James Hegarty

Farm: Colanya

Region: Longreach, central Queensland

Commodity: Wool and meat sheep, agistment cattle, registered Merino-stud/ram-breeding program

Farming area: 13,500 hectares

Rainfall: 150-380 mm per year

Email: jim_hegarty1@hotmail.com

Phone: 07 4658 9163, 0429 890 857

 

With the rising costs involved with farming needed to run a profitable business every year, despite the climate, we need to plan ahead using the latest technologies. If we can predict these things, we can come up with a plan for the year and budget for dry times. At the end of the day, weather affects farmers’ decisions every day and we need to become experts to survive.

 

See what James has to say about:

 

Colanya’s history and enterprise

Our family property is Colanya, 140 kilometres north-west of Longreach. It’s a sheep grazing property with a few cattle and is approximately 33,000 acres [13,354 hectares].

Grandad drew the place in a ballot, and came out here and built the shearing shed, the quarters, the main homestead, fences and dams. Dad took over 30-odd years ago.

We run about 9000 sheep for wool and meat, agistment cattle, and have a registered Merino-stud/ram-breeding program.

We’ve got black soil, mainly; some red open pebbly Downs soil, which is harder; and clay soils.

We have all natural pastures, mostly Mitchell and Flinders grass, with a bit of buffel in the channels. We don’t plant any pastures and that’s how we want to keep it.

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Longreach’s patchy and variable climate

Temperatures here can get up to 50 °C, and can get as low as 0 °C in winter. We don’t get any frosts here. But it gets pretty warm during the day. This year [2013] we’ve had a really hot summer, up to 48 °C, but this area is renowned for being hot.

Our average rainfall on this place is around 400 mm for the year; usually it’s summer rainfall. That rainfall can range from 50 to 600 mm a year.

This year we’re having a very, very dry year, and we’re getting low on water. We’ve currently had 32 mm [March 2013]. This is the first year we’ve ever bought hay, too. We make a lot of our own hay when it rains.

Generally, we get storms from the north. But in the last couple of years we’ve experienced storms coming from the south and I’ve noticed the storms are a lot more patchy. We’re pretty lucky to get under one these days.

James’s dad Pat says: “Through my lifetime, there’ve been periods where we’ve had massive amounts of rain, such as 2010, and then instances like now [2013] where it doesn’t want to rain at all.

“Big wet periods were in the 1970s, 1983 [127 mm in one night], 2006 [203 mm in April], and 2010 [330 mm between October and Christmas].

“I don’t know whether the whole thing’s climate change or not. We’ve got rainfall records and you can see the patterns. We can’t control the weather, so we like to try and control our management and have more infrastructure than we could 30 years ago.”

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Water security at Colanya

James’s dad Pat says: “There are 10 dams on the place, but we haven’t had any heavy rain since 2010. 4 are dry now, 3 are very close to dry. I don’t think any of them will see the year out. They all got filled last January/February. The dams are fenced off, so all the water is piped from them. We don’t want sheep to get bogged and die.”

James says: Water security is our problem now because of the reduced rainfall here. This is probably the worst water situation since Dad’s been here. In the past he probably would run out of feed instead.

We’ve got a bit of security from one bore, which produces about 350 gallons, but it only waters a couple of paddocks. If I had a spare million I’d put a really deep bore in that would water the whole property.

We had about 4 good seasons before this dry period and looked after the pasture, which is why we’ve got the good body of grass now. So the pasture’s not a real big worry at the moment, but it’s the water.

We might have to look at a bore for permanent water if the weather stays like this, but next year we might get 10 inches in a couple of weeks. It’s just hard to tell.

There are hills about 5 km away from our boundary. If there was a storm on those hills, all the runoff from there fills our dam. It flows really quickly; you only need half an hour. In 15 minutes, it’s running in the creek system: it gets up to a kilometre wide there. I run cattle in the channel.

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Rotational grazing in small paddocks

On Colanya, the average paddock size is 1500–2000 acres [about 600–800 hectares], with one up to 4500 acres [1821 hectares]. We used to have 11 paddocks and now we have 23. We fenced off areas to use the paddocks better.

We do rotational grazing and move sheep on over a couple of months before they eat all the pasture down. If it hasn’t rained before you move the sheep, you’ve still got feed left in that paddock.

We don’t like to flog our paddocks right down. It takes a long time for the pasture to come back if you don’t get rain. Because we use the pasture better, it’s improving.

We stock conservatively because we have a fairly big area, so if it is dry we still can survive without much rain. We’ve got a fair bit of leeway: 2 or 3 months maybe. When we have a good season we spell certain paddocks for our breeding ewes.

If you’ve got a bigger paddock, the sheep won’t use half of it. They’ll just hang in a corner. You’re better off fencing it, then they use that area, and you move them into the next one before they flog the pasture.

Even when we haven’t had any rain we’ve still got a heap of grass. Ground cover is a big thing, and we’ve maintained it by fencing. Ground cover is very important for increasing pasture, holding moisture if you have a lot of rain and helps with erosion as well. Pasture’s everything: you have to really look after it.

And we don’t have a set figure for stocking. We go by looking at our pastures to see what’s happening then sell or agist stock.

