Passion steers towards organic farming

Demand for organic beef steering Forrester family's operation

Stock and Land Beef
Amy Forrester uses her passion for industry to run 1500-head of cattle across two properties under the Bardi Certified Organic Beef banner at Esperance.

Amy Forrester uses her passion for industry to run 1500-head of cattle across two properties under the Bardi Certified Organic Beef banner at Esperance.

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"It is important we keep organic production as the main focus of our business."

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AGRICULTURE has always been central to Amy Forrester's life.

Growing up at Kanandah station on the Nullarbor, her childhood was spent chasing cows, riding horses and helping her dad with water runs.

"I lived the station life and loved doing all the things bush kids do," Ms Forrester said.

Today, the 28-year-old uses her passion for industry to run 1500-head of mixed cattle across two properties, Jimberlana 1200ha and Rancho West 890ha, trading as Bardi Certified Organic Beef at Esperance.

Her parents Mark and Karen, who own Kanandah and Balgair cattle stations, switched to certified organic livestock production in 2009.

"They were always interested in moving towards organic farming," Ms Forrester said.

"At the time there was a premium for organic meat and there were already low inputs on the station.

"It was always a goal for our family."

Six years later, the Forresters purchased 1900ha of land at Esperance to help drought-proof Kanandah, expand their business and landholdings and provide good opportunities for backgrounding cattle.

At the time, Ms Forrester was ready for a change, after returning home from university for an 18-month station stint.

She moved to the South Coast to keep the new farm in line with her family's existing organic beef business.

"We had our Esperance farms certified organic, which was definitely a challenge running them organically, chemical and synthetic fertiliser free," Ms Forrester said.

"It is a three-year process of not having any chemical or synthetic inputs on your land or animals to become certified organic.

"You have to keep all of your records and there are obviously a lot of rules and regulations around what you can and can't do within the organic system.

"We get audited annually to ensure we are abiding by those standards."

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Ms Forrester runs Angus, Murray Grey and Charolais cow herds across Jimberlana and Rancho West.

Breeder numbers fluctuate between 500 and 700 head and comprise predominantly Angus, which is what the herd is moving towards due to the demand.

"We have only been introducing Angus bulls since moving to Esperance and that is what our herd is moving toward now," Ms Forrester said.

"There is that focus on the Angus and British breeds because that's what's popular, everyone wants a black Angus steer.

"We have a long-standing supply arrangement with Western Meat Packers.

"It is better if trade cattle are high quality premium British breeds, but trim can be any colour.

"Meanwhile, with the conventional market and selling animals into the feedlot, there is that preference for Angus steers.

"Having a herd of Angus has been quite beneficial and pays off long-term because I think the market for them is going to remain strong."

Unlike most farmers in Esperance, Bardi Certified Organic Beef is still calving in June to July.

That is because they are not tied into the feedlotting market in January, so they are able to hold onto and finish cattle from spring onwards.

Ms Forrester said she didn't want to time calving any later, as cattle would fall too far behind the local herd.

"When you do want to sell them into a feedlot conventionally you don't want them to be so far behind that they aren't going to be able to meet spec for a certain period of time," she said.

"So far it is working OK.

"With reproduction and that down here, we try to capitalise on that spring flush when we are joining cattle to have rising nutrition, which is important."

At the moment Bardi is turning off stock fortnightly, into the local organic market.

While they ideally fall into the 480 to 550kg range for trade, there is a greater range when it comes to trims.

"We have to be able to turn off cattle year round, so having a diversity of sizes in the herd isn't such a bad thing," Ms Forrester said.

"Obviously we have cattle coming off the station and into the supply chain, so we have stock that can be grown out and finished at different stages to fulfill those commitments.

When it comes to non-certified organic livestock, any cattle that have previously been drenched or had chemical inputs, can be run on organic land provided they have been quarantined.

Organic standards require animals to be quarantined for three weeks (after they arrive on the farm) in a clearly identifiable dedicated area.

