Friday, July 1, 2022

Burger grazing a viable option

A viable alternative to traditional beef farming has been emerging over the last four years thanks to a three-way partnership between Silver Fern Farms, New Zealand Grazing Company and about 90 North Island farmers. About 20,000 Friesian bulls are being finished each year for the McDonalds burger market through the use of back-to-back contracts which are set up and administered by NZ Grazing staff.

Silver Fern Farms owns the animals on behalf of McDonalds, having bought them from rearers at 100kg LW.

Following on its heels is the South Island version of it through Mainland Grazing, started last year.

Calves are trucked to contracted farmers to take them through the nursery stage, which can be anywhere between 270-300kg depending on how quickly they’ve been grown, and are then moved onto finishing properties where the bulls are farmed through till they reach 550-700kg.

While it’s not an original concept, having been used in the past with lambs and cattle such as Wagyu, it’s on a much bigger scale and appeals to all sorts of farmers for various reasons.

Kumenga Farm owner Mike McCreary, left, checks out some of the grazing bulls with his stock manager Paul Nicholson.

One such farming operation, that of Mike and Liz McCreary of Kumenga, South Wairarapa, is enjoying the benefits of a system that complements their own philosophies.

Mike is able to leave all the stockwork in the capable hands of Paul Nicholson while he concentrates on the cropping side of the business, including a contracting service in region.

The McCrearys bought the 720ha properties in a 50/50 partnership with Mike’s parents about five years ago as a going concern. There are 300ha at Kumenga and 420ha at Te Kowhai.

The farm was being run as a conventional sheep and beef farm but after the first year they decided to dump all the breeding stock, put their money into setting up the cropping operation and take on grazers.

They were one of the first North Island farms to contract finish SFF-owned lambs and that gave them the confidence to put their trust in the company and farm bulls owned by it.

While the lamb fattening has changed to their own trading operation, where agents buy 15-16,000 forward store lambs from 30kg LW after January which are killed on monthly contracts with SFF at over 40kg, the bull grazing continues to go from strength to strength – this year stocking 2200 bulls.

Included in this are 230 spring-born and 120 autumn-born bulls of their own. Next year they hope to increase this to about 3000.

The cropping on Te Kowai yields about 10tonne/ha wheat, 3.5tonne/ha peas, 2tonne/ha ryegrass as well as borage, oats, mustard and carrots.

Mike and Paul believe the benefits of the contract bull grazing system are too good to ignore. It frees up capital for other on-farm investment, lifts their game with measurability and accountability, provides a steady cash flow when cropping and winter dormancy of trading stock occurs and takes out big fluctuations of market prices which are hard to budget for.

With measurability comes competition and having a neighbour running a similar operation keeps everyone on their toes in friendly rivalry.

Edward Handyside farms 350ha just around the corner from the McCrearys as well as 750ha of hill country southeast of Martinborough.

He is grazing 500 bulls for NZ Grazing/SFF as well as summer trading about 15,000 lambs, progeny from his 200 hill country beef cows and cash crops such as peas.

He sees the bull grazing as an assured cash flow means of income if you can do the job well. His are fed on a tetraploid/white clover pasture mix with plantain fast becoming his stock crop of choice.

This is his third year grazing bulls from 100kg LW to over 250kg between the end of October and May. Next year could see an increase in numbers as more plantain is introduced.

He usually feeds the bulls nuts for the first 10 days to get them through the transition period but might peg that back to just five days. The bulls are run in mobs of 60 or so but that too might increase to about 100/mob.

Both the Handysides and McCrearys see animal health as paramount and the calves are vaccinated for pink eye, salmonella and a top up six in one. Any deaths are on the grazier but both farms have been able to keep these down to well below average.

McCreary’s stock manager Paul Nicholson says the system is as efficient as dairy farming – without the early starts. He’d work just as many hours, though, and plans his day on the short drive to work each day.

With help from the farm’s tractor staff Nicholson weighs and drenches all the calves once a month and spends a lot of time shifting mobs or wires within the Techno fencing system.

Farm improvements have seen a good water system introduced with hydrants supplying drag troughs, drains deepened and fenced off and about 15km of Novaflow laid beneath levelled paddocks.

All this has helped take the farm’s dry matter production from about eight tonnes/ha to about 14t/ha over the last three years.

Both farming operations believe the grazing system is very beneficial but caution against fly-by-nighters wanting to make a quick buck or doing it to stock below average land.

They also see great importance in communication between the three parties so that there are no surprises. The sharing of information between farmers helps to keep the motivation up for continued improvement.

Quality control is also a key element. McCreary says that the success depends on the rearers developing their calves’ stomachs efficiently so scrutineering by SFF and NZG staff is important. Sub-standard calves are no good for the system.

He’d also like to see a grading of efficiency introduced to reward graziers for quick growth rates. Fast growing calves are obviously happy and healthy and thiat will continue into their finishing stage.

NZ Grazing beef programme manager Peter Matson says the system that has been operating commercially for three years will continue to find ways of improving for the benefit of all involved.

A steer grazing programme was introduced late last year and it could see more farmers want to become involved with bulls not to everyone’s liking.

He and his staff oversee the weighing of all cattle going onto and off farms as well as the monthly weighs when required. Otherwise, the farmers do those weigh-ins and the results are collated for the monthly payouts. The price/kg gain is set each year by SFF and McDonalds.

From the meat processing point of view, Silver Fern Farms is enjoying the increased relationship with its farmer partners.

Livestock farming general manager Jeremy Absolom can see the benefits for his company as well as for farmers. It helps them with their marketing by being better equipped to meet delivery obligations and not be at the mercy of supply fluctuations.

For the farmer, he sees it as a chance for people to enjoy a data-rich environment where they can make good decisions and use that to make more money on farm. With a known return they can make a really accurate decision on whether to invest in forage or supplementary feed to get them through a tough time or in long term infrastructure.

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