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Selling stock to preserve ground cover

April is when we start deciding to sell off, lighten off or agist stock. Summer is our big time for rainfall. If we get winter rain, you don’t get water from that rain because it’s generally not heavy rain. We can’t wait until winter to decide, so it depends on summer rain.

When we can see the pasture’s starting to fall away, we either sell them or put them on agistment. This year we’re mainly selling them because of the lack of water.

We don’t have a set stocking rate but we know our capacity. I don’t reckon you can just work it out using a figure without looking your pastures and going by that.

It’s hard, selling. Recently I bought cows that were selling for $1.70 and the other day they were selling for $0.50, but sometimes you’ve just got to sell them, no matter what the price.

We’re concentrating on looking after the land and it’s easy to get rid of stock, but you can’t repair your land if you bugger it. It’s our motto, I reckon: looking after the country, because then it’ll look after you.

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Improving feeding and grain-storage systems

We developed a new feeding system 3 years ago as part of our drought management plan. With the change of weather and variability we needed to have a plan when there’s a drought, so if it is dry we’ve got an option. We can take stock off, leave what grass is there and feed them on grain.

So we bought silos and store our grains in them; they can hold about 130 tonnes of grain, which is a triple road train and one more trailer. We can buy grain when it’s cheaper and store it, and it doesn’t get weevils because it’s aerated.

We’ve set it up so it’s easy for one person to do. With a tractor, it’s a lot more work. We can feed our 4000 breeding ewes for 2–3 months with this system.

We use 32 grain self-feeders to feed the sheep as part of our drought management plan. The feeders hold 3 tonnes of grain each. The sheep always have grain when they need it, we usually put them around the water points, and they’re easy to use.

It costs a bit to set up, but we lifted our production by doing it, so we think it’s already paid itself off. We’ve lifted our lamb percentages 30–40%, up to 800 lambs more a year. So if you work that out, you lift your profit by a fair bit and it doesn’t take many years to pay it off.

We’ve hosted a couple of field days about the feeders and silos; people are interested in it.

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How plainer bodied sheep survive better in a drought

At Colanya we also have a registered Merino-stud/ram-breeding program.

We’re breeding larger framed, plainer bodied Merinos that don’t need mulesing. We haven’t mulesed for 6 years now. We started on this system nearly 13 years ago and reckon we’ve come a long way.

We look for wool quality; frame and size; plain, open-faced sheep; no body wrinkle; resistance to flystrike; temperament; and carcass traits (eye muscle depth and fat) which lead to better survivability in a drought.

That is our aim: to produce a highly profitable Merino that can still produce a lot of lambs and survive in a drought.

Traditional Merino are heavy-skinned, big, wrinkly sheep with a poor constitution. When you’ve got a big, plain sheep, it can walk for kilometres for water, although most of our paddocks have a watering point within 1.5 kilometres. They can handle the heat. We look for better ears because they perspire better.

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Using forecasting for pasture decisions and flooding

Using websites that can help us with the weather are brilliant, and we use them to predict when the next dry spell is. As farmers we need to predict the weather in the future in order to survive.

On our property we have the latest satellite technologies to get the internet. We use all different websites and check them every day.

We use Bureau of Meteorology forecasts and Elders Weather. I look at Elders Weather every day for rainfall and roads that are going to be shut. For long-term rainfall forecasts we usually use the Bureau of Meteorology.

Temperature we don’t really look at that much, because we know it’s going to get hot.

We mainly get summer rainfall. When we’re looking at forecasts, we always look at the 6-month summer outlook and then we make our decision. April is when we start deciding to sell off or agist stock. I don’t really follow anything after 6 months. I think it’s a little bit too far ahead.

Seasonal forecasts are generally pretty good, but it’s so patchy with storms now. The forecast could say Longreach is going to have 50 mm, but we won’t have anything 100 kilometres away. But it’s very hard to be accurate for your actual property, I think. I don’t totally rely on it to sell stock.

If the forecast is for pretty heavy rain and we’ve got young stock, we’ll go in and move them off the channel, otherwise they’ll get caught in there and get flooded.

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Diversifying and increasing efficiencies on-farm

I run cattle and my own pregnancy-testing business as well as working on Colanya, but I’m mainly a sheep person.

James’s dad Pat says: “The stock losses in this country are phenomenal I think, and we didn’t realise until we started [pregnancy] scanning how many stock we were losing. Water points, smaller paddocks, our silos, and managing nutrition for ewes in lamb has allowed us to be more flexible and more prepared.

“We are trying to lift the efficiency of the whole place without spending a great deal of money. Traditionally out here the answer to lift production is to borrow a couple of million bucks to buy another property, but you still have the same problems like the droughts.”

James says: With the rising costs involved with farming needed to run a profitable business every year, despite the climate, we need to plan ahead using the latest technologies.

If we can predict these things, we can come up with a plan for the year and budget for dry times. At the end of the day, weather affects farmers’ decisions every day and we need to become experts to survive.

 

Interview date: July 2013

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Contact James Hegarty

If you want to ask James a question about any information on these pages, please submit it on the form below:

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