selected heifers are then joined to the new young sale bulls, pregnancy scanned and if in calf, trucked back to the breeding properties.
Any heifers not retained are sold to the feedlot market or as breeders.