Beef finishing on legumes

Southland couple Matt and Shona Tayler are pushing boundaries by finishing cattle on lucerne and legume-based pastures. It is a high-risk, high-reward system but the couple, through Beef + Lamb New Zealand’s Innovation Farm programme are managing the risks and reaping the rewards. In part one of a two-part series we look at why legumes have become an important part of the Tayler’s business.
Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Incorporating cattle into a legume dominant finishing system comes with risks but has resulted in a step-change in resilience and profitability on Southland’s Lorne Peak station.

The 5,600ha property is owned and operated by Matt and Shona Tayler who, through Beef + Lamb New Zealand’s Innovation farm programme, are striving to build resilience into their business in response to a changing climate and environmental regulations.

Terrain on Lorne Peak varies from extensive hill country to flat land and the couple are wanting to use their flats to run a high-performance finishing operation within their overall farm business. This is building on a recent development programme which has focused on sub-division, fertility and pasture development.

As a part of this programmme, the dry flats were targeted to undergo a transformation to a largely lucerne based system as Matt and Shona believe legumes will play an increasingly important role in their overall farm business.

Ultimately, they would like legume-dominant pastures to make up more than half of their property.

Matt says they had initially assumed that they couldn’t incorporate more lucerne or red and white clover mixes into their system as cattle formed a large part of their business. But initial success with growing R1 bulls on lucerne and red and white clover has encouraged them to establish an additional 300ha of lucerne, 200ha of red and white clover mixes and 200ha of subterranean clover over the next two years.

“The return on investment of these legume-rich swards is near double what we have experienced putting pivot irrigation on and therefore takes priority".

“Lucerne is the smart man’s irrigation,” says Matt.

Initially they expected the benefit of growing more legumes would come from running more sheep with higher per head production, but they saw an opportunity to ramp-up beef finishing as a high-return management strategy.

Farmax modelling showed that fast-finishing beef would provide the margin and flexibility they required in their system. This includes finishing their home-bred beef cattle earlier as well as taking on 350 R1 Friesian Bulls and 350 R2 bulls. The Taylers describe these bulls, which are a flexible trading option, as a valuable drought mitigation tool after lucerne and irrigation.

While the performance of the beef animals on lucerne has been impressive (1kg/day in R1 bulls) there are animal health challenges associated with the feed. Bloat is a risk and in the first year of their Innovation Farm project, the Taylers lost seven out of 130 Angus steers to bloat and this year, out of 350 bulls, they lost three to nitrate poisoning from young grass and five to bloat.

But Matt points out that these losses are comparable with lambs finished on lucerne.

“This death rate of 2.5% was comparable to our lamb death rate on lucerne and reflects the higher clostidial pressure and risks associated with high octane forages,” says Matt.

Matt says most losses to date have been preventable and they have been learning from their mistakes as well as their successes.