Once an enterprise has reached a fully certified organic status, any calves that drop on its property are automatically accredited.

Although cattle cannot be chemically drenched, Ms Forrester said she could treat them with approved mineral injections and vaccines because there was a demonstrated need.

"Obviously vaccines are very important to keep diseases at bay and we are highly mineral deficient in Esperance," she said.

"As long as we can demonstrate a need and the products don't contain any prohibited substances, then we can use them, as long as they are reported.

"We don't use chemical drenches, so it is really important we are constantly monitoring for any pest infections including low fecal egg counts.

"That's to ensure we don't have any potential problems arising."

The Forresters use rotational grazing in smaller paddocks to keep worm burden at bay, moving livestock around and keeping them on fresh pastures.

While many other farms in the Esperance area run mixed farming enterprises or focus on cropping, Bardi Certified Organic Beef is 100 per cent livestock with a small amount of hay grown for feed.

Ms Forrester said she was interested in improving pastures so she can use grass finishing later on in the season.

When needed the Esperance farms are used as a backgrounding block for cattle coming off Kanandah station.

"If we move weaners on early enough and we have plenty of feed in spring then we can bring weaners and cattle off the station into Esperance to background them before they are sent to wherever they are going," Ms Forrester said.

"But because of the past few years of drought, we have had a lot of cattle coming off the station, which has meant instead of doing full organics we have done a split production.

"Obviously I didn't have the grass and feed here to grass background everything.

"So we bought in feed and fed cattle hay and grain though feeders."

Ms Forrester added that organic farming had been beneficial to the production system, particularly as no harsh chemicals or synthetic fertilisers were used.

"That means our soil health can remain pretty strong because we aren't degrading it or using synthetics that inevitably degrade the soil ecology," she said.

"But by the same token, organic fertiliser is very expensive and it doesn't always have the same levels of phosphorus and nitrogen as the conventional options.

"It is definitely a different mindset of managing pasture when you are doing sustainable, regenerative or organic management because it is not just about piling on fertiliser, it is about how you can build the soil structure and improve soil health over a long period of time."

For Ms Forrester, running an organic farm in Esperance has been a steep learning curve and one that has been very different to that of living on the Nullarbor.

Among the biggest differences between the two are the soil types and weather conditions.

Ms Forrester said she had to think about different options to fertilise and condition the soil, which is tested each year to ensure pasture is growing to the best of its ability.

"We can use lime and dolomite on pastures, but we can't use superphosphate or urea," she said.

"For nitrogen fixation it is really important we support our legume plants in our pasture system, including serradella and clovers.

"They play a large role in providing a nitrogen source in our soil."

A slow-release phosphorus fertiliser called guano is also used.

Compared to conventional fertiliser products, guano does not have the same impact on soil, as it contains much lower levels of the minerals.

Ms Forrester has worked on developing the ideal production system and how to best manage pastures for the past five-and-a-half years at Esperance.

Another product she is trialling this year is worm vermiculture product NutriSoil, which enhances the natural growing mechanisms of the plant.

"I plan to use NutriSoil to inoculate seed and I also spray it out as a leaf spray.

"The concept is to build enzymes, microbes and bacteria's in the soil to build soil biology."

It is anticipated that this season would finish on as strong a note as it started and Ms Forrester has her fingers crossed for plenty of feed.

The changing season on the Nullarbor impacts the production system at Esperance in terms of what is done with stock.

That could be as to how quickly they are moved on or if the Forresters need to free up space for cattle coming off the stations.

"It can change sporadically," Ms Forrester said.

"If it rains up at the station it isn't an issue, but it hasn't rained up there for a long time."

The Forresters also have a lease block at Burekup, where weaners are sent to be grass finished before heading to the abattoirs.

"The property the cattle run on is very productive and that's where we cut the majority of our hay and silage as well," she said.

