While sheep were kept at all costs in NSW, culling cattle during drought was viewed as an opportunity to both improve the genetic potential of the herd down the track and reduce the risk of land degradation.
This is just one of the fascinating insights into how livestock producers make the choices they do around drought to come from a cutting-edge behavioural science project.
The Decide and Thrive drought preparedness project, being delivered by the University of New England, CQUniversity and CSIRO, aims to develop regionally-relevant livestock ranking strategies that secure farm businesses into, during and out of drought, and improve natural capital in agricultural landscapes.
Looking at producer decision making has been the first step.
Too often new tools and technologies were developed with brilliant science and amazing capabilities, but were not what farmers actually wanted, said Decide and Thrive project leader Professor Lewis Kahn, UNE.
"This is why this project commenced with an investigation into the decision-making processes and management strategies of livestock producers, so that we can develop breeding stock selection systems that meet their needs and make a difference to their farm business and environment."
The study showed significant differences in decision making based on where in Australia producers were.
Due to the smaller scale of properties, there was a greater focus on working smarter and with precision in NSW and far less time for the mob-based decision making that dominated in the north.
Seven producers and three advisors based in NSW were interviewed for the study. Properties ranged in size from 700 to 4000 hectares and covered mixed farming operations, beef cattle only and one wool producer. Most were family owned and generational.
The researchers said the drought experienced in 2019 was considered particularly severe and had far-reaching impacts on all producers.
In NSW, some producers made culling decisions based on soil moisture profile rather than 'drought'; others made decisions based on feed quality, not rain. Mixed farm producers spoke about the importance of holding cattle for maintaining grass length, however, others culled cattle by as much as 60 per cent. Cattle were perceived to be expendable, when compared to sheep.
The study found containment feeding to maintain sheep was used and the dominant approach among sheep producers, and the advice offered by advisors, was to 'keep and feed' flocks. This was driven by the perceived value of sheep, and the cost of breeding them again if they were sold.
The opposite was true of cattle. Culling as a means of preserving land and natural resources was the priority.
"For instance, regular seasonal destocking - 10 per cent - has been adopted as a key strategy to maintain ground cover and prevent overgrazing," the researchers said.
Interestingly, a number of cattle producers, and one consultant, viewed drought as an opportunity 'to buy back better' - that is to go genetic shopping.
"Not surprisingly, adversity was referred to as the 'mother of invention', with some producers recounting experiences of changing practices after an adverse experience," the researcher reported.
"Maintaining ground cover is a key motivator in NSW, hence cattle producers talked about seasonal destocking on a regular basis, typically between November and March."
Researchers also reported a number of NSW producers closely follow the principles of decision making that focus on grass, livestock and money. One was quoted in the report on the study as saying: "You cannot have too much money or grass, but if you have too much livestock you will find yourself in a hole."
The insights are now informing ongoing research by the Decide and Thrive team into herd/flock measurement technologies and culling decisions of breeding stock, with a key message to developers to keep stock selection tools simple and to provide users with support during the adoption phase.
The Decide and Thrive team is also developing communications and training tools for extension providers, farm consultants and the Commonwealth-funded Drought Resilience, Adoption and Innovation Hubs to assist them in driving adoption of objective stock selection tools.
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