Beef cows may be second-class citizens on many properties, but not on Lambhill Station.
Farm manager Chris Thomson is focused on getting the best out of his hereford and angus- hereford cross cows and the results speak for themselves.
By feeding them well he has managed to lift his calving result from 84 to 92 per cent and has improved the growth rate of his calves to weaning - exceeding the 5 per cent annual profit goal set by the Southern Beef Profit Partnership three years ago.
Thomson and his wife Lucy run 470 mixed-age cows and their progeny on Lamb Hill, a 4546-hectare challenging hill country property at Hindon, near Outram.
The Thomsons are one of seven farming couples in the SBPP spread from Waikouaiti to Riverton, with herds ranging from 180 to 775 cows.
The extensive Lambhill station, which is prone to hot dry summers and harsh cold winters, is also home to more than 12,000 sheep which are lambing around 130 per cent.
Cattle make up only 30 per cent of the 20,000 stock units farmed on Lambhill, of which 1100ha is cultivated, but their value to the farming operation is not to be underestimated.
The Thomsons' main focus is getting their cows in calf and having them rear a good calf through to weaning. They used to mate a large number of cows to charolais bulls, but more recently they have switched to a maternal focus using angus bulls.
Over-mating with angus bulls also allows for a greater selection of replacement calves and provides the option of selling in- calf heifers. Apart from the extremely variable weather, the other challenges on Lambhill include grass grub and porina and clover root weevil which has decimated the pastures.
The Thomsons have implemented a rigorous regrassing programme that involves cropping paddocks and putting them back into permanent pasture.
However, Chris Thomson believes it will take 10 to 15 years to get consistently good production.
"You can't develop this country in five minutes," he says.
About 1100ha has been cultivated which has enabled the Thomsons to double their stocking rate on their hill country and treble the amount of dry matter grown.
"In the first few years of development we got a bit cocky and put too much stock on and then it got dry. We've since knocked our cow numbers back," Thomson says.
The cows winter well on Lambhill because it is dry underfoot and they put weight on easily without the addition of supplements. Having the cows in good condition going into the spring has helped lift the calving result from 84 to 92 per cent.
Average calf weaning weights have increased from 210 to 258kg.
But weaning weights were back this year because of the dry conditions.
SBPP facilitator Simon Glennie says the increase in beef cow productivity on Lambhill - partly due to more calves being born - had resulted in an 8 per cent annual gain on average or $30,000 a year over 472 cows.
Most of the mixed-age cows are spread out over the hill blocks during winter and Thomson finds that works better rather than getting them to chew out a block.
"We've sacrificed pasture quality for cow condition.
"The most important thing is getting the cows back in calf," Thomson says.
While the cows calve on the hill blocks, the heifers calve behind a wire on young grass paddocks.
The Thomsons wean their calves earlier than most, which allows them to focus on maintaining good cow condition.
Thomson is the first to admit his calves are "run calves at best".
However, he aims to produce a good store animal that can be finished on another property before the second winter.
"We aim to sell in November and December," he says. "In a good grass market and we've got repeat buyers. In a dry or challenging season, the steers are the first cab off the rank."
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