An ever-evolving cattle station
IT IS a crisp early winter morning and the historic Yulgilbar Station, in the picturesque NSW Northern Rivers region, is a hive of activity.
As santa gertrudis cattle happily go about their business grazing fertile flats of the Clarence River, staff are kept busy in the cattle yards sorting through prospective sale bulls for the station's on-property auction in September.
Both work relatively unperturbed by the hum of man and machine next door adding the final touches to a new state-of-the-art undercover selling centre. A centre that will be put to the test in August when it hosts the likes of mining magnate-cum-beef baroness Gina Rinehart, Meat and Livestock Australia managing director Richard Norton and AACo boss Jason Strong as speakers at the tri-annual Yulgilbar field day.
"We've got a bit of work to do. I can't afford many wet weeks from now,” jokes Rob Sinnamon, who has managed the 14,165ha property for 15 years for owners Baillieu and Sarah Myer, whose pedigree is as impressive as their 5000 cattle.
Baillieu Myer is the son of Myer department store founder Sidney Myer while Sarah inherited Yulgilbar on the death of her father, Samuel Hordern, in 1960.
Samuel was the son of Sir Samuel Hordern, chairman of the NSW Royal Agricultural Society from 1915-1941, whose forebears also made their fortune in the department store business.
Samuel Jr was founding president of the Australian Santa Gertrudis Society, a director of King Ranch Australia and involved in some of the early exports of santa gertrudis cattle from its parent US property in Texas in the 1950s.
"So the relationship between the family and the breed goes back a fair way,” Rob said.
AT BARYULGIL, northwest of Grafton, Yulgilbar ranges in soil types from alluvial loam along the river flats to undulating granite, areas of forest clay and steep serpentine rock mountains.
The tops of the mountain are about 800m above sea level with the river flats about 400m above.
Yulgilbar has a 24km frontage to the Clarence River and 18km of the Washpool Creek, meaning water is not an issue. It receives about 1150mm of rain a year, which falls in a "very much coastal” summer pattern.
The season at Yulgilbar is looking a treat. It was dry until the end of February when 500mm of rain fell in a week.
"It went from one extreme to another, but that is kind of typical of this north coast too. We can get quite heavy rainfall events in that summer period. We're far enough north to get the spin-off from cyclonic influences,” Rob said.
At its peak, Yulgilbar can run about 6500 cattle. This year it is running almost 5000, including 500 cows registered as part of the Yulgilbar Santa Gertrudis stud and 2200 commercial cows. Rob said the santa gertrudis cattle suited the country. He said they had enough tropical adaptation to handle poorer soil types and increased incidence of tick and fly associated with high rainfall and proximity to the coast.
"While we don't currently have cattle tick here, we are exposed to paralysis and scrub ticks, so the bos indicus content of the santa gertrudis certainly helps with that parasite tolerance,” he said.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
ROB said Yulgilbar's high rainfall brought with it challenges of weeds and soil leaching, which meant "pretty typically, we are deficient in plenty of things”.
The property has embarked on a significant pasture improvement program in recent years, moving to subtropical improved grasses, which Rob said had tripled carrying capacity on certain areas.
Under the program, workers are "going through a native grass, semi-open forest area, stick-raking it and cropping it to oats for a couple of years”.
If gross margins exist for soybeans, they will grow it to help soil fertility.
"This program is done for two to three seasons before it is reverted back to improved grass,” Rob said.
He said feed costs had always been an issue because once Yulgilbar had its first frost of the season "our native grasses drop to be below maintenance levels”.
"Historically we have had to supplement with liquids and, more recently, dry licks to match our deficiencies throughout the year,” he said.
"With our improved tropical grasses, we are finding our consumption even with that has dropped back, so we are finding big efficiencies and cost savings coming through from reduced supplementary feed.”
BULLS typically are joined to the cows from November 1 until late February. Joining rates vary according to land type, averaging three bulls to 100 cows but "we mate as low as 2%, probably even less with some stud sires”.
"In the mountain country where natural water tends to lend itself to cattle splitting off, in some of those cases we might go out to 4% because you'll get fragmented groups that will spear off with 20 or 30 cows,” Rob said.
When selecting his cattle, he primarily adheres to visual appraisal "and then we'll back it up with EBVs (estimated breeding values) and raw data to assist with those decisions”.
"I always say single-trait selection on anything is dangerous,” Rob said. "We focus the production of our seedstock the same as our commercial cattle, we believe that we want commercially relevant cattle and we aim to produce bulls that reflect that.”
With regards to marketing commercial cattle, Rob said Yulgilbar liked to maintain flexibility. It "benchmarks”, with success, "a couple of hundred steers a year” through steer and carcass competitions "from Orange to Rockhampton and Emerald”. However, the bulk of the drop is usually turned off as feeder steers.
"Depending on the market and the gross margins out there, we have kept the steers through to Jap Ox (weights of 300-420kg carcass from grass) on multiple occasions,” he said.
YULGILBAR joins its first-calf heifers to angus bulls to produce calves that were traditionally sold as a 160kg vealer at four to six months of age. But about 12 years ago, with the margins in the vealer trade "just not there”, Rob looked more at value-adding.
"So we retain the females and grow them out to a rising two-year-old pregnancy-tested-in-calf and start marketing them as sangus,” he said.
"Those cattle, at about 19% Bos Indicus, are a really good fit for people who like to run angus cattle but whose country is just a bit too tough. We probably sell about 20-30 sangus bulls a year and that's probably a growing market for us.”
In recent years, with margins for "cash cropping”, including soybeans, dropping, Yulgilbar has also ventured down the fattening path, trading 1000-1500 steers a year.
Rob said the steers were ideally sourced from east of the Great Dividing Range, because of parasite and tick issues, and preferably of Yulgilbar blood. On the stud front, Yulgilbar sells 150-200 bulls a year "from the Barkly Tablelands to Victoria”. About 90-100 are offered at an annual production sale in September (this year's auction will be held on September 1).
THE stud also plans to return to the show ring, after an absence of almost a decade, mostly to capture the attention of new stud breeder clients who "get captivated by a ribbon”.
"We don't intend on going back long term,” Rob said, saying it would target Brisbane, Beef Australia at Rockhampton and Toowoomba shows, and "perhaps Sydney”.
Meanwhile, Rob said preparations for the Yulgilbar Beef Expo on August 4 were keeping everyone busy. Conducted every three years, the expo this year features a top line-up of speakers, including Cattle Council chief executive Duncan Bremner, Red Meat Advisory Council chairman Don Mackay and the Australian Beef Sustainability Group's Prue Bondfield.
Looking ahead, Rob said the business would continue to focus on where it could add value.
"We try to keep enough flexibility in the business so we can respond to market trends and changes,” he said. "You are as only as good as your last mistake, and everyone will have a mistake at some point. It's how you deal with those mistakes that counts.”