"We send our young cattle to Burekup to be grass finished with the help of the hay and silage and they are then turned off directly into the abattoirs, which are only half an hour away, compared to eight hours away in Esperance."

Generally, most of the weaners coming off the farm would be sent to the South West and similarly station cattle are as well, depending on weather and seasonal conditions.

Ms Forrester said the demand for organic meat was "always growing".

She said due to tough seasonal conditions and high conventional prices, they had implemented a split production system while still honouring their organic market customers.

"As producers it is important to capitalise on cattle prices and make the most of those opportunities," Ms Forrester said.

"It is important we keep organic production as the main focus of our business."

Since shifting to organic farming, Ms Forrester had noticed more people were becoming interested in where their food comes from and what chemicals had been used.

She said with conventional and broadacre cropping, chemicals and synthetics were needed for profitability and higher yields to feed the global population, which was important.

"It is equally important to have discussions around sustainability and to work with farmers toward some longer term alternatives or solutions to reduce those chemical reliances.

"That is because as productive as those properties are, each year they start the season with a blank canvas again with their soil.

"There are no enzymes, no micro biology underneath the soil - it is all gone.

"So if you want to create anything you have to put it all on."

Ms Forrester added that each year inputs were increasing, whereas in regenerative and organic farming, farmers were building soil to become its own fertiliser source.

She said it was about creating an ecosystem in the soil that fed itself and held its own, which worked in a pastoral system and not always in cropping.

"We don't crop so I can't really comment on that, but there's definitely some farmers out there who are making it work in a cropping sense.

"It is a discussion to be had and I think there are more people asking questions about how they can reduce chemical inputs and improve disease resistance.

"With beef and pasture production I don't see any reason why we can't be encouraging people to reduce the reliance on chemicals and synthetic inputs to produce grass.

"In a pasture system there is already a lot going on underneath the soil.

"By creating a healthy system, eventually your long-term inputs should be lower because of the enhanced microbial activity.

"Then you can manage sustainably, not overgraze and in turn it should be able to reproduce on its own each year."

As can be imagined, there are some significant differences between organic farming in Esperance compared to the Nullarbor.

On Kanandah no pasture inputs are needed, there aren't any issues with worm burdens or parasites and cattle have 1.01 million hectares (2.5 million acres) to walk on.

The biggest issues at the station are around water and transport.

"The main challenge at the station is obviously water, keeping water to animals and the low rainfall," Ms Forrester said.

"Then obviously you have a long way to truck cattle from the station down south or down to Esperance.

"The road we have to take from the station into Kalgoorlie is probably one of the worst roads I have travelled on in WA."

Ms Forrester added that when it rained at Kanandah station, good seasons were "pretty bloody good".

"When it rains the soil at the station is very good soil and the land is highly productive.

"Same as at our property further east, Balgair station."

Meanwhile, when in Esperance Ms Forrester faces more intense challenges including improving pasture productivity, keeping parasite burdens at bay, finding alternatives to fertilisers and growing healthy pastures without chemical and synthetic fertiliser inputs.

And while Esperance's sandier soil types are not ideal to be farming organics Ms Forrester is confident she can make it work.

She said finding the right formula for managing pasture was all about trialling different techniques and figuring out what worked best for the production system.

"It is definitely a challenge you can't just go and blow out the kikuyu and chuck a hay crop in, you have to work with what you've got," Ms Forrester said.

"A lot of the trials I do don't turn off much yield, so that's always a bit disappointing.

"But I just think you have to take all of that good with the bad, keep learning and making new mistakes - things like that."

Ms Forrester added that one lesson she had learned since farming at Esperance is, "you have to work with what you've got".

She said if there was an area of land that was highly productive then focus on that and maintain the pastures in other areas.

"Despite there not being any other organic producers in the area, it has been really good just farming in the area in general," she said.

"You are always learning from people around you and Esperance is very lucky to have a tight knit farming community, who enjoy talking to each other and sharing ideas."

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The story Passion steers towards organic farming first appeared on Farm Weekly.

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