WITH only and small property and herd, quality is key for King Island beef producers Robert and Vanessa Skipworth, who are increasing profitability by improving their carcase quality and meeting market specifications for high cents per kilogram premiums.
Mr Skipworth has bred Angus cattle since 1986, after buying a property near his father's block, where he is now based.
"Dad was on the family farm and had Herefords and other breeds, but when I bought my properties I started with Angus," he said.
"When dad retired to Tassie I sold my two original farms and we got rid of the Herefords, and I've been operating on the home block ever since."
The 317-hectare property, 240ha of which is useable pasture, runs 180 breeders, calving in February each year.
Mr Skipworth's main market is the pasture-fed program through JBS, and he's aiming for the premium grades within that program.
"We run them through to 20 to 22 months of age, and they average 380kg dressed, but there's a couple of offshoots to the brand," he said.
"If they get to marble score four with an MSA score of 64 and above, it's an extra 40c/kg and if they have a marble score of two or better, and MSA score of 62, I get an extra 10c/kg.
"Over the past couple of years I've been trying to work out how I can get them with more marbling at the younger age."
They're starting to marble well, with 11 of last year's 96 steers meeting the criteria for the 40c/kg premium and 76 steers reaching the requirements for the 10c/kg premium.
"The remainder met the base price which is still a very good premium market."
The yard-weaning sets them up for less stress.
There are a few extra things we need to think about on King Island, like minerals that are put in the water system year-round through all the troughs, because the island lacks in copper and cobalt.
Every little bit of management to reduce stress and lift nutrition helps.
With those premiums in mind, Mr Skipworth is adding marbling to his selection criteria for sires, along with growth.
"In the past couple of years I've got the weight in them, and the marble score has crept up," he said.
"I don't want to chase the marbling totally if it'll sacrifice growth, but I'm definitely looking at it more now.
"I prefer to buy on actual data from scanning at 12 months and their bloodlines, and once I've looked at those I'll consider the EBVs (estimated breeding values), but the other thing I like knowing is the sale weight and age. I want a younger bull at a heavier weight.
"Growth is still the most important thing for us because we're finishing on grass.
"Having kept all my cow records for over 30 years I was able to trace back the bloodlines of the better carcase performing animals, and this led me to my E cows which were sired by Te Mania Infinity and since then the Bartel E7 x Infinity lines.
"I didn't even know Ben Nevis existed until a pre-sale flyer turned up in the mail a few years ago and I noticed they had a lot of Infinity blood in their cows, so that's what attracted me to them."
Mr Skipworth bought his first bull from Ben Nevis that was out of a Infinity cow in 2018, then missed out on Ben Nevis Prime P122 which was bought by Bannaby Angus in 2019, but he managed to buy some of Prime P122 's semen which has been used with the heifers.
All heifers are artificially inseminated, with two rounds if needed, while all cows are artificially inseminated once and get their second chance with a bull.
"The bull never goes in with the heifers, and we only have to use them with the cows for a second chance after AI, so within a month the bulls are all home, which means it's only a four- to five-week calving period," Mr Skipworth said.
Along with creating a shorter calving period, the AI program has helped increase conception rates, as it allows Mr Skipworth to select heifers to retain in the herd based on fertility, with all empty breeders sold.
Cull heifers are usually grown out to kill weights, and the most recent group of 25-month-old heifers averaged 375kg and had good carcase results, with 11 of the 15 making the 40c/kg premium and marble scores of 8 and 9, as well as an overall MSA score of 70.77, in the mix.
Steers and heifers are finished on improved pastures, with mainly ryegrass and clover in the rotational grazing program.
"I've changed to the autumn calving because in spring we get the weight in the steers and having to send them off at 16 or 17 months also struggled to get the right fat on them," Mr Skipworth said.
"I don't send them any lighter than 650kg because that's when they seem to be in prime condition.
"At the end I'll take the ones that are ready (weighing from 620kg to 630kg) out of the main mob a month before they're sold to put them on the best grass to finish them off."
Stress is another factor in Mr Skipworth's decision to pull them away from the herd, and it's an important consideration for all beef producers on the island.
Since the local abattoir shut down in 2013, the cattle are sent to Tasmania via boat, then trucked for four hours to the processor.
"A lot of farmers here are trying to limit stress, and when that first started we did have a lot more dark cutters.
"We try to limit stress on farm before they go, and that's why I get them out from main mob a month before. They're drafted with plenty of time before they go, and we give them the best grass to keep them full and happy."
The low-stress methods are also in play at weaning in September, when the calves spend seven days yard-weaning on hay or silage, with access to holding paddocks if the yards are wet.
"The yard-weaning sets them up for less stress," Mr Skipworth said.
"There are a few extra things we need to think about on King Island, like minerals that are put in the water system year-round through all the troughs, because the island lacks in copper and cobalt.
"Every little bit of management to reduce stress and lift nutrition helps."