Adaptability. Survivability. Fertility. Growth. These are the cornerstones with which the Brooks family trading as Brooks Rural of ‘Limestone Station’, Marble Bar Western Australia have built their beef breeding enterprise on, since taking on the station in 1997. Heading up the business is Grant and Wendy Brooks, whilst their eldest son Cameron manages the day to day operations, assisted with partner Courtney and their one-year old son George.
Officially known as one of the hottest places in Australia, the town of Marble Bar is completely surrounded by ‘Limestone Station’. Indeed, its reputation for hot weather is well founded, given that since the year 2000, several extreme weather events have been recorded with 49.3 Celsius (Dec 2018), 49.1 Celsius (Jan 2019) and 47.4 Celsius (Mar 2019) recorded respectively. Not just extreme heat, but prolonged heat is commonplace on ‘Limestone Station’ / Marble Bar, with the mean number of 274 days (or 75% of the year) above temperatures of 30 degrees Celsius from the period 2000 to 2019 being officially recorded at the local Bureau of Meteorology station. The mean number of days at or above 40 degrees Celsius is 103 days (or 28% of the year) p.a. between 2000 to 2019.
The cornerstones of adaptability, survivability, fertility and growth for the beef business had not been built on traditional methods such as using the older style Shorthorn and bos indicus breeds commonly found in the area. Instead, the Brooks family success has walked hand in hand with the Angus breed, which was officially introduced to ‘Limestone Station’ in 1997 and where it has remained ever since and THRIVED.
However, Angus genetics have played a part in the wider Pilbara region well before 1997, in fact as far back as 1981 when one Angus bull and 16 Angus heifers were purchased by a neighbouring station, subsequently growing into a herd of approximately 500 head within 16 years. The longevity of this Angus herd as well as observing other Angus cattle performing strongly in central Australia provided strong anecdotal evidence for the Brooks family that Angus cattle could perform and thrive in regions of Australia traditionally thought of as being too hot and harsh for Angus cattle.
Currently running some 6,000 head, the Brooks family are now seeking to increase the herd to 7,000 head on ‘Limestone Station’ through the further development of new watering points. Already, ten new turkeys’ nests have been developed alongside newly equipped bores with plans for a further thirty watering points to be established in the future. The extra watering points will help the Brooks family manage grazing pressure more effectively as well as utilize parts of the station not currently grazed to any significant effect.
This strategy on extra watering points, being part of the Brooks family focus on holistic grazing practices, combined with their strong focus on selection requirements (the four cornerstones of adaptability, survivability, fertility and growth), traits and performance recording has enabled them to push the boundaries of conventional cattle grazing in the region.
Breeding and Operations:
The core breeding herd on ‘Limestone station’ was originally based on the family’s seedstock bloodlines, itself the product of many years of selection on performance, traits and commercially focused cattle. Consisting of some 3,000 breeders, approximately 2,700 are Angus or high-grade Angus (some with a level of bos indicus content) as well as a small number of white faces, shorthorn and bos indicus cows. The remaining 300 head was a result of the recent acquisition of PTIC Droughtmaster heifers to bring in some diversity for the Indonesian market.
Maiden heifers are joined at 15 to 18 months of age in their own paddock of some 30,000 acres. Here they are provided a dry phosphorus lick. Approximately 300 to 400 heifers are retained in the herd annually.
Cattle are mustered between May and July each year for branding with a second round occurring in September annually. Given the larger distances involved, the Brooks family utilize the services of Fortescue Helicopters, whom have been helping in this regard for the last 3 years. Generally, a herd of ‘coachers’ are used to push other separate mobs of cattle to, so throughout the day, the original coacher mob swells in size until the target area has been mustered.
Calves are also weaned during these periods at approximately 150 – 160kg. Weaners are then held in the yards and adjacent holding paddocks for between 7 – 14 days where they are fed hay, tailed out in the laneways and educated to bikes. The Brooks family are also advocates of Low Stress Stock Handling which is employed with all interactions of the cattle.
Emphasis is placed on bull selection, as they can have the single biggest influence on the genetic direction of the herd as well as fertility and market flexibility. Although some of the older style cleanskin bulls are still present, these animals are being culled annually and then replaced by functional, adaptable and highly fertile bulls.
