The marginal difference

Opting to finish dairy beef bulls came down to price for Central Otago-based couple Ben and Rebecca Trotter. Story and photo by Lynda Gray.

In Business14 Minutes

Opting to finish dairy beef bulls came down to price for Central Otago-based couple Ben and Rebecca Trotter. Story and photo by Lynda Gray.

Ben and Rebecca cop a bit of flak at times for finishing dairy beef bulls rather than traditional beef breed cattle. But for Ben the reason why they’ve chosen black and white bulls over beef breed cattle is simple and straightforward: the marginal price difference.

“We buy in 100kg dairy bull calves at $430 a head whereas an autumn-bought beef bred weaner is anywhere from $700 to $800. The price reflects the breeding, but I think that good feeding (of bulls) cancels out most of that breeding advantage.”

Ben and Rebeca have finished their third season of finishing bulls in a cell grazing system on irrigated land at the foot of the hill leading up to Wanaka Airport. It’s a grass-based system designed and managed to finish bulls to a target weight of 500kg LW, and above 260kg/CWT before their second winter.

The system is straightforward and simple, its management fitted around the Trotter’s busy lives. Ben is Agricom’s South Island sales lead while Rebecca is full-time mum to two children aged under two, Florence and Edward. Although less hands-on than previously with the demands of a young family, Rebecca has been and remains fully involved in decision making and planning. The Trotters employ Scott Cooper to help them out throughout the week, and Ben’s father John is also on call when needed.

John, and Ben’s mother Pauline are a huge help in keeping the wheels of the farming business turning.

The finishing process starts with delivery of 100kg bull calves reared by dairy farmer friends in Canterbury and contracted for delivery before November 20 this year. The earlier they arrive the better because it means they’re ahead growth rate wise. This takes the pressure off the grazing system in the autumn when the emphasis is on finishing and offloading the R2 cattle.

The calves are kept in arrival mobs and graze irrigated pasture to match growth. The pasture is mostly a mix of ONE50 perennial diploid ryegrass, white clover (Tribute and Nomad), and Relish red clover.

“A diploid ryegrass is not as high in quality as a tetraploid but it’s a dense growing grass, and it stands up to trampling and the test of time.”
The calves are kept on pasture as long as possible, usually until the last week of April. However, that grazing time is balanced with the need to leave behind adequate winter residuals and time for transitioning onto fodder beet. Transitioning takes 21 days, Ben prefers to take extra time to avoid subclinical acidosis which will stunt growth rate.

By the time the bulls start winter rations they’re in the 250-280kg LW range. The lightest 100 are drafted off for wintering on pasture and silage; the rest get medium drymatter varieties of fodder beet Feldherr and Bangor with supplements of silage for about 135 days. The almost 200 tonnes of pit silage are an important component of the winter feeding system, Ben says.

“It’s fed out daily under the wire so it’s fresh and doesn’t spoil and feeding it that way avoids the aggressive behaviour that tends to happen with balage fed from a bale feeder.”

“What I liked was that bull beef farming was science backed, a largely cell grazing system and the output was easily measured.” 

Over the winter the bulls average daily growth of about 700 grams.

The bulls come off crop about August 20 and are drafted into smaller mobs of 30 to 35. Ideally, they’re grouped according to weight but that doesn’t always happen due to time constraints.

From here, the bulls start the ‘systems’ and ‘cell’ grazing developed by Ben and Rebecca with input from AgFirst Waikato consultant Bob Thomson, Google and YouTube. There are 12 systems within the perimeter of a spider web shaped fenced area (see diagram). Permanent fences create six wedges and within each wedge are two grazing systems. Each is about a 5ha rectangle broken into 12 to 14 cells. The bulls graze each cell for two days before being moved to the next. A central water trough in the middle of each system feeds a micro trough which is moved with the mob, every second day, around the system.

The ideal size

A lot of thought went into the ideal size of the systems, mobs, and shifting frequency; Ben says they’re still unsure if they’ve got it right.
“The smaller mobs mean we don’t have to shift them as often so we’re saving on labour, but pasture utilisation and carcase weight per hectare is lower than with bigger mobs that are shifted more regularly. The plus side is that the grass is always in a state of recovery, and we know that they eat more when they move onto new grass every two days. The bulls also behave better in smaller mobs.”

