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A switch for the better at Gulgong

by REBECCA SHARPE

WORKING with neighbours when it comes time to turn off stock means the Sills family can sell consistent lines of cattle throughout the year. Bill and Libby Sills, “Barbadoon”, Gulgong, who have been breeding cattle for 60 years, started to build a herd of “black, practical cattle” on their 1214-hectare property about 20 years ago.

Today Mr Sills’ son-in-law Geoff Cheetham, and his son Matt, “Cumbandry”, Gulgong, have built their own Angus herd, with both herds based on Talooby blood, Rylstone. Following weaning, the calves on both properties are finished on improved pastures, aimed to fit the Meat Standards Australia graded grass-fed beef market. While the properties are run separately, when it comes to selling Bill said there were more benefits in larger numbers.

Between “Barbadoon” and “Cumbandry”, the pick of the cattle are drafted off ready for selling. By doing this, the family are able to receive a better return. “It’s always the absolute best sent off to whoever is paying the better prices,” Geoff said. “We try to get near the weights buyers want and with such a selection of cattle from the properties we are able to do this and attract the utmost premium for the product we offer.” In tougher seasons, Bill said there was flexibility for the collaboration to sell younger feeders and still make good money.

“We can always get a load of feeder steers between us,” Bill said. Even during tough seasons, Bill said they rarely had to offload cattle due to lack of feed. “In the past decade we’ve been like everybody else and had average seasons but if you’ve got thrifty cattle, breeding moderate framed, easydoing cattle then your property can hold more of them. “Everybody had a pretty tough year, but we still had to finish cattle – they may have been a bit lighter but that’s what’s great about the collaboration between us.”

While they aim to meet weight specifications for the different buyers, Bill said they still had some flexibility. Running 900 head, Bill Sills joins females twice, to calve in the autumn and spring, while the Cheethams follow the same schedule for their own 550 head. Buying commercial herd bulls rather than stud bulls, Bill said they were able to produce “consistent calves”. Cows are usually joined at a rate of one bull to 25 or 30 cows, using low birthweight sires over heifers. On “Cumbandry”, Matt said they were using a slightly higher ratio of one bull to 40 females.

“We’re working on compressing the calving a bit,” he said “For calving, Angus is one of the better breeds for calving,” added Geoff. Heifers are joined at the same time as the older cows, after being culled on confirmation, but run separately until they’ve had their second calf on both properties. “Any we keep, we’re pretty confident they’ll go through with no problems unless they’re lame, but there is some selection after they’ve had their first or second calf,” Bill said. “We are more particular with the diet management of the heifers and run them on better country.”

The cows are still looked after, however, with some sold weighing 600 kilograms in recent weeks, Geoff said. “It’s harder for a cow to be productive if she isn’t looking good – they have to be kept in good condition which can carry them through tougher times,” he said. A calving percentage higher than 90 per cent was regularly achieved in the heifers across both properties, depending on the season.

Calves are paddock weaned at about nine months of age at “Barbadoon” while yardweaning for 10 days to two weeks is the preferred process for the Cheethams. Improved pastures consist of clover, ryegrass, a range of summer grasses and lucerne on “Barbadoon” while the Cheetham’s also sowed some Nutri-Feed. “It’s like sorghum, but it doesn’t get that acid so we can graze it at any time,” Matt said.
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