Grant Brooks follows a strict order in selection requirements when selecting bulls. The first is structure and confirmation. If a bull does not have the capacity, such as correct feet, legs and hip placement to physically walk the large distances involved as well as serve females or does not have sufficient frame (without being too large) to carry beef, then that animal will not be selected for inclusion in the bull program. The second requirement is that bulls need to be fertile. Testicular size, semen testing and vet checks on all bulls on initial selection and then annually is a strict stipulation by Grant to ensure continued success and fertility. The third point is that any bull must have good carcass traits – that is, the ability to pass on a heavy weighing carcass trait as well as ability to lay down fat to that bulls’ progeny.
However, these fundamental selection requirements are preferably underpinned by solid TACE figures. Estimated Breeding Values (EBVs) on traits such as 200- and 400-day growth rates are rated as important for the operation as these weights generally fit into live export requirements which is the primary market for the Pilbara and Kimberley regions of Western Australia.
Other relevant EBVs for the business include; Days to Calving (used to constantly put pressure on female progeny of bulls with these traits to further tighten the conception pattern), calving ease (as it is impossible to assist with any birthing issues given the large distances and areas involved) and moderate milk so as to help the cows ability to survive in the climate and seasonal rainfall and not risk falling too far in body condition.
Coat type is also vitally important. Given the extreme and prolonged temperatures experienced, animals with a thick coarse coat are culled, with the majority of the herd now largely sleek coated. A certain level of bos indicus influence has without a doubt helped contribute to this, but just as important is the long-standing influence of straight Angus cattle representing generations of short haired, shiny coated Angus cattle without any bos indicus influence.
Newly purchased bulls are fed hay in the yards for a few days and provided and given standard vaccinations for botulism and vibriosis. Preferably, bulls are not kept in the yards for long to reduce the incidence of disease and injury and otherwise turned out to a female herd as soon as practical. Grant is also adamant that new bulls should be introduced to northern Western Australia between the months of May to August due to being cooler weather and feed availability.
The Angus bulls when faced with a challenge from ‘mickeys’ / scrub bulls can throw their weight around in a fight and generally protect their interests. The Angus bulls can generally get between a scrub bull’s horns, subsequently fighting them off, as most mickeys don’t have the weight behind their frame size.
Female fertility is a major focus in the operation, with an annual average pregnancy tested rate of 85%. The females are joined at a rate of approximately 4%, to some 60 Angus bulls and 60 Droughtmaster bulls. The bulls remain with the breeders year-round, with the females cycling from February following the wet season. The corresponding conception pattern sees calving from December through to March, however the majority of calves are born in January and February each year on the back of available feed, resulting from the wet.
Females are culled at around 8 to 9 years of age as a strategy to continually improve productivity by maintaining a younger, more fertile herd. Subsequently, the majority of the breeders are between 1st to 7th calvers. This strategy also assists in improving genetic selection through purposefully reducing the maximum productive lifespan of females, meaning that females sired by bulls of older genetics are being replaced sooner with females of newer genetics. However, the newer genetics are still subject to the basic selection requirements and preferred traits as outlined under bull selection and management.
Underpinning the focus on fertility is a veterinary program, now in its third year encompassing pregnancy testing, weighing, recording body condition score and foetal ageing. All testing and recordings are undertaken during the mustering and branding period through the services of DR. Jo Connelly (Bos Vet & Rural at Geraldton W.A.), with results recorded against the individual NLIS tag and monitored over successive periods. This close attention to detail assists in maintaining a highly fertile herd.
The spread of calving based on pregnancy status and feotal ageing appears as a bell curve and is a result of the nutrition and quality of the feed during the mating period.
Calving falls mainly over the wet season as previously described with the peak of the curve in January and February.
Seasonal variation isn’t a great factor except in years that are really dry during the mating period.
The Results – Meeting Market Specs:
Historically, the primary market for the Brooks family has been to supply bulls at approximately 280kg liveweight for the Middle East live export market. However, the last two years has seen the great majority of male progeny now all castrated during the mustering rounds. This is to target the export of feeder steers to the likes of Indonesia and Vietnam. Feeder steers are marketed at between 300kg – 350kg liveweight.