Peter Whip

Farm: Royston

Region: Longreach, western Queensland

Commodity: Beef cattle

Farming area: 15,780 hectares (about 39,000 acres)

Rainfall:  400 mm average per year

Email: peter@prwagri.com

Twitter: @prwagri

Phone: 0428 581 512

 

Grass is the glue that holds everything together out here. When it rains, you need ground cover there to actually make things work; to slow the water down and make sure it soaks in.

 

Peter Whip portrait

 

See what Peter has to say about:

  Watch: The challenges of drought and being resilient

 

Farming in the variable climate of western Queensland

My wife Raeleen and I started our beef cattle business at ‘Bandon Grove’ in 2000, and managed to survive 8 years of drought with enough to expand the business and buy ‘Royston’ in 2011. 

By 2013 we were running about 2500 cattle over both properties, until we sold ‘Bandon Grove’ and picked up close to the same carrying capacity at ‘Royston’, through our developments and infrastructure work, such as wet-season spelling and water works.

Here in western Queensland our climate is so variable – I think the only place more variable than us is the desert. 

Our rainy season is normally January/February/March, but this year [2015] it didn’t really happen. 

In early January we had about 30 mm—an early storm that would normally indicate the start of the wet season. But it wasn’t rain enough to really do anything. 

There was a short period of green feed about afterwards, but then we also got a couple of waves of grasshoppers through and they seemed to really knock everything around, in addition to normal grazing pressure. 

Now, the grass that is left is just stalky with no leaf on it at all. It’s got to a point where, if we still had stock, we’d be feeding them hay and molasses and whatever, just trying to keep them alive. 

When you get to a cycle like this, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a great operator or not, your country will look like this, and there’s certainly no production to be had. 

Everyone’s in the same boat out here. 

 

Peter Whip drought

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Destocking in the drought years

We normally run about 2000 head of cattle, but we decided to destock early this year [2015]. The market was pretty good so it was an easy decision to sell a lot of cattle. 

We retained about 200 of the 2–3 year-old breeding heifers. They’re on agistment now. So they’ll be there to start with when things pick up again.

I’ve worked as a farm consultant in this area for 20 years or so, advising other farmers on how they can deal with the drought, how to manage their business profitability, that sort of thing. 

2015 is certainly the worst year I’ve seen; probably the worst year anyone around Longreach can remember in the last 30 or 40 years. 

To survive out here, you simply must make the most of your peak times, because that’s got to carry you through the tough ones, like this year. 

 

Peter Whip stock

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Increasing productivity when times are good

We put a lot of different strategies in place over the last 4 years which, combined, made a huge difference to our productivity in the good times. 

We worked hard to restore ground cover and build water infrastructure across the property. 

We also started breeding smaller cows so we could run more cattle on the same amount of grass. 

We reduced our emissions by about 25% by doing that, and the profitability of it was just huge—we’re talking a difference in gross margin of about $180,000 a year.

Emissions intensity is all about efficient production—less energy wasted.  

We’ve still got to produce food to feed everybody, but we’ve got to try and do it in a way that’s efficient.  

 

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Making smaller paddocks to manage water more efficiently

When we first moved to ‘Royston’, it didn’t have a lot of water on it. There were a couple of paddocks you couldn’t run cattle in because there was no water at all, or it was of poor quality. Our system used to be based on the big dam near the house.

There were also a number of paddocks around 5000 acres in size, or bigger, and often they’d have a water trough in one corner. What you’d find is that a third of that paddock would be totally over-grazed, the second third was about right, and the last third was almost completely dead. 

Also, some of the paddocks back then were 8 km from water, which meant the cows were using up a lot of energy to walk from pasture to water and back again. 

So we decided to, firstly, break those 8 paddocks up into smaller ones so we could move cattle easily and give the country a rest. We have 28 paddocks now. 

Then we set things up so one trough was at the intersection of 4 paddocks, so the cattle would rotate around it as they moved from one paddock to the other. 

For the capital cost of one trough we were able to water 4 paddocks. 

And by reducing the distance the cows needed to walk, it meant they had more energy to put into weight gain, milk production and reproduction. 

It also ensured a more even grazing pressure in the smaller paddocks, because we weren’t overgrazing the country closest to the troughs.

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Converting a gas well to a water bore to secure the water supply

We’re lucky enough to have a bore on the property, thanks to a coal seam gas company, funnily enough. 

They came in 2012 to test the property for gas but didn’t find anything, so we negotiated with them to convert the hole into a water bore. 