The irrigated area is the business end of the bull beef finishing but the 350ha of leased dryland is an important support area used for post-winter grazing and at other times if feed becomes tight. The dryland is across busy State Highway 84 and accessed by a stock underpass. It includes the hill terrace area of what used to be Lake McKay Station, and another area on the outskirts of Luggate. Most of the dryland is planted in lucerne, although this year 40ha has been grown for the wintering of 400 dairy heifers and trading cattle. Future development will focus on the dryland rather than irrigated area, with plans underway for a lucerne-based dairy bull finishing system. Ben has calculated that one hectare of irrigation development would fund 8ha of lucerne, and it would produce twice the drymatter of undeveloped dryland pasture.
“Lucerne is an efficient user of water, it’s a good protein source and grows young stock well.”

Ben and Rebecca are happy with how the bull beef is tracking given the two year carcass weight average of 960kg/ha. The couple hope to hold performance around this level and will keep refining what they do.

“We want to maximise productive potential but in an environmentally responsible manner with a grass and legume based system, and minimising the use of artificial nitrogen in the form of urea.”

In the beginning

Ben’s interest in bull beef started while working in Waikato for Agricom and meeting FarmIQ steering group members Neil Aitken and Bob Thomson. Neil, who farms bull beef at Pukawa, taught Ben a lot about the practical side of managing bulls, while Bob Thomson filled him in on the likely production and returns.

“What I liked was that bull beef farming was science backed, a largely cell grazing system and the output easily measured,” Ben says.
The potential growth rates – up to 1.5kg a day also caught his attention.

Deciding to go bull beef farming was the easy part but finding suitable land on which to do it was difficult. The dilemma and choice that Ben and Rebecca had to make was whether to buy more expensive land closer to town so they could stay in higher paying full-time jobs, or pay less for more remote land, forgo their salaried jobs and rely solely on farm income.

“We looked all over the country for a long time; it was like a marathon…in the end we bought in one of the most expensive areas, but we were able to keep our jobs which has helped us build equity on which to borrow.”

Influencing their decision to move south to Luggate was the loss of Ben’s brother in a car accident in 2016 and a desire to be closer to his parents John and Pauline, who live in Wanaka. The couple moved there in 2016 and rented a house in town. Ben continued working for Agricom and Rebecca worked for energy supplier Genesis. They got married in 2018, bought the land six months later and in 2019 built a house and became parents to their first child Florence.

The downside of the Trotter’s location is the distance from their meat processor and key inputs such as fertiliser which adds about another 15 percent to farm running costs.

All cattle are processed at ANZCO Foods in Blenheim. There are handier processors, but the Trotters value the good working relationship with the company.

“Partnering with the right meat company has been a big learning experience for us,” Ben says.

The bulls are supplied to the antibiotic-free (AB-Free) programme which has restrictions around animal health treatments, promotants and the feeding of certain supplements. A supply contract is signed in October, locking in the number of bulls to be delivered weekly from the start of January until the end of March. There’s not a lot of flexibility once the contract is signed and there’s always a degree of anxiety when the first mobs are run across the scales for load out. However, the Trotters have become more confident at the forecasting exercise with the benefit of growth rate information collected over the last couple of years.

Measured approach

A flume measuring water flow helps Ben keep tabs on irrigation water use. The Trotters also have moisture probes to help fine-tune irrigation. A plate meter is used over spring to keep tabs on drymatter levels. If pre-graze drymatter levels fall below 2400kg/DM/ha the bulls are taken off the cell system and put on a reserve grass area until grass growth catches up. That pre-emptive action avoids what Ben calls the ‘death spiral’.

“If pre graze levels aren’t maintained everything starts to crash and spiral downwards.”

Strawberry fare

Living just off the main highway leading into Wanaka is the perfect positioning for possible land-based diversifications with appeal to tourists. Rebecca, a keen gardener, has been toying with a few green fingered ideas and is developing a 1ha pick-your-own strawberry patch.

“There’s nothing like it in the area and we think it will be a great activity and attraction for families.”

She had a trial run with 100 plants, proving that the crop will thrive in the Central Otago climate.

In June 30,000 plants will go in the ground for fruiting from October till about April.