Grass growing beef

Northland bull beef farmers Dennis and Rachelle O’Callaghan have been involved in Beef + Lamb New Zealand’s Beef Profit from Pasture Programme, which has helped them further focus on pasture management – a key driver in their business.
Tuesday, 4 June 2019

The couple, who were Supreme winners in the Northland Ballance Farm Environment Awards in 2018 have successfully maximised productivity and profitability while protecting and enhancing their natural resources.

In this three-part series, we look at what makes their business so successful, both financially and environmentally.
  
Dennis O’Callaghan tells a story that nicely summarises the main driver behind the Northland bull beef operation he farms alongside his wife Rachelle.

The story is about a dairy farmer who was given what looked like a drench container by his father-in-law and told that if he put this container in a different paddock every day his pasture and milk production would increase exponentially.

After six months of shifting this container daily, the father-in-law’s predictions proved to be correct. 

It turned out there was nothing magic in the container. It was simply the discipline of moving it, closely observing pastures every day and making management decisions based on those observations that made all the difference.

Dennis talks a lot about pasture quality because that is what drives cattle growth rates and ultimately profitability in their business, and retaining pasture quality is a constant challenge in an area where Kikuyu grass is endemic.

“Our aim is to grow good quality grass and convert it into beef as efficiently as possible.

“Sometimes you sacrifice animal growth rates to maximise pasture growth rates and at other times you sacrifice pasture growth rates to maximise animal growth rates.”

Arguably Kikuyu is both a curse and a blessing. While the C4 grass lacks quality once it develops stolons, it has forced farmers like Dennis to be assiduous about pasture quality and this has generated big production benefits in their business.

The former Taihape sheep and beef farmer admits he had never paid enough attention to pasture quality, but after moving to Northland and noticing that mown Kikuyu gave them a significantly more production than unmown, he began to take a lot more notice of pasture management.

He turned to some of the leading dairy farmers in the region to learn about pasture management and has applied those principles in their intensive bull beef operation.

When they took over Temataa Station, their 608ha rolling hill country farm near Taipa, the couple ran 3000 ewes and 200 breeding cows and their progeny, but they struggled to finish the lambs to good weights. Financially the cattle side of the business – once they had intensified it – was outperforming the sheep – even when they were getting $6/kg for their wool, $120 for their ewes and $130 for the lambs.

The cattle were still generating twice as much per hectare than the sheep even in a very good sheep income year.

Dennis and Rachelle dipped their toes into intensive beef finishing after seeing what local farmer Lindsay White was doing on his farm with small 1ha paddocks on a long rotation.

They fenced up 24ha of their farm and immediately doubled production off that area.

Dennis then went looking at TechnoSystems and was sold on the whole concept. In 2003/04 they set up a techno-system finishing Friesian bulls and immediately trebled production. They have subsequently fenced the whole farm into a mix of techno-systems or cell grazing systems, although Dennis particularly favours the simplicity and flexibility of the TechnoSystem.

They did use a consultant to design many of systems using GPS. His services, along with all fencing and labour costs meant the whole system cost $500/ha to set up and another $1500 to stock.

But the reliability of this system means they are consistently generating $1500/ha/year over the whole farm. Dennis says the bank loves this reliability of income which is so rare in dryland sheep and beef farming.