It’s given us an incredible sense of security. It means that, hopefully, we’ll never run out of water.

After the bore was established, we put in about 40 km of poly pipe around the property to distribute the water out. So there are now several secure water points that aren’t going to dry up in times of drought. 

In the good times, water really allows us to maximise the use of our country. While your grass is growing, you’ve got a real window of opportunity to use it. And to take advantage of that, you’ve got to have enough water to be able to move your cattle through the country. 

 

Peter Whip bore-2

Peter Whip bore

 

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Giving the country a rest during drought

I really like the mix of country we have here, the mix of timber—that’s why we bought this place. 

There are different land types here too—open Mitchell grass downs, shaded boree [wattle] downs, creek channels, gidgee [wattle] country. So we like to try and manage them a bit differently.

Our main ecosystem is grassland, or semi-open woodland with big boree trees, some smaller ones growing up, and lots and lots of ground cover. 

The big trees are very important in the system. They have a lot of hollows for birds and other little animals.  

It may not look like it now, but the pasture here is pretty healthy. In some places, when you drive around you’ll see country that’s gone black and is more or less dead. Our pasture may be really short but most of it’s still alive and healthy. It’s just sitting dormant, ready to grow again when it does rain. It’s amazing country.

A lot of our pasture is Mitchell grass. With a little rain, it sends up its first shoots from energy stored in the roots. Once you’ve got a green leaf and it’s photosynthesising, then it’s all good because it’s storing energy again. 

The only risk is that the roos will come along and chew it off. At times like this [drought], ground cover gets hammered.  

We’ve destocked to try to give the country a rest. And all our dams are fenced for cattle. 

But cattle fences won’t keep the roos out. So we’ve had to get feral netting recently, which is much taller [than the cattle fence], and we’ve fenced most of the dams with that. In theory, that should move the roos on a bit.

 

Peter Whip fencing

 

Infrastructure costs like fencing are big, and in a year like this you wonder whether you should do it or not. But we think the benefits will be well worth the investment in the long run. 

Grass is the glue that holds everything together out here. When it rains, you need ground cover there to actually make things work; to slow the water down and make sure it soaks in. 

Grass also offers protection for a lot of our little animals, like skinks. Without grass these species are exposed and can’t survive, or they move on to somewhere else, and then so do their predators. 

We intend to do everything we can to maintain and restore the grass. 

 

Peter Whip - Mitchell grass

 

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Balancing trees and grass without fire

We have a lot of small gidgee [wattle] trees growing in some of the paddocks these days.

Traditionally, fire would have come through here and cleaned up 90% of these, leaving enough to replace the old trees when they were ready to go. Get enough grass and lightning and you’ll have fires. It’s a nice balance. 

But then white man came along and started putting the fires out. Now everyone’s got a fire fighting unit on their property. Over time those little gidgee trees have been left to multiply into dense thickets, and this has prevented the grass from growing. So it’s quite a problem we’ve created.

It’s also meant that the larger trees can’t establish fan roots, so they all stay that same height, about 10 foot or so. Eventually the parent tree will be starved of moisture.

If we’re going to take fire out of the landscape, we’ve got to balance it with some kind of grazing management or feral animal management. 

It’s a problem farmers have created and we need to fix it. We’ve got to try and get rid of some of those competing gidgee trees, and allow the [bigger] boree trees to survive. All the biodiversity values are in the big trees. 

Working with Desert Channels Queensland, our local natural resource management group, we’ve been able to come up with a system here that involves clearing out a lot of the smaller gidgee trees, leaving the big ones.

Some of the big ones are dead now, but hopefully the ones we’ve saved will be alright. New ones will seed again and regenerate, but we’ll try to keep them under control so the grass will grow back and we can get some sort of balance in there again. 

In theory, we should be able to get enough grass growing, and manage the grazing pressure well enough, to stop those little ones coming back in such numbers.  

  

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Taking a gamble – preparing for rain 

Every farmer knows that if they’re going to be here for the long term they’ve got to be profitable, efficient and adaptable. 

Farmers have been adapting for some 200 years here, because it’s just a fact of life that if they don’t adapt, they won’t survive.  

With everything in this job, you’ve just got to take that gamble.  

What we’ve done here isn’t rocket science, but it has enabled us to persevere. 

The strategies we’ve adopted have made us more resilient now, as we wait for the drought to end, and it means we’ll be ready to get back up and running when the rain does come. 

 

Peter Whip - the road ahead

 

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Interview dates: August 2011, August 2015

 

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