Revell Science was commissioned to review the feed base to support a WA cattle backgrounding industry. The review predicts cattle performance on different forage and feeding systems and identifies knowledge gaps.
Predicting cattle performance and identifying knowledge gaps
The Western Australian cattle backgrounding sector is currently small, but there is potential and a need to grow. Backgrounding plays a critical role in linking production systems that specialise in cow-calf production and the finishing and processing sectors. A backgrounding sector can play a vital role in smoothing the supply of cattle along the supply chain, effectively dampening the fluctuations in weaner turn-off, and producing cattle at the required body weight for finishing or processing.
Given the position of the backgrounding sector in the value chain, it has a potential risk of being subjected to market constraints from either end of the supply chain, which means it must be an efficient and able to cope with changes in prices, supply or demand. The only way this can be achieved is with a robust and reliable feed base that can be efficiently converted to weight gain.
The main conclusions and recommendations are:
1. The feed base for cattle backgrounding must be able to tolerate variable seasonal conditions and a changing climate.
2. A diversity of forage species will be required to meet nutrient requirements over time and space.
3. A feed base that relies on annual pasture species is inadequate. The required amount of supplementary feeding nearly eliminates a profit margin.
4. Although grazing large paddocks of crop stubble at low stocking rates can theoretically contribute to cattle feed requirements over summer, supplementary feeding with both energy and protein will almost certainly be required in practice.
5. Perennial forages complement annual pastures by providing green feed in summer and autumn. However, there remain hurdles to widespread adoption related to costs or risks of establishment, persistence and nutritive value. There are real, practical options available, but a combination of perennial forages will be required, including grasses and shrubs.
6. There is a need to co-ordinate knowledge and experiences, and to establish and maintain field experiments and demonstrations.
7. Trials on responses to fertiliser application (e.g. tagasaste and phosphorus), and trials that test livestock responses to nutrient supplementation, are required so producers can determine whether the costs of providing extra nutrients via fertiliser or feed supplements are exceeded by benefits in livestock productivity.
8. The area required for perennial forages to meet the feed demands of ‘extra capacity’ identified in an industry report is considerable if the backgrounding sector is to genuinely reduce the seasonality of cattle off-take to the finishing and processing sectors.
9. There are two broad approaches to achieve the required areas of perennials: either (a) a large number (>100 farms) in each agricultural region, each with about 100 ha of perennials on areas not suitable for cropping, or (b) whole-farm conversions to backgrounding operations are required. Neither is likely to occur without a coordinated effort of research, demonstration, on-going support and open communication.
10. An adequately resourced network of producers, researchers, processors and other industry support personnel that is focussed on cattle backgrounding would help build required momentum, influence research and share